What does Agency mean in a Game?

Sometimes people refer to features as affording the player agency. Agency is held up as a value intrinsic to games. Many games enshrine the concept of player choice and consequence. This value mystifies me because it doesn’t seem to map to a distinct thing in video games. Agency in the real world represents power over your circumstances, but in games, your circumstances define what power you have in the first place. When the rules are defined, all the possibilities that can ever be are defined as well, unlike the open-ended real world. Can you have agency when you’re just following rules?

In the real world, agency is your ability to affect the world. Money gives you agency by allowing you to invest, buy things for yourself, move from place to place, seek different jobs, and so on. Your health gives you agency by allowing you to move unaided, lift heavy objects, guarantee your personal security against others. Your connections allow you to call in favors, delegate tasks to others, get information you wouldn’t know yourself, get additional financial aid, conduct work remotely, or change policy for other people.

In a game, the concept doesn’t really map, because what would be described as agency is either an illusion or completely non-applicable. What agency do you have in rock paper scissors? What agency do you have in tic tac toe? Tetris? Soccer? Which game has more agency, checkers or connect 4? If we go back to the definition of agency, power to affect your circumstance, we can see you are afforded choices in how you play the game, and some games have a larger branching factor than others, such as Go (361 starting moves) versus Checkers (4 starting moves). The problem is, does it make sense to call this agency, when we could just say branching factor, or state space?

In narrative games, such as Mass Effect, you’re allowed to make choices that affect the world. You choose which characters live and die. You choose which missions to pursue. You choose the fate of the government. You save the galaxy. These actions seemingly impose agency, because in real life, if you could choose who lived or died, travel wherever you wanted, overturn the rule of government, and be responsible for the fate of the world, you’d have tremendous agency as a person. However lets imagine you had no choice but to save the galaxy. Lets say you had no choice but to kill or not kill certain characters, no choice in what happens to the government, and followed the missions in a linear order? Do you still have agency when you’re fated to do all these things?

Lets play a game. Please choose whether the following characters live or die: John Cena, Mike Tyson, Oprah Winfrey, Shigeru Miyamoto. Please choose which order you’d like to visit these places in: Mojave Desert, Shibuya, Dubai. Please choose one form of government: Democratic Republic, Communal Anarchy, Anarcho Capitalism, Fascist Dictatorship. Please choose a color: Red, Green, Blue.

Okay, across these options, there were 1152 different possible combinations of choices you could have picked (2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 6 * 4 * 3). Across 3 turns of Go, there are 46,655,640 possible combinations of choices (361 * 360 * 359). This is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison obviously, but agency is frequently used both to refer to large storyline choices (“you have the agency to affect the world around you”), as well as the styles of play afforded to the player (“You have agency in which path you’ll take through the level”), and level of nuance players are allowed to express in their actions (“This jump lets you control how high and far you go, giving you more agency over how you fly and where you land”).

I think every use of the word agency for video games is kind of nonsense. I view all choices in a game as being a branching point, whether they’re storyline choices, or where you place your piece on a board. These choices and the resulting states are a fungible currency across games, and the word “agency” doesn’t really correlate with them, or match any real world sense of the word. If I hack my Mass Effect save file before transferring the data over to Mass Effect 2, am I expressing agency over the world of the game by flipping a few bits? If you don’t have a save file, you get asked a few questions at the start of ME2 about what happened in ME1, which retroactively determines what possible ME1 events will be reflected in ME2. Is this agency?

Mass Effect 3’s Red Green Blue ending was derided for overriding player agency, funnelling a few hundred choices down into a single 3 pronged decision that ignored all of them, but are any of those choices, or even the sum total of all of them, really that deep? When you have a conversation with someone in real life, think of all the things you could possibly say to them. Think about their internal emotional state and yours and how it contextualizes everything you say. Think of how you could stutter, misspeak, say the same words with different intonation, creating a different meaning. Think of your body language, your position relative to them.

Agency is a concept that works in the real world, it’s useful for understanding how different people have power over their lives, and how to gain more power over your own life. Agency works because the power you have can be contrasted with a hypothetical lack of power, where in the world of a game, there is only what you’re given, no more, no less. Agency can be fictionalized, represented in stories by fictional characters, and the feeling of agency can be a pillar for a game’s theming, but on the level of game design, agency isn’t a real thing. There are choices, and there are states. It’s better to deal with these directly instead of appealing to a more vague concept that doesn’t really map.

5 thoughts on “What does Agency mean in a Game?

  1. Deol May 4, 2019 / 10:44 pm

    Would you say that the term “options” is more in line with what people mean when they say “agency”.

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  2. Joevan Salmon-Johnson May 5, 2019 / 1:50 am

    It is clear to me that what is meant when we refer to “agency” is the mere feeling of agency, and you ultimately admit that such a feeling “can be a pillar for a game’s theming”. So … what’s the problem here? It’s obvious such a feeling can also be engineered, studied, its effectiveness even compared. Why so quickly dismiss it as irrelevant, a mere “vague concept”?

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    • Yujiri May 9, 2019 / 9:58 pm

      I don’t want to put words in Chris’s mouth, but I would say that “agency” can be possessed by the player character in-universe, but that’s a matter of the story which is fundamentally separate from the game. “Agency” for the player themselves in such a game can also be meaningful (avoiding railroading), but that’s still only a concept of the story. And one of Chris’s central beliefs seems to be that the game mechanics are all that matters and the story doesn’t.

      Ultimately I think the point Chris is making with this article is that many people are talking about “agency” and “player choice/freedom” in a sense that isn’t a real thing, and it’s a problem because they’re sacrificing other values of game design for this illusion.

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      • Chris Wagar May 9, 2019 / 10:29 pm

        People try to use it like it’s a discrete criteria for judging something, like, “I prefer this feature because it has more agency” when I don’t think that really makes sense, and when it obscures more clear ways of talking about games. I don’t think it can be studied or compared discretely, because it doesn’t map to a real thing, represented in the game systems, just a feeling.

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  3. Aaaaaa May 16, 2019 / 4:16 am

    I view agency as the player having control over what’s going on in general.
    Like Call of Duty vs. Doom, the controls are similar but Doom lets you freely move through the level and engage the enemies how you want while CoD often throws you into scripted sequences that practically (or fully) play themselves.

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