Empaty, Games, Choice, and Agency

I got a few responses from my previous post, and now I want to share my feelings on the subject.

As I stated in the post, I don't agree with David Cage, but I also don't agree with the statement from the reader either. To dismiss what games can offer emotionally or just from a narrative perspective generally with a blanket statement about how games give you the "opportunity to fill the shoes of the lead character" misses the point entirely. What games offer has nothing to do with being in the shoes of the main character, and everything to do with choice and perceived agency.

To answer my own questions, I have never, really, felt like I was in the shoes of a main character of a video game, or that the main character was in any way a reflection of me. Since I can't say that I have ever felt that way, I can't say that there were any instances of having a heightened emotional experience because of it.

In my option, the tools for creating heightened emotional experience in games are frequently exactly the same tools used for creating heightened emotional experiences in movies. Both revolve around empathy, either for the main character or the characters that surround him. Then when something good or bad happens to those characters, you yourself feel good or bad (or embarrassed, or sad, or whatever). The thing is that movies are mostly limited to creating feelings through empathy, but they're better at it that games are for sure, partially because we are given no say in the choices of the characters, and yet we understand the choices they make.

It the comments, good friend Borut talks about a fictional slavery game, driven by empathy for the slave:

If I play a game set in the South before the civil war where the main character is an escaped slave, will I actually feel like a slave? Probably not – but I will have a deeper understanding of what it might have been like, a more powerful understanding than if I watched a movie about it.

I responded in the comments:

Are you sure games are any better at achieving this than other mediums? Could you make a game that captures the hardships of being a slave or an escaped slave be any better than Roots? Part of being a slave was the unfair punishment, something we avoid in games completely.

The classic whipping scene in Roots is probably my best example of a case where empathy actually works way better than agency. Imagine if you were Kunta Kinte in a Roots game, and after every whip, you were asked what your name was. How many times would you respond with the African name? When / if you finally responded with the English name, how would you feel? There is no reward for using your English name, and no reward for using your African name. In both cases, there is only punishment. Because we empathize with Kunta in the movie, we understand why he wants to use his African name, and feel horrible about the punishment he receives because of it. But given the same abstract choice in a game, how often would you respond with the choice that is correct for the character?

This does not, however preclude the idea of offering new or different types of emotional states in games. Borut, again, points out that "a couple Bioware games have made me feel guilt when I treat party members badly (guilt is unique to games)," and he's right. But the feeling of guilt is driven by empathy for the characters you're being mean to. And if the character you're playing should be mean to characters, doesn't this prove that you're not necessarily in the mind of the main character when you perform actions in games? Your character feels good about being a douchebag, shouldn't you? The feeling your having is a result of seeing the impacts of your actions on characters you care about. This is the key to emotional impact in games.

In my opinion, games heightened emotional states don't come from "being in the shoes of the main character," but though agency, and the feelings of agency given through choice. Without that, you're left only with the powers of empathy given in movies. Furthermore, players need to be able to draw the causal line from decisions they've made to the good or bad things happening to characters they care about. You can see this already, even in games that have no plot. Players can create strong emotional connections to, and empathize with, any number of things in games that, through the player's choices, end in a particular situation. This state is heightened when they know that the situation was cause by some specific choice they made, and not just hand of the evil writers. In plot based games I feel the impact can be heightened further, especially if the designers are able to both create empathy for the characters and provide the choices that allow those characters to succeed or fail. Just because it hasn't been done (well), doesn't mean it can't be done, and in fact I think it should be done, and soon.

There is, of course, more I want to say on this subject concerning who we are as characters in a video game, but I want to leave it at that for now.

Agency Theory Talk (WPI)

I gave another talk on Agency Theory today to students at WPI.  This talk was a bit more in depth that the Agency Theory in 20/20 talk, but covered a little bit more .  I was also able to talk slower, which was nice.  The slides, if you'd like to see them, are here, and, as usual, the entire talk is contained in the slide notes.

The talk was recorded, but I don't know when the video will be up, so I'll have to get back to you on that.

