MLK Day — no class
While reading “Agency Reconsidered” I realized this is exactly what makes the new Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild so powerful and satisfying. While there are many wonderful things about the game, one of the keys is player agency.
But, it is this new definition of agency: realized in terms of the underlying software model and limited to “spatial movement and combat”(9) rather than social or narrative. As Wardrip-Fruin et. al explain, “the design task is to entice players to desires the game can satisfy”(7).
This is precisely what BOTW accomplishes — I can’t think of a better example of a game that allows players to take action AND improvise within the rules of the system. The result is the player’s confident ability to solve problems in different and often recombinatory ways (e.g. lighting a regular arrow on fire if you don’t have a Fire Arrow) and the freedom to engage in “play” or improvisation (e.g. knocking apples off trees and shooting them with arrows).
The latter is an example of something one wouldn’t typically desire to do in the real world (perhaps some combination thereof, but not necessarily in that order), but it is a fulfillable desire in the game. Therefore, the game is not providing “real life” agency where one can technically say and act any way they choose, but agency in terms of the computational model.
Speaking of agency and video games, which are certainly “new media”, there are a few key related points from Manovich. He correlates changes in media technologies with social changes, arguing that we, in a postindustrial society, now value individuality over conformity and each citizen can “construct her own custom lifestyle and ‘select’ her ideology from a large…number of choices.” Therefore, he argues, marketing needs to target individuals. Ultimately, “new media objects assure users that their choices – and therefore, their underlying thoughts and desires – are unique, rather than programmed and shared with others.”
(As an aside, I think it’s important to interrogate just which postindustrial societies Manovich is referring to (after all, not every society is as culturally individualistic as others) as well as think about issues of access. Certainly not ALL citizens are privileged to “construct her own custom lifestyle.”)
Manovich would probably see video games as appealing to the individual, and hence agency becomes inherent to this discussion. However, I don’t entirely agree with Manovich but I also don’t think this view is entirely incompatible with the discussion of agency as defined by Wadrid-Fruip. After all, if I want to shoot apples off of trees, and you want to ride a bear, we can both achieve our desires. Are they unique? Maybe.
While I agree with some of the arguments made by Manovich in “What is New Media?” I also feel that his opinion was based on a specific moment in time (2001) and didn’t offer the proper amount of fluidity to adapt to what we currently think of as New Media. Sort of like watching a retro futuristic movie, such as “Back to the Future 2”, these ideas run the risk of being outdated when reflected on a decade or more after when they are written. Instead we should focus on a definition that can continue to define itself over time, a variable if you will, that adapts to meet the needs of a new generation. For example, if you define New Media as being the current iteration of media that is embraced by pop-culture this keeps the definition open for generations to come.
I found Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s article on agency to be far more valuable, as it offered multiple opinions on the subject, which encouraged the reader to make their own decisions about what agency means. Whether you choose to subscribe directly one of the definitions provided, combine pieces of two or more selections, or use the reading to make your own definition, the article feels like it permits the reader the “agency” to develop their own terms. This was a nice contrast from the rigidness of Manovich’s entry.
I appreciated the section of the article that discussed the “Sim City Effect”, successful play requires understanding of how initial expectations differ from what the systems allows. This aligns well with Mateas’s view of agency, and gave me fond memories of playing adventure games such as “King’s Quest” as a kid; trying to find the right set of words that would unlock the next puzzle.
I also enjoyed my friend and cohort Rudi’s assessment of how agency helped create an impact for her through the game “Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild”. A game I also enjoyed for similar reasons.
Nick Dyer-Witherford’s article on the struggle between Marxism and Capitalism in the media offered some interesting information that ties into a book I’m currently reading, Donella H. Meadow’s “Thinking in Systems”. The examples presented in the article of how Capitalism used the revolts of the 60’s and 70’s as commercial product, an example of which can be seen in the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits”, and how corporate media’s coverage of the L.A. riots attempted to demonize rioters motives, but also gave voice to their outrage shows each side using the other’s system against them. The concept of creating change in systems through leverage can be seen in chapter 6 of Meadow’s book.
