Part Seven: Agency Beyond the Magic Circle
For the past six months, I have been writing about ways to build connections between different games, and by extension, their audiences. I've imagined fashion design games for portable platforms that feed clothing designs to open world games where avatar clothing customization matters. I've imagined social world building games whose player-authored environments become playable levels used in action adventure games. I've imagined players of organization management games popping on to their mobile devices intermittently throughout the day to allocate resources and assign missions which are then subscribed to by real players playing action games. But all of these imaginary connections beg a fundamental and challenging question; if the interesting results of my decisions and choices are happening in someone else's game - why should I care?
Agency is the ability of the player to take meaningful action in a game and to witness the results of his decisions and choices. I believe that agency is the very stuff of games. It is fundamentally tied to how games mean, to why we play them, and to why they matter to us as individual players and as participants in the human cultural landscape. Have I imagined my way into a future where games are all interconnected in such a way that the feedback (the 'witnessing the results' part) has been cordoned off from the players who need it in order to feel the agency that makes games matter?
The short answer is, I don't think so. On the contrary, I think that - done properly - we not only protect the traditional feelings of agency we appreciate (and depend upon), but we also generate feelings of agency in new ways and along new and different axes. To properly achieve this, there are three basic requirements for designing games that cross over and interconnect in the ways I have described.
First, the internal agency of each game must be protected. Players must still be able to see the results of their decisions and choices within their own game as a standalone experience. An example of a game that has done this poorly is Farmville. When I give a gift to someone, the gift is always an abstract object. A separate screen that allows me to send a Red Christmas Tree to my nephew is totally meaningless. The gift costs me nothing, and the tree itself isn't even really a tree, but is instead a picture of the tree. The tree would be more meaningful to me if it appeared in my world and clicking on it gave me the option to gift it. Even better from an internal agency standpoint would be if I could click on anything on my farm and gift it directly. This would give me more meaningful attachment to the objects I was gifting, even if the cost of gifting was still zero. This is not to dismiss some real design challenges that such a change brings, but the fact remains that gifting in Farmville does not feel meaningful.
The second criteria is that of strong reporting. If I use a crafting mobile application to run a shop that is instanced in the open world RPGs of my friends, I need more information than 'Joe bought a Diamond Pickaxe for 100 Gold'. I only feel the agency internal to my own game as it reports the results of my decision to sell a Pickaxe. Better would be if I could fetch detailed reporting on what Joe does with my Pickaxe. Better still would be if that information could be used to help me improve my future crafting of Pickaxes. This would not only enhance my feelings of agency in knowing how the Pickaxe I crafted was meaningful - but the experiencing of that agency would also be of benefit to me.
The third requirement is that we better facilitate player-to-player reporting. Many of my own greatest moments in gaming have been made even more wonderful and meaningful to me when relating them to friends. Today, the internet is overflowing with thirty second video clips of these spectacular and improbable moments. Leaving players to email each other about the wonderful things they've done with a gifted Red Christmas Tree or purchased Diamond Pickaxe is making it too hard, and we can do better.
A brute force approach to this would be to design your game to constantly record and overwrite the last sixty seconds of play, saving it aside on demand for editing or immediate upload and sharing. While non-trivial to implement, this approach could facilitate the kind of player-to-player sharing and communication crucial to ensuring that players are able to feel their agency across the boundaries between games. This makes agency a collaborative and social emotion capable of connecting diverse audiences across widely different games.