Willing Suspension of Freedom and Disbelief

Gamasutra has an opinion piece up on suspension of disbelief in video games up. With this article, I feel the author is trying to express something he's frustrated with in games, but doesn't know how to express it because I'm not sure he's fully thought it through. He's talking about player limitations, but can't figure out where being limited is okay, and where it isn't. While he reaches the correct conclusion ("Games shouldn't imply choices that players cannot actually make"), I feel he's struggling to figure out why in one case the limitation is warranted, but not in another. In a way, he's trying to find a way to talk about what a player's willing suspension of freedom, not his willing suspension of disbelief. That said, even I find that sometimes it's easy to confuse where a game creator has violated suspension of freedom, and where he has violated suspension of disbelief and thus created a violation of suspension of freedom, since the two can be tied very closely tied together. So what's the difference, why is it important, and where do they combine?

Suspension of disbelief is "the willingness of a person to accept as true the premises of a work of fiction, even if they are fantastic or impossible." (Wikipedia). With suspension of disbelief we are specifically looking at aesthetics of a game: plasma ray guns, space ships, magic, monsters, etc. Suspension of disbelief violations occur when a narrative or a game's aesthetic qualities are not internally consistent (deus ex machina stuff will frequently violate suspension of disbelief).

Suspension of freedom is the willingness of a person to accept limitation in an interactive application. In games, this is mechanical: inability to walk in various areas, jump, break things, swim, place pieces anywhere, etc. Suspension of freedom violation occur when a player believes a mechanic should be possible, but isn't. In addition, a worse violation is when a mechanic is offered, then suddenly taken away.

The two combine when a game's aesthetics make you believe a certain mechanic should be available, but isn't. The example given in the article about Silent Hill 3 is pretty good. Because the game presents itself as "realistic," and has a graphical quality that reinforces that, the designer has violated suspension of disbelief, which in turn violates your suspension of freedom. You believe that you should be able to break boxes (because of the realistic quality of the graphics and other elements of the game), but you can't, which is a suspension of freedom violation.

Interestingly, this can also be genre based, and game literacy based. A lot of genres didn't have, or still don't have, breakable objects, and we just accept that in that genre. In addition, people who are fairly game literate may look at boxes and realize its code for a wall (which can bite them in the ass if it's not) and not feel any suspension of disbelief or freedom.

Games don't have to be realistic, just consistent. Just realize that if your aesthetics are realistic, players will be less willing to suspend freedoms that they would have in real life.

On The Precipice of good?

So, I'm sure many of you know, On The Rain Slick Precipice of Darkness, a Penny Arcade Adventure, is now out.  I grabbed the demo and I have to say, I'm both impressed and not impressed at the same time.  It's fun and has some very funny "dialoge" (I never got to actually talk to anyone, I'll talk about that in a second), but there are some things that really get in the way of my enjoyment of the game.

First, you can't skip cut scenes.  What the hell?  I would think Game and Tycho would know better.  You can't save in the demo, and recently my computer has been acting up so I've had to go through the opening cut scenes several times.  Just... why!?  Thankfully, the cut scenes are short, so I'll give them a break.  Having to sit through the cut scene multiple times isn't too bad.

The interface is also a little weird for me on PC (have yet to play the 360 version).  You have to click on the skill you want to use when its ready, then an enemy you want to use it on.  Honestly... for a general attack that's just too much clicking, especially when combat is in "real time".  There are no short cut keys (at least not obvious ones) or shortcut movements.   Being able to hit "A" to have the next read person attack, or if I could click directly on an enemy to have the next person who's ready attack, or if I could right click on an enemy and be given a set of options from people who are ready (radial context sensitive menus are the shit... really), that would speed up play and I wouldn't have to go back and forth between my character pictures and the enemies.

Less movement, fewer clicks, most common task available quickly.  This, to me, is key to good UI design, and I kind of expected at least this game would have gotten it.

Last, I've experienced a few bugs that are, well, interesting to say the least.  I lost my cursor once when I went out to a menu (checking to see if I could save) and came back. I think the game was trying to play a cut scene which I interrupted. that's why I've never had a chance to get into dialog.  Stuff like that is just disapointing.

That said, the game looks good, and it looks fun.  These are really REALLY minor quibles, but they do impact the game experience for me.  I will still probably buy it once I get a little extra cash, but after playing the demo, I think it's something I can wait on.

Brenda on Perception of Meaningful Choice

Brenda has a post on perception of meaningful choice which is very good (all Brenda's posts are good, so if you're not subscribed to her blog, you should correct this error).