Agency Reconsidered: Response
In my view, the argument that story and agency aren’t in conflict depends on how the narrative is communicated to the player and how it is weaved into the gameplay itself if at all. I think that in most cases, gamers and movie enthusiasts generally point out the inconsistencies between story and agency when there is a clear line drawn between in game cinematics and the gameplay that takes place in between those cut scenes. In an attempt to be cinematic and resemble that of a major blockbuster movie, AAA title games are in a lot of ways propelling this conversation of game agency forward and looking at how the illusion of agency is or isn’t a demonstration of player control.
One could make the argument that having true balance between agency and story isn’t achievable when the narrative is portrayed in a linear fashion taking after the techniques used in modern cinema. In this case, linear story telling tends to dominate the game’s landscape, and agency takes a back seat or essentially pauses. With that, measuring conflict between agency and story requires a close look at narrative structure and how that narrative is expressed. If a game developer decides to communicate story through imagery alone and through a non linear structure, this would allow for more flexibility in terms of player control and having a stronger sense of it throughout the interactive experience.
In my view, player agency will always be at the mercy of story until artificial intelligence can generate its own creative code/storyline in response to a player’s actions. We are already seeing early signs of this at Google where AutoML showcases how AI can actually create its own child AI system. It doesn’t seem farfetched to talk about the concerns that come with such advanced machine learning. This may very well be the future of game development, and future developers will need to proceed with caution. What is keeping an AI system from passing on information and commands that aren’t in sync with the intentions of the creator?
In the hands of humanity, nothing works as expected and media is no exception. Dyer-Witherford discusses media as a tool of the capitalist structure designed to generate and sustain mass consumption. However, the accessibility of media creation and proliferation in the modern day, he argues, subverts this intent. The critical point of this interactivity of modern media is the ability it affords the masses to send messages. I find this particularly interesting when examining modern media as a tool on behalf of the oppressed. Dyer-Witherford cites examples of the disadvantaged using media to mobilize support (activists speaking on behalf of political-activist prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal) and to win the right to work in safe environments (Latinx maids and janitors). These are stories of people and situations rarely acknowledged by mass-produced media that likely would never have made it into the public consciousness without the rise of technologies that have allowed for individualized media production and curation.
To understand new media as an anti-oppression tool, we must first consider the interplay between culture and technology. As Manovich defines new media, he outlines the principle of transcoding as the interplay between the computer layer in which media is written and transmitted via code and the cultural layer of what humans perceive. “Agency Reconsidered” discusses games similarly, asserting that the notion of agency in a computerized system is only accomplished when players’ expectations of the world match the capabilities of the system. According to Manovich, the culture and technology of media “influence each other” in their interplay. Subsequently, as players (the general population) expect new media to operate against systems of oppression and utilize it accordingly, they are simultaneously creating a technological framework that does just that.
Agency is further defined as “occur[ing] when the actions players desire are among those they can take…as supported by an underlying computational model.” While the paper focuses on the concept of agency within the context of games and play, this defInition can be expanded to encompass the interactivity of modern media. The actions of content creation and personalized consumption that “players” desire are supported by the underlying model of new media technologies that are continually revised through culture as documentation, exploration, and distribution become increasingly accessible. The abilities that new media technologies afford are themselves anti-establishment in nature, making messages that challenge the status quo of oppression often neglected or facilitated by operating power structures natural centers of gravity on modern platforms.
While reading Wardrip-Fruin’s piece on rethinking through agency, I felt particularly frustrated with the overall formalist sanitation of a potentially rich discussion. My primary source of frustration with this reading comes from the immediate declaration that the agency of narrative spaces is separate from a “free will” discussion of agency. While I understand the use of this separation for focusing down the conversation, I want to argue that these “different” senses of agency are not so easily separable and are even necessarily entangled with each other.
