Monday, August 9, 2010

Player Autonomy and Games, part 1

This article is part one of a two part series on autonomy and choice in games. You can find Part 2 here. I owe a great deal to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity for inspiring and shaping the majority of these posts.

In an excellent and recent article entitled On the old vs. the new, game designer Steve Gaynor discusses two interesting “paradigms of immersion,” one bringing the player into the fictional gaming world and the other bringing fictional elements into the player's real world. He has this to say about immersion:

I think it's fair to question the motives behind striving for "immersion," sensory or otherwise. "To be immersed" shouldn't be an end unto itself; it's a means to achieving some specific mix of sensation, but what?

By exploring concepts of autonomy, I want to take this same approach to player choice - a design tool widely accepted as immersive. While many of us discuss what makes in-game choices “good” or “bad,” we rarely discuss why player autonomy is valuable in the first place - or is it?

Tale of Tales game designer Michaël Samyn challenges the notion player choice is always important when he states: “For us, interactivity is not about ‘making interesting choices’ or ‘overcoming meaningful challenges’. It’s about make-belief.” He asserts that, for Tale of Tales, gaming is about role-playing, which emphasizes empathy and role-playing towards an independent cast of characters over decision making.Others would disagree with Michaël’s approach. Bioware’s Dragon Age: Origins is a testament to the power of choice in a decidedly role-playing experience. Perhaps Bioware’s approach really is the most valuable in creating an immersive experience. Maybe decision making players will more easily embody the protagonist who is also faced with difficult choices.

Choice is, undoubtedly, important in fashioning a happy existence for ourselves. John Stuart Mill, philosopher and undeniable progenitor of modern day Liberalism, was a strong proponent for the value of autonomy or “individuality.” In On Liberty, Mill has this to say about individuality:

Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? Or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?

As Kwame Anthony Appiah elucidates in his book The Ethics of Identity, Mill stood by self-authorship and freedom “not just because it enabled other things - such as the discovery of truth - but also because without it people could not develop the individuality that is an essential element of human good.”
In terms of video games, it can be said players might value freedom in games because they value self-authorship in real life. We can feel closer to our protagonists, more immersed in their experience, when we have the autonomy to direct their goals. In a way, choice may allow players to humanize their protagonists. What more can be said of a design choice than it brings players nearer to feeling the most comfortably “human” (in the non-species specific sense of the word) in a digital realm.

However, choice is not so simple. As part of individuality, Mill also emphasized the importance of “life plans,” or pursuit of a personalized good among a variety of options. Yet, not all desires amongst options are equal. As Appiah notes, Mill says “a desire that flows from a value that itself derives from a life plan is more important than a desire (such as an appetite) that I just happen to have; for it flows from my reflective choices, my commitments, not just from passing fancy.”
Accordingly, types of choices in games matter depending on how they fit into a plan. In Bioshock, for example, a player has a choice over which plasmids and weapons to upgrade, and may make this decision according to a plan. This choice is more valuable, from a straight-forward Millsian perspective, than the choice about whether or not to stray from the path and pick up extra ammunition. In a sense, the former allows players to create and formulate miniature and more trivial versions of Mill’s life plans: game plans.

Constructing games with “game plans” in mind need not constrain developers to adhere to mechanical or narrative linearity. There are, of course, other “important human goods, like love or friendship, that we don’t exactly ‘plan’ for.” Life plans, as Appiah points out, can shift, grow, and change dramatically. Game plans may also change over the course of a game. Providing a rational, however, is crucially important - which we will come to next week.

