A Preliminary Poetics for Interactive Drama and Games by Michael Mateas discusses an interesting concept for video games called agency. Mateas describes agency as “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the world whose effects relate to the player’s intention”. Basically, that means that the player is coming up with goals they want to reach (that is, they are forming intentions), and based on them decide on in-game actions to take which will move them towards their goal. A more simplistic way to say it would be that the player can do the things that they want to do, and have them cause effects related to what they were expecting.
Sounds great, how do we do that?
If a game gives the player agency, then the act of playing the game becomes more directed and enjoyable. But, how does a game make this happen? Mateas answers this by first bringing up two concepts from Aristotle’s theory of drama: material cause and formal cause.
Aristotelian what now?
Material cause and formal cause have opaque names, but they’re actually pretty simple concepts. Material cause means the components that make up something. In drama, this means things like the acting and dialog that you see when you watch it. By finding patterns in these elements, you can infer things about how the characters are feeling, and what direction the plot as a whole is going to go. This leads to the formal cause, which is the overall goal, or plan. In drama, this refers to the plot, or the theme. The author is the only one who knows the exact formal cause, but the viewer infers it from the material cause.
But wait, we were talking about games
Mateas takes adds player interaction to these concepts to map these concepts to video games. He redefines formal cause as being not only the game’s end goal, but also incorporating the goals of the player. The player forms new intentions as they’re playing, and those intentions shape what they do in the game. They become the “plot” of the gameplay experience. He also reevaluates the role of formal causation:
In noninteractive drama, understanding the formal chain of causation allows the audience to appreciate how all the action of the play stems from the dramatic necessity of the plot and theme. In interactive drama, the understanding of the formal causation from the level of plot to character additionally helps the player to have an understanding of what to do, that is, why they should take action within the story world at all.
That is, the context of the game which makes up the formal causation actually indicate to the player what actions they should expect to be able to take.
However, affordances given to the player given by the material cause also suggest actions to take. This just means that if you see something in a game, you expect to be able to interact with it and use it for something. This ties in with the concept of affordance from user interface design. For example, when a weapon drops in Super Smash Bros., not only do you expect to be able to interact with it, but its very presence suggests to you that you should do so.
What does this have to do with agency?
Mateas uses the concepts of formal and material cause to indicate how a game can give the player a sense of agency:
A player will experience agency when there is a balance between the material and formal constraints. When the actions motivated by the formal constraints (affordances) via dramatic probability in the plot are commensurate with the material constraints (affordances) made available from the levels of spectacle, pattern, language, and thought, then the player will experience agency.
The player will feel agency when the goals coming from the game’s plot or context match up with the things that the game mechanics allow and encourage the player to do. This is because the player’s long-term goals cause them to decide to take certain actions (to form intentions), and the material causes (mechanics, items) allow them to take these actions in a way that produces results. Not only that, but these results are then meaningful because they are relevant to the game’s plot or the game’s intentions (usually because the results were expected by the player). This means that the player is constantly driven to make meaningful decisions and getting meaningful results.