Wardrip-Fruin outlines previous discussions of agency, ultimately leading up to a definition of agency that (I think) looks something like this: agency is successfully achieved when the narrative or game space is configured in such a way that it can allow players to produce their own goals to be accomplished within that space, while also making it technically/materially possible for players to achieve those goals. This is more than just an ability to accomplish something in a narrative or digital space – it is ability mediated both through technology/media and immersive narrative. The player’s actions and desires are informed by the technological and narrative constraints of the medium.
This is where my frustration comes in: how is it possible (or responsible) to say that any player’s agency is successfully produced in a digital/narrative space solely from within the narrative and technological limits of the medium or game? I highly doubt that all players would read the narrative and technological elements in the same way – we need to consider how issues of culture and identity would influence a player’s ability to construct their own goals within a particular narrative, or even the player’s ability to construct the goals that the game’s narrative is trying to draw out of the player.
For example, consider the countless video games that take place in the Middle East or some location that is suspiciously similar to the Middle East. Consider also that the narrative and gameplay logics of some of these games are informed by U.S. military actions and intelligence (I believe this is especially the case with Call of Duty). Considering the militaristic neocolonialism that informs the narrative and technological boundaries of these games, how exactly is a player such as myself (an Arab-American) supposed to achieve the kind of player agency that the game wants me to realize? How can I possibly comply with these neocolonialist logics to the point of forming my own neocolonialist goals, and then use the gameplay logics to accomplish those goals? The whole thing is an act of discursive violence on my subjectivity and my limited real world agency (I don’t choose to be Arab-American with limited agency within an American setting – this is something I was born into). Hence, these two senses of agency (real world “free will” agency and game player agency) are not as separable as the reading suggests.
My frustration with Wardrip-Fruin’s oversimplified discussion of agency also produced some other related thoughts and questions as I was reading the text. Mostly, the reading had me wondering what other types of agency we might not be considering when we think about narrative or game player agency. As I just discussed, it doesn’t always make sense to limit the production of agency to the boundaries of the medium or to the space of the game. We need to consider how one’s subjectivity might play a role in an ability to realize agency in these narrative spaces. But what other kinds of agency might we also need to consider? (At this point, I personally consider thinking through agency via the concept of affect and how muted affects of people with limited real world agency might play a role here. I also consider the kind of agency that highly visual media affords in contrast to less visually dominated media. It’s also significant to point out the origination of some of these discussions of agency within Western philosophy or Eurocentric thought, and how that might be limiting our formulations of other types of agency that come into play in a narrative space….but I’ll leave off the rest for discussion in class tomorrow.)
(Sorry this is all focused on the Wardrip-Fruin reading – I had a lot of thoughts on it!)
In the Nick Dyer-Witherford reading, the discussion about the effects of corporatism in the expression of ideas and media is an interesting one, bringing
on points about self-censorship and mass production. The point about the little risk of saturating media markets is interesting, as even with the volume of media already produced and available, there seems to be always a huge demand for novelty, as old entertainment products seem to lose effectiveness with time.
In the “Agency Reconsidered” reading, the definition of agency, as the alignment of what the player wants to do and what the player can do – while also having limits-,
reminded me of digital RPG games. When playing an RPG like Dragon Age, or Mass Effect, the player satisfaction comes from being able to do what they want within the universe presented. That means – creating the character like they want it, having the dialogue options, having different options to interact with the world and characters and choosing what suits them the best. In such a game, the players complain when they feel the options are not what they want to do, and gaming experience is usually improved by the addition of relevant options rather than, let’s say, simply improving the graphics or increasing the map.
For examples, the experience of tabletop RPG presents the players with a situation of high agency. Not having to deal with the limits of software models commented on the paper, the Dungeon Master can lead and adapt the story to the players, their actions only limited to what they can think of.
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