Agency, Encouraging Player Intention

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.

Posted on 2009-10-29 at 14:19 and tagged . 5 comments -->

Control, Mastery, and Flow

So, why do people play video games anyway? Of course there are lots of reasons, but understanding them helps when you’re beginning to design games. In reading “Video Games and Computer Holding Power”, a chapter from “The Second Self” by Sherry Turkle, a few cases come up which illustrate a couple of motivations. Keep in mind that the book is about 25 years old by now, so the games they are studying are Asteroids, Space Invaders, and similar. Most of those games focused on “hard fun”, but they still seem to be representative of many games today.


Games are systems which react to the actions of the player. The player gives the game certain input, and the game responds to it by behaving in a certain way. As the player figures out how the actions and reactions relate to each other, they are able to control the game state, to make it do what they want it to. For example, when you play Super Mario Bros. you learn where to jump and how to move to beat the enemies and get to the end of the level quickly. In Tetris you learn to place blocks so that you can destroy them well and get a high score. As players master a game, they start to feel control over it. The player feels control over the game’s micro-world much more than they would normally feel in real life.

Fun games can take advantage of this by leading the player to learn how they work, while continuously providing new obstacles to overcome. This way the player is always increasing their mastery of the system, while never running out of things to learn.

Deep concentration, or Flow

Sherry also describes an altered state of mind involving deep concentration. Though the chapter never actually uses the word, this altered state matches very well with Csíkszentmihályi’s notion of “flow.” There’s a good deal to read on flow (notably Csíkszentmihályi’s own “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, which is a very interesting book), but the gist of it is that the entirety of your self is focused towards one activity, and everything else is pushed out of your mind. In this state, outside worries disappear, you lose self consciousness, and the flow of time moves at an unusual pace. Strangely, the state of flow can also make your mind feel “free”, as it’s not limited by its normal thought processes.

To begin this state of flow, the activity needs to be hard enough that it’s not too easy, but not so hard that it becomes frustrating. Video games have a unique advantage in this since, as they are backed by a computer, they can adapt to the player to offer them the ideal level of difficulty. In fact, many of the games mentioned, such as Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Asteroids, are written to get harder and harder forever, so that in theory there’s no end to the challenge (actually, Pac-Man wasn’t quite infinite, there was a bug on the 256th level where the entire right side of the screen had corrupted graphics, making it pretty unplayable).

Since games usually give you a measure of how well you played, they make it easy to track your improvement. “The games require total concentration [...] at the same time as they provide a stage for excellence.” The combination of the two can be really addictive!

Posted on 2009-09-15 at 17:30 and tagged . 1 comment -->