Mill does concede that the product choice may not be ideal. For one, choice does not necessitate diverse outcomes. Exercising one’s faculties in pursuit of a life plan, or a game plan in this case, is still valuable. Diversity in outcome, as Mill saw it, is not inherently valuable, “for I might choose a plan that was, as it happened, very like other people’s.” Secondly, my choices might not actually be the best. Again, Appiah reflects: “All of us could, no doubt, have made better lives than we have: but that, Mill says, is no reason for others to attempt to force those better lives upon us.”
In Mill’s opinion, individual choice is valuable even when the outcomes are not perfect. We may be able to say the same thing in games. Designers should keep potential outcomes in mind and actually be ok with what they perceive to be suboptimal decisions from their players. Game developers could also offer players a negative option mechanically speaking while still satisfying their audience. Bioshock 2 does this, to some extent, with the process of harvesting ADAM with Little Sisters. Similarly, games are not necessarily flawed if the majority of players make the same decision. Provided players constraints have some rationale, game designers could get away with more unequal outcomes so long as player autonomy is maintained.

But at what point do barriers or constraints on the player become too much? When does player choice not actually reflect player autonomy? The issue of autonomy is still debated amongst philosophers, so there are no easy answers. In fact, by unpackaging autonomy, choice in games might actually prove meaningless. But that is a subject we will tackle next week.


  1. "Designers should keep potential outcomes in mind and actually be ok with what they perceive to be suboptimal decisions from their players."

    Indeed. In my mind, games are a conversation between dev and player. If that conversation becomes one sided (in either direction), it's really not much of a conversation at all, and neither party winds up satisfied.

    Case in point: I strongly dislike the impending World of Warcraft talent tree change. Where once you could dabble with placing talent points willy nilly between three talent trees, come Cataclysm, you choose a tree (at level 10) and get locked into it for 60 levels, with no option to diversify (barring ever-more-costly respeccing and Dual Spec, of course, but those function differently than a diverse self-contained "build"). Diversification may well be suboptimal, but I firmly believe that it's the player's choice. In game worlds like WoW, where player choice ultimately only affects their avatar (the world is static), constraining that control stifles the experience.

    As a player, I don't realistically expect to control the entire experience, but if I'm playing a game on rails, I may as well be watching a movie.

  2. I found the quote from Mills very enlightening. Thank you for that. He was right in claiming that freedom is essential for the development of the individual. But, as we are seeing today, it is absolutely no guarantee. On the contrary: freedom often becomes an obstacle to this development, as, more and more, it is being used as an argument against it.

    I guess this is the difference between Mills' life plan and appetites. And liberty demands that you develop such a life plan for yourself. Many people choose not do so. And most games don't even allow you to. So I totally agree when you say "Designers should keep potential outcomes in mind and actually be ok with what they perceive to be suboptimal decisions from their players."

    On the other hand, since "freedom" and "individuality" are such contentious concepts in current times, videogame authors should not simply accept them as a given. That amounts to no less than propaganda for a failed ideology. It would be far more interesting if they would contribute to the contemporary thinking about these concepts. And ask question about the value and impact of freedom, and about the amount of control we really have over our own choices.

  3. "failed ideology"

    Wait... what? Freedom and liberty are failed ideologies? In game design or elsewhere? That's a curious position to take at a glance.

    Of course, game players are never completely free; there are always game space rules. Games need structure to function. There's a marked difference between a fenced play area and gaming on rails, though.

  4. @ Michael

    Thanks for the response! Choosing not to development a life plan, as you say, is an interesting prospect. However, as Appiah might point out, demanding too much to apply autonomy on an individual isn't a great idea either. If someone "chooses" to be like another, than perhaps that is good enough.

    In terms of games, I agree with you. Videogame authors should not accept freedom and individuality as trouble-free concepts indistinguishable from choice. I still think we can salvage autonomy and individuality. It's just that what these words mean in real life is different than what they mean in videogames. But I don't want to say too much. Suffice to say I'll come back to exactly your point next week, I hope. :)

    @ Tesh

    I had no idea WoW was changing that way. I agree with you, I think that is a poor choice. It removes the rewarding elements of exercising their faculties in pursuit of a plan. That being said, with a game's structures in mind, other choices can be meaningless. How do we decide if a game's structure/choice option is a constraint on player autonomy or a condition of play? But again, that'll be next week's post.