In my own little design theory world, I tie this concept very closely to agency theory, since I've believe that in digital games there is no *actual* choice and you can't *actually* affect the system.   All choices have been coded and all possible outcomes have been accounted for because the rules are very strict, so instead we create the illusion of meaningful choice.

That's not to say there is no such thing as emergent gameplay.  There are things designers can do to make the possibility space so large that there's no way all possibilities to get from point A to point B could have been predicted by the designers.  Such designs usually follow strict willing suspension of freedom rules: a few rules that are very consistent that will have obvious outcomes, thus creating a system that gamers can experiment in.  However, despite the possibility space inside point A and B, those points almost always fixed.  That's not really a problem, of course, depending on what type of agency you like in your games, but it is an inevitable outcome of how digital games work.

Agency Theory in 20/20

The format of the last Boston Post Mortem meeting was a series of presentations, each consisting of 20 slides for 20 seconds each slide. The last (and probably best) talk of the night has already started making the rounds around the internet.

But I was also able to finagle my way into giving a presentation that night about agency theory. I’d been waiting for the video to become available to post the slides, but I decided that since almost everything I said was available in the slide notes, I could post the slides now and then update when the video became available. So here are the slides.

The response to this talk was very positive, and I got a lot of complements on it, so that’s always nice. Thanks to Post Mortem for giving me the opportunity, and to everyone who came out for laughing where they were supposed to laugh. Again, once I get the video, I’ll point you to it and you can see the talk in all of its 6:40 glory.

Enjoyment Through Agency

Last night, on the way to the Post Mortem, I got into a discussion with my co-workers about my last post, which led to a discussion about the types of games we like. I, of course, related this all to agency theory, and started looking at things through the perspectives of what types of control (or illusions of control) people enjoy in games. What was great was that, talking in these terms, it was actually pretty easy to classify what we liked in games through this lens, far better than if we were to talk about them in terms of genre, or even other methods that are being researched now. Being able to do that is very exciting. For me anyway.

So, I thought I’d share for you some of the types of agency we hit on, and a few very interesting points about not just classifying games though types of agency, but understanding them. Let’s use Darius as an example. It turns out Darius really likes strategy games and tactical RPGs. When we dug deeper, we started seeing that what he likes in these games is the agency over the improvement of his characters, what I call “improvement agency”, over the long term and in a complex fashion, as well as the short term agency of being given free reign over single battles, and the agency over the difficulty (basically improving his own understanding of the system, and making smarter decisions over time).

This gives us a whole bunch of classifications of agency I hadn’t considered before: simple vs. complex, short vs. long term, and internal vs. external. Any game can have any combination of these in many different types of agency.

Adventure games, for example, tend to have simple short term agency over the narrative, through solving puzzles. A few also have simple long term agency over the narrative, where certain decisions affect later narrative in a small way. Very few will have complex long term narrative agency, where a single decision affects the entire game, but this is rare. More common is the illusion of long term agency, with Deus Ex being the perfect example. Here, it always feels like decisions are affecting long term goals the plot, but, in reality, all of the agency is short term and contained, with a long term illusion over top of it.

Strategy games (especially turn based strategy games) usually focus on giving the player long term agency over the improvement of their units, and short term agency over single battles. In games of strategy like chess, the complex, long term agency of the position of the pieces over time is what’s most engrossing, whereas the short term agency of taking pieces is minimized. In the RTS, however, the long term planning tends to be minimized through races for certain units, and it’s the short term battle to battle agency that’s rewarded.

I could go on, but you get the idea. What’s really cool is that none of these agencies really conflict. You can have short and long term improvement in units in strategy games, just like you can have short and long term affects on a narrative in the same game. You can have improvement agency in a game that focuses on short or long term narrative agency, or in a game that uses only difficulty as its primary system of enjoyment. Additionally, you can have single parts of the game be very short term focused, with the longer, over arching game being more complex. This is how I think game stages work and make certain games more interesting.

That said, not all people like all types of agency, and not all people like having lots of it available. We’re all familiar with the term “freedom paralysis,” something that occurs when there’s just too much available for you to do. Different people have different levels where freedom paralysis occurs, and, even more interestingly, different types of agency that will cause freedom paralysis. For example, some people will look at the giant, open world of Oblivion and basically give up right after the character generation quest. That same person may take a look at all of the options for expansion in a Japanese RPG and eat it up, even though there’s probably more to see and do in those games. For me, side quests in games like Rouge Galaxy gave me freedom paralysis. There was just too much to keep track of and I felt like I had to do it all. But sit me in front of Jak and Daxter or Ratchet and Clank and I’ll get 100% completion.

