What is Player Agency?

What is player agency?

Player agency is about giving our players the time, space, and resources needed in order to make decisions in games. But is that is the only thing that agency provides to players?

Is agency even a good thing? If so, then what amount of agency is the right amount to give to players? How should players navigate? And how should they go about making decisions in the game?

This article provides a definition of player agency in games. Player agency includes making sure that players are provided with meaningful decisions during their play. This article reviews the concepts and scope of players’ meaningful decisions as well as the requisite components that make up player agency. Player agency is reviewed from multiple perspectives. Those perspectives include from within the magic circle; from within the game design; and lastly from the designer.

What exactly is player agency?

Some may think that player agency is just about interactivity. But that would be cutting the definition too short. Many things can be interactive. Games however provide players with a level of interactivity and choice that has much larger ramifications. This degree of choice is agency and is built on both a philosophical and sociological framework.

Player agency is about giving players the interactivity to affect and change the game world. Though agency, players have power to influence and change what is happening in the game. It provides them control (or at least of sense of it) of what will happen next.

This means that players should be given the ability to make decisions in the game. But these decisions shouldn’t be trivial – at least from the player’s perceptive. It isn’t just about choosing a particular skin or a hat for a player’s avatar. Instead, it’s about making sure that your players can make meaningful decisions in the game.

Games of course provide this amount of agency in different forms and degrees. Games also share a lot in common with stories and narratives. As such, some applications of narratives that have game-like elements like branching stories or “choose your own adventure” provide the player with agency in order to determine the outcome of the story.

That means in both narratives and games, players provide influence, power, and control  over what they want to do; what they want to accomplish; and perhaps most of all what is FUN to do in the game. Because of this, player agency is much more than just simple interactivity. Player agency is instead about providing players with the ability to shape their own experience.

That power to shape their own experience provides players with the satisfaction of implementing their will inside the magic circle of the game. Through this will, they wield, influence, and implement what can be accomplished inside of the game.

Sometimes that amount of agency affects tactical and strategic choices in games. This is especially true for orthogames where separate and unequal outcomes of a game condition (i.e. the winning condition) are necessary to bring play to a close. However, for other idiomatic games (such as role-playing games) those choices could me much less focused on those game changing outcomes. Instead, they could be more aesthetic. Specifically in how players choose how their avatar looks and is represented in the world.

No matter how agency is implemented or defined in games, it does provide one specific purpose. Agency is part of the core elements of what makes a game a game. Providing a player with the options and structure to make those meaningful decisions is the first step that a designer takes in curating the player experience.

Meaningful decisions

The meaningful aspects of decisions is the heart of what gives players agency in games. This includes being able to benefit (or suffer) the consequences of these decisions.  Sometimes those decisions affect  the player character or other characters within the game. Sometimes these decisions affect your overall strategy and how the player will eventually win or lose.

Often, the way that these decisions are made and how they are presented to players are through game mechanics. The mechanics serve as the vehicle for the players’ decisions. They provide the means to achieve their goals, results, or outcomes.

Game mechanics represent the structures that players have to make decisions within games. Those mechanics are defined by the game designer. As such players agency is constructed not only by the types of meaningful decisions that they can make; but also the structure in which those decisions are crafted. Something that is influenced by the designer’s intent and direction.

This decision structure for designers is something that is can be equally simple yet complex. Branching narratives provide players with the ability to make choices in “choose your own adventure” style of games. However, the complexity of the decisions and their outcomes can easily grow in range and scope.

Yet, the structure of those decisions is created by the simple elements of game mechanics. These are the building blocks which provide the player interaction and ultimately agency in the player experience.

Components of player agency

Player agency stems around the player’s ability to make meaningful decisions. Those decisions originate from different structures within the game. However, the structures of those decisions themselves provide the player with both the sense and the outcome for how their decision might affect the outcome of the game.

This includes how a player might perceive their action. These actions are made up of four separate components of player agency: foreseeability, ability, desirability, and connection.

