Monday, 31 January 2011

Agency and Intelligence in computer games

This man is stupid but free

I just wrote this in my essay for this term:

Implicit in the prevalent labelling of computer games as interactive media is the idea that the players* have agency, because through their interaction they are able to influence the content of the media that they consume. However, the Final Fantasy series, in spite of its huge popularity, is often criticised for not being genuinely interactive. Final Fantasy games are usually linear in structure, with only one possible plotline, only one legitimate course of action, and often only one effective tactic in any given battle. The game will not progress without the action of the players, but the players' actions are dictated by the rules of the game - the players have no real choices to make and therefore have no real influence on the content of their gaming experience.

The personalities and behaviour of the playable characters are never significantly altered by the decisions of the players. While the players can sometimes choose during dialogue scenes what the playable character should say next, the core content of the conversation never changes, and the plot continues unaffected by the decision the player made. The appearance of the playable characters is also not under the players' control, except for carried weapons. For this reason, playable characters in the Final Fantasy series cannot be construed as avatars of the players. However, without the intervention of the players, characters will not progress in the game. Furthermore, characters will not become stronger unless the players choose to spend time levelling up by fighting small-scale battles over and over again for prolonged periods of time, as well as acquiring and equipping the best weapons and armour.

Due to the lack of agency on the part of the players, the relationship between the players and the characters cannot be described as simply, `the players control the characters'. At best, the relationship is one of guidance. In some ways this resembles the concept of shido (guidance) in Japanese education; children are seen as dependent on teachers for their own progress towards self-reliance. Teachers earn the respect of children by working together with them, so their authority exists with the consent of children in an essentially egalitarian relationship. Japanese educators such as Arai Ikuo and the Japan Teachers' Union have often argued that that it is only due to the equality of this relationship that they are able to enable the growth of independence in their students. Similarly, the content of Final Fantasy games focuses on the concerns and progress of the playable characters, and the narrative often possesses strong themes of personal growth and life's journey. The role of the players is to enable the playable characters to progress on their journey.

This woman is intelligent but not free

One thing I probably won't do in my essay is compare Final Fantasy games with Dwarf Fortress. I'll do that here instead. Dwarf Fortress players have much more agency. They have control over the direction and strategy of the game, down to small details such as which stone to use to build this square of tiled floor, all the way up to 'what am I even doing here anyway?' Dwarves occasionally act out, reminding you of their agency by, for example, entering a fey mood and occupying a workshop for weeks on end. They also have a 'private life,' that is not under your jurisdicion - you can't tell them what to eat or who to fall in love with. If they become unhappy they won't do your bidding with as much relish, and they may slack off altogether, but that almost never happens. Most of the time, their significant actions in the game are under your control. You're irrefutably in charge.

Although Final Fantasy characters have more agency than Dwarf Fortress characters, they have much less intelligence. Final Fantasy characters are programmed to tread one pre-determined path and follow one set of actions throughout the game. Dwarf Fortress characters have their own thoughts and feelings, and form their own decisions in response to ever-changing situations and opportunities.

At this point I crash into a problem of definitions - I'm thinking of agency in Gell's sense that objects have agency because they have influence in the world of human experience, but usually agency has been construed in opposition to structure. Final Fantasy characters' lack of intelligence by implication limits their agency because they don't make real decisions - they blindly follow the predetermined plot. But if Tidus and I are two agents struggling to work together at making the FFX storyline move forward, Tidus has more agency than I do because I have to act through him but I don't get to choose how he acts. Which is part of the reason why he is so bloody annoying. My dwarves cannot help but do what they're told, so long as their surroundings provide sufficient happy thoughts.

Dwarves are basically slaves. I've felt uncomfortable about this for as long as I've been playing. I'm forcing intelligent actors to give up their agency to me in exchange for food, shelter, security and small luxuries like a fine bed. Final Fantasy characters are stupid people who cannot think for themselves but are 'free' in the sense that my gameplay exists solely to enable them to pursue their single-minded goals.

*Note: I put players in the plural to acknowledge that 'single-player' games are often experienced and played by two or more people - one holding the controller, others watching the game.

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