So, there is no right or wrong type of agency to use, but you should always analyze the audience you’re going to be marketing to, and figure out what types of agency they tend to enjoy, and what types of agency they tend to not enjoy. Additionally, you need to make sure that, for your audience, you’re adding the correct level of agency so that they won’t get overwhelmed (suffer freedom paralysis) or feel the game is too simple. It’s not easy, but it can be done.

The Games We Play

So, it’s been a while since I’ve made a design post, not because I’m no longer interested in design, but because I’ve been so overwhelmed with making a product, that I haven’t had much time to a) play games or b) really think about their design. But these are just excuses really, right? If there were things out there that I wanted to play, I would find the time to play them. But, as it stands, I’ve had a hard time getting attached to anything out there, instead going back and either replaying things through GameTap, or trying out new indie titles through recommendations from TIGSource (probably my favorite of all indie games blogs by the way). Even then, I tend to play those games for about 30 minutes, mostly to check them out, and then throw them away. What’s with that? I used to do all night game binges!

I think there are a few things that contribute to this I think, but let’s just start with the ones that are interesting to me from a design perspective. As it stands, I really only get seriously addicted to two or three types of games. The first type is rhythm games, and we’ve seen our fair share of these in the past few years. Harmonix is quite possibly one of my favorite game companies right now simply because they released my favorite rhythm game of all time (Amplitude) and are continuing to do some awesome things while still making the whole thing feel like a game (I’m not interested, too much, in actually needing to learn to sight read to play my games).

The second type of game has a very complex quantifier to it. I could basically make it simple and say “Adventure Games,” or make it more specific and say “Sierra-style Adventure Games,” but, unfortunately, that’s only half the story. I love adventure games of all types, but I’m particularly attracted to specific styles of adventure games, ones that offer interesting but logical puzzles, are driven by complex plots, and offer a sense of improvement and plot agency. The addition of, say, platformer elements doesn’t help or hinder things for me really, though I have been known to play a lot of the original Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank.

What spoiled me to this type of game was probably my favorite game to date, Quest For Glory 4: Shadows of Darkness. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out what about it made that game particularly striking for me, and why I’ve gone back and played it through several times, even with more modern adventure and plot-based games on the market. For me, it mostly comes back to agency theory. Shadows of Darkness has a lot the type of agencies I enjoy: places in it where you affect the game world as part of the over-arching plot, as well as improving stats. Additionally, as the game goes on, the characters change their tone; they tend trust you more and more for doing good deeds, and there are even several “side quests” for specific characters that they will also comment on, for the rest of the game (reuniting the shop keeper and her husband come to mind, as does robbing the old man’s house). All around, lots of agency to be had here, and the affects of your actions are very noticeable.

However, there’s something else that always strikes me about Shadows of Darkness, and that is its very dark plot. Shadows of Darkness dealt with the topics of sacrifice, prejudice, friendship, and love better than any other game I’ve played, partially because it built from an ambiance of darkness and ethical ambiguity right from the start. There are points where the correct answer does not always feel right, and places where the people that are evil don’t always feel wrong. But you move through the game doing these things, not because they are the answer to the puzzle and the way to move forward, but because they are what needs to be done to set the world right again, regardless of the consequences. The sacrifice of Toby near the end of the game, Katrina’s sacrifice at the very end of the game, the dreams with Erana, and the fact that you have to work with Baba Yagga to beat the game are some of my favorite moments in gaming, partially because they are so dark and yet so necessary to actually winning over the Dark One. And, SoD is one of the only games I thought ever really achieved that feeling. In the end, I kinda wish I knew if it was intentionally designed/written that way or not.

Unfortunately, now a days, with my work computer being my only gaming quality computer, and me wanting to work when I’m sitting at it, I’ve yet to find a game that grabs me just as much as QfG4 did. Maybe soon, but we’ll see.