  1. Foreseeability addresses how players might see new options or decisions to be made. These can be from a menu of set options in table top games to a map in open world RPG’s. Both options provide players with the ability to “see” what options may be coming up for them to take advantage of next.
  2. Ability relates to players actual in-game ability to do something. This can include consuming resources; going in a different direction; or taking an action against another player. If a player can do so within the confines of the game, then they have the ability to take that action.
  3. Desirability relates to players’ needs and wants to take specific actions in a game. This could be based on many different motivations and reasons. Some of it may come from a desire to win; defeat others; or perhaps even just make aesthetic changes to the game world.
  4. Connection relates to the player’s observation of the decision possessing some sort of feedback, consequence, or reward for taking that action. It could include setting up a player to win the game; providing them a better position; or moving the game closer to its conclusion. Likewise, it could also just have an emotional impact on other players in the game. No matter what the reason, connection provides the players with some sort of feedback in their choice of response.

These components of player agency all exist in a balance between what players want to achieve and what is constrained to them within the game. While this balance sounds like it easy to determine in the design space, it is often hard to create and implement in practice.

Creating decisions are easy. Creating constrained decisions are a little harder. Creating constrained decisions that are meaningful for players is harder still. That’s because players come to expect a certain amount of agency in games based on their initial perception. Negative agency occurs where there is an upset in the balance between what players expect they’ll be able to do in a game and what they can actually do.

This means that striking a balance between what players can and cannot do in the game is one of the hardest things to design successfully. These decisions need to be crafted to be impactful yet meaningful for the player. All of these decisions must also exist within the relative safety of the magic circle.

Agency in the magic circle

The magic circle is the place that we enter when we begin playing games. It is a unique space. Sometimes it’s cooperative, competitive, or both. Sometimes there are “correct” ways to play in the magic circle. Other times the magic circle exists only to provide a boundary between the real and imagined worlds.

When we cross into the magic circle we cross into the game world. As such, we think that we have much more agency in the game world than we do in our everyday lives. That is entirely intentional. Great games are designed to give players the experience of being in control. This means that they can actively influence themselves and the world around them.

However, unfettered control on behalf of the players would make a lot of games trivial and non-challenging. That’s when really great game design and goes one step further by providing agency to players but simultaneously limit player actions. Many might think that limiting what players can do within a game is antithetical to agency.  In reality, limiting what players can do within the game provides challenge, shapes players expectations, and leads to a richer gaming experience.

Meaningful choices within the game is what makes up much of the player experience. However, those choices don’t exist in a vacuum. While players might make them to advance their goals in the game and win out over opponents, they also take into account some other factors. Players sometimes are called onto make moral choices in the game’s narrative. They must also benefit or suffer the consequences of these choices from the game’s environment.

This agency by players within the magic circle is a fundamental part of what shapes the player experience. There is a push and pull going on. Between the formal structures of the game that creates choices for players and players’ desires to make, change, and break choices in the game according to their wishes.

Agency in narratives

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Narratives also possess some degree of agency similar to that of the magic circle. Often the first decision here is for users to decide to participate or not within the narrative. Choosing to read, watch, or listen to some form of medium is the first choice that all participants make.

This is further built in idiomatic games like role-playing games where players are given many choices in how their experience is shaped. Some of it includes decisions for character creation, look, and alignment. However during the game, players make further choices and exercise their agency within the narrative of the game.

Conversely, abstract games or action games that are built heavily on the formal structure and mechanics of the design provide fewer opportunities for player agency. There are times for players to exercise their agency within the game, but it is often repetitive and provides little context for how a player might further affect or change the game state apart from strategic decisions.

One of the most famous examples of agency in narratives are through branching narrative stories or “choose your own adventure.” Here players are given the choice for how to proceed in a story based around specific paths and loops created within the narrative. By taking specific decisions at specific times, players can shape and form how a narrative unfolds. While not complete agency, it provides players the opportunity to choose how a traditional linear format unfolds before them.

Agency in game design

Agency at the basic level could just include the number and level of choices that players have throughout the game. But to treat agency as only the number of choices leaves out much of the player experience.

Some of this is addressed by the designer. This is the person who is charged with shaping the player experience for the player though those choices and other formal elements of games. However, a challenge that most designers face is the ability to create agency and meaningful choices for players that fall under different player types and expectations.

One of the hardest things to design is for players to have meaningful choices in that are within the constraints and constructs of the game. This is often done through larger “open-world” type of games that give users a vast array of different choices and considerations for them. Some of the most popular are Fallout, Skyrim, and World of Warcraft. However, these open worlds aren’t the only way of providing agency in games. Instead, designers could also use very simple mechanics and choice structures in abstract games like Go that provide players with much agency through a simpler design.

To say that player agency alone makes a successful game is a mistake. Yes, agency is part of good and great games. But there are other elements of the player experience that forms player expectations. That’s why it’s important to balance out the amount of choice that players have with other elements of the game such as the core loop; player interaction; and progression.

