Most of you will have read to title of this article and wondered what the hell I am blathering on about. Although that could probably be said for many of my articles, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.
I should just stop waffling and get on with it, shouldn’t I?
It has only been in the last few months that I have heard the term ‘agency’ being used in reference a few games. It caught me out. So naturally I did what I normally do in such situations. Completely forget about the term and think about other things. But as with all such matters, you hear it once and you start hearing it again and again. So naturally I did some digging.
A very simplified definition of the term is how much control a player has over what happens to them. It has frequent use in the video game industry, where the concept of control can sometime be an illusion. The Call Of Duty games are an example of where there is very low levels of player agency. Whilst you are given a concept of a bigger world and bigger level around you by the impressive visuals, you are railroaded into very specific routes that take you from one set piece to the next. Compare to the Grand Theft Auto games where players have got lots of choices to make (although the individual missions may cut that choice down to more defined parameters). By their very nature, video game agency will always take players to the same place – the end screen (although there maybe multiple endings depending on choices the players make during the game).
So how does this translate into tabletop games?
Like video gaming, you know what you are getting into when you start a game. You cannot argue that you have any influence upon the game’s outcome with Snakes and Ladders (unless you load the dice – but then what sort of person are you?). Having read and reread the rules, you will have an idea of the choices that are open to you. Furthermore, you will have a concept of how your role in the game can influence both the experience and the outcome. Perhaps you won’t appreciate every little detail at this stage, but already you have at least a rough understanding of how much agency the game affords you.
Of course, you will never get truly free reign – even in the most open of game rules, as the game has to provide you with a challenge. Of course in Pandemic I could travel to New York, but that isn’t really going to be of much use if an outbreak on Bogotá is going to cause us to lose the game. In those firefighting situations, your agency goes flying out of the window.
However, in a competitive game there is another variable you need to consider – that of your opponent (or opponents). Any game which involves conflict means that your choices and influence are going to be limited by what the other players do. It may be fairly minimal – a game of Rummy in which players are collecting similar numbers for example. Or very deliberate where you will lose playing pieces, cards or positions on the board. The drama of the game is created by this clash for control. Returning to my earlier statement, you must expect this when you sit down to start the game. It is precious little use to complain about what your opponent is doing to you if you know that possibility exists in the first place.
So if there is nothing that can be done about agency, why am I talking about it?
Say you and I were to play Blackjack with one another. However, whilst you are playing the game normally, I am allowed to search through the deck on the occasion I decide to hit. What is going to happen on that occasion? You have complete choice and control over your actions. But neither action is necessarily the better option, as you ideal situation is a draw (or a very unlikely win should you get a natural 21 on two cards). By one change to the basic rules, I have removed your agency from the game. And the only option is therefore not to play …
Of course this is a very silly example and any casino doing this would rapidly find themselves with customers. But my point is this – there becomes a point where denial of an opponent’s agency moves beyond a game’s conflict and turns instead to a negative play experience. And I would argue that there are two reasons for this denial of agency – poor game design or an intentional player strategy.
We do have to accept that game designers are not perfect – they are only human after all. So it stands to reason that sometimes a circumstance will just slip through the design process and play testing. It’s not a perfect situation but it happens. I have found games that feature a rare situation that creates a “feedback loop” of cause and effect. This essentially strands a player whilst their opponent can happily carry on to their hearts content to win the game unimpeded. This can happen quite by accident, although players upon finding this solution can attempt to manufacture it for following turns …
Less forgivable than these corner cases are where an element of a game is designed that someone in the process clearly believes is a good idea at the time, but fails to think through the consequences of their actions. Never has this been more pronounced or memorable to me, than during the heady days of 2nd Edition Warhammer 40,000’s Dark Millennium supplement. Players were each dealt a hand of strategy cards at the game’s beginning and one of these was titled Virus Outbreak.
The card would cause virus to erupt from a point on the table and models within a certain distance would be removed on a certain dice roll. However, a removed model would trigger the process anew. Stories were told of entire armies dropping dead at the start of the game. The game designers later told players to remove this card from their strategy decks, realising that perhaps it wasn’t a very good idea.
Sometime, as the writer William Faulkner suggested, it is best to ‘kill your darlings.’
And this brings us onto a very salient point. It is important to remember that a game’s designer or manufacturer always has the capacity to do something about these situations that find a player’s agency negatively impacted. It is only recently that several rules changes were announced for the X-Wing Miniatures Game, which altered or neutered play styles that were seen as counter intuitive to a player’s agency (A few months ago when playing against one of these ships, I found myself in a situation that wherever I moved my own piece, I would be getting a bomb dropped right on my face). It is crucial, not just for a player’s enjoyment, but also for the game’s sales, that designers are able to keep abreast of such situations and have the opportunity to remove anything that they see as damaging (although responding a bit quicker might be nice …).
The second situation is more problematic, as players can clearly have a difference of opinion over what is negative play. From personal experience, it emerges from where players have an opportunity to design their own play style before the game – usually in a miniatures or a collectable card game environment.
Take Magic: The Gathering for example. All of my friends who play this are aware of my style. I am a dyed in the wool control player (for the uninitiated control play is designed around preventing your opponent from using their better cards against you). Give me two untapped islands and a hand of Counterspells any day. Yet in doing so, I am deliberately targeting a player’s agency. I am stopping them playing their game the way they want to. Someone would argue that I am creating a negative play experience for my opponent as a result. I would refute this as by the nature of the game, I cannot have more counters than they have spells. So I am forcing them to be more strategic in how they play. Someone may enjoy that challenge. Another would find it a grind. Who is right? Who can judge?
I have seen plenty of wargamers design lists solely to select the best elements of a force. The primary motivation is to win and does not consider the experience of the other gamer. But producing a “top tier” list in itself does not always negatively impact an opponent’s agency. There has to be an element that renders the other side’s choices ultimately meaningless. So a model that can only be dealt with in a very specific or lucky set of circumstances. A card combination that shuts down an opponent’s play options.
I would propose that we as players have a duty towards one another, but this duty is a two way street. We should be looking at our intentions when we are playing games and whether these intentions are going to ruin the game for another person. But on the other side, when the chips are down and things are not going our way, we need to accept that often this is down to luck or skill, rather than some inherent weakness in the game or extreme agency negation by our opponent. We all want to enjoy our play experience. And we all want players to sit down to a game with us again.
Interfering with agency is an unavoidable consequence of playing a game. But our intention must ultimately be to ensure both people enjoy the experience whatever the outcome. And provided we can honestly say we went into a game with those intentions, then we can be happy that we have played our part.