Make a Difference

Given what I’ve been talking about over the past few weeks with agency, you know I could let this latest post from our boys over at Penny Arcade go without a mention. For those of you that don’t want to read the whole things here’s a quick cut of the parts that caught my eye:

[Gabe] is philosophically opposed to what he perceives as the series' communist ideals: between the game's aggressively random nature and its deep-seated compulsion to reward mediocrity, he hardly feels like he's playing a "game" at all. Rather, he feels as though he is flipping a coin via some elaborate, unaccountable mechanism - a single coin that takes an hour to flip. It is his belief that there are other things he could be doing.
He and I play games for different reasons, as long-time readers are aware, and even when we like the same game we typically don't like the same things about it. At a very high level, he likes to win games and I like to play them. So I love the series, sometimes for the same reasons he detests them: the random elements keep the balloon in the air a little longer than a purely skill-based mechanism would.

Mario Party represents a unique social proposition, one of the key virtues I endorse in the medium.

So, another interesting “confirmation” of what I refer to as agency theory, and further proof that agency theory falls apart when you start talking about games in the social space. What makes Mario Party awesome (I assume, I’ve yet to play the game) as a social game, the fact that the game tries to keep everyone on close footing so that there’s this constant tension (and lots of crazy yelling moments), makes it feel as if your actual skills are completely meaningless, hence the lack of a feeling of agency, which Gabe is against.

Just thought it was interesting and needed a mention. I’ve got lots more to write on this, but I’ve got a pretty hectic schedule with some major changes coming down the pipe very soon, so, unfortunately, you’ll just have to wait.

Also, I'm having problems with WordPress not emailing me when comments are made, so forgive me if I haven't gotten back to a recent comment. Does anyone know what might be causing this, and the possible solution?

Agency Theory

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll have noticed that I’ve been obsessed with Agency lately. On a 2 hour drive back from Charlottesville one day, I took all of these posts to their inevitable conclusion, and concluded a discussion that I’d had with Darius during VGXPO. During this conversation, I’d told Darius that a game is just rules. That’s its fundamental building block. I, however, used a misplaced quote from Pirates of the Caribbean, where Jack Sparrow talks about what a ship “really is.” I said that rules are what a game is. I was wrong. Just like a ship is made of wood, a game is make of rules. But what a ship is, what it really is, is freedom. What a game is, what it really is, and what makes it enjoyable, and the reason that we seek it out, is agency.

Let me reiterate that, in block quote because it is going to be the cornerstone of a lot of writing from me in the future.

Games are Agency.

This is how I see it. Game developers always try to talk about what makes games unique. When we do, we talk center discussions on the concept of interactivity. Interactivity, we say, makes game unique from other media, and that should be where games make their mark. However, I think that by focusing on interactivity, we’ve lost the key part of the puzzle. What’s more important than interactivity is how relates to agency.

Let’s take play as an example. Unstructured play tends to be highly interactive. Running around the playground is interactive and fun, but how much more fun is it when a mechanic and semiotics is imparted? When a person, say, becomes "it", and is now “the terror of the playground,” the instated mechanics instantly creates what many game theorists refer to as “a magic circle.” These mechanics magically created a game, and, in many cases, the “fun factor” instantly jumped. So, what happened? Why is Tag, more fun than random running around? My opinion (and the center of this theory) is that the addition of that magic circle, the mechanics, and the semiotics made each interaction more meaningful. Players are now able to meaningfully change the things within the magic circle. Salen and Zimmerman called this “meaningful play,” and even said in their definition of games that games create a space where “meaning emerges,” but, to me, it sounds like the definition of agency: the ”satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices”

Agency, the ability to meaningfully manipulate the magic circle of a game, is what makes games enjoyable and unique. And it is not isolated to digital and non-digital games, story based games, or puzzle games. So far as I can tell, a feeling of agency is key to all games.

Interestingly, I argue in my thesis very heavily for something Janet Murray proposes in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck: agency for it’s “own sake.” Although Murray believes that there are very few examples of people enjoying agency on its own terms (and I believed it as well), I now believe that it has existed for a very long time in the space of games. That this is why games exist: to impart our own ability to manipulate things meaningfully.

There is one thing to add here. Note I say “games are agency” and not “fun is agency,” because the latter is simply not true. Fun can exist where agency doesn’t and, in my opinion, and it looks like others are starting to believe it as well, agency can exist where fun does not.

I think the most interesting thing about this theory is that it opens up a lot of discussion on why certain features work in games and others don’t, and why we frequently see the same patterns in games. In my belief, there is probably a way to relate a lot of this back to agency, and I’ll be expanding on this over the next few months. If you have any comments for me, I’d love to hear them.