This can be done by providing the player with a balance and diversity of choice. Some of those choices are considered cosmetic (i.e. choosing a player color for a pawn). Some of them could be “life or death” when choosing a direction to proceed in a narrative.  Yet, other choices could simply provide players with “side quests” or missions which aren’t critical for completing the game; but provide the player with additional fulfilling activities which serves the player’s experience.

The presentation of these choices provides players with the ability to choose these options and play within their experience and their specific desires within the game.  I find this evident in more complex and strategic table top games where there are “multiple paths” to victory for players to follow. Providing these options helps me choose a direction I want to go in. This choice provides me agency in how I want to experience the game.

Likewise, video games with active online communities provide even further agency for players. Here, players can choose to interact (or not interact with) other players in the game. Sometimes collaboration and cooperation work in all players’ advantage for achieving a common goal. Sometimes players’ choices to interact with each other fulfills the game’s competitive nature (i.e. Super Smash Bros).

However, one of the most significant aspects of player agency for video games over table top games is that video games require players to adhere to the structure created by the game designers.  Table top games on the other hand provide players with the ability to create or make their own rules as they see fit within the game. Players simply agree to change how a game is played and that becomes the new reality within the “magic circle” of game play.

Finally, both game designers and serious game designers need to consider the value that agency and decisions provides to players. Making sure that players are reinforced for their specific choice is important for providing a venue of relevant agency. Making a choice that has no bearing or impact on the player experience in the end feels…. hollow.

Agency is important for serious game designers as well as learning designers as a cognitive process that is greatly shaped by the types of decisions that students make and the reinforcement that comes from them. This “constructivist” approach to student learning emphasizes that teaching isn’t about transferring knowledge. Rather, it’s about helping students create their own learning from their experience and conclusions. Serious games help student do that within the game environment.

Agency and the designer

The designer always has many choices when it comes to designing agency in games. Much of the sense of control and meaningful decisions come from the design choices from the designer. At its most basic level, this is based on the level of trust the player has for the designer.

Does that trust exist? How is that trust manifested? Will the player be rewarded for their decision to play the game? All of these questions must be positively answered in order for the designer and the player to have a positive relationship that includes player agency.

This is a challenging and strained relationship for all designers. Especially those table top designers who are constrained by the medium and process of creation. Here, these designers must make decisions and choices that provide the acceptance of agency for players. The varied and diverse choices and decisions for players must be presented in a way that aids in the player’s experience. Without it, the game becomes merely an exercise of pursuing “inefficient means” towards a goal.

Takeaways

This article provided a definition of player agency in games. Player agency includes ensuring that players are provided with meaningful decisions throughout their play. This article reviewed the concept and scope of players’ meaningful decisions as well as the requisite components that constitute player agency. Player agency was reviewed from multiple perspectives including from inside the magic circle; during game design; and lastly through the eyes of the game designer.

This article was about player agency.  To learn more about gamification, check out the free course on Gamification Explained.

Dave Eng

Dave Eng, EdD is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who combines games, theory, and technology.  Dave has played games for most of his life. As a result he studies game design and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points and consults at University XP on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development. His interests include professional development, learning theory, technology, and games. Find out more at www.davengdesign.com or email Dave at dave@universityxp.com

References and further reading

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Bycer, J. (2015, January 26). Player Agency: How Game Design Affects Narrative. Retrieved August 15, 2020, from https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshBycer/20150126/234961/Player_Agency_How_Game_Design_Affects_Narrative.php

Cole, T., & Gillies, M. (2019). Thinking and Doing: Challenge, Agency, and the Eudaimonic Experience in Video Games. Games and Culture, 1555412019881536. https://research.gold.ac.uk/27089/1/mainAPA.pdf

Eng, D. (2019, August 06). Meaningful Choices. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/6/meaningful-choices

Eng, D. (2019, August 13). Narratives, Toys, Puzzles, Games. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/8/13/narratives-toys-puzzles-games

Eng, D. (2019, July 31). Fun Factors. Retrieved August 14, 2020, from https://www.universityxp.com/blog/2019/7/31/fun-factors

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Cite this Article

Eng, D. (2020, August 20). What is Player Agency? Retrieved MONTH DATE, YEAR, from http://www.universityxp.com/blog/2020/8/20/what-is-player-agency

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