On Video Game Player, Character, and Developer Agency

In a strange pivot toward the absurd, Feminist Frequency’s most recent “Tropes versus Women” video, Lingerie is Not Armor waffled on the series’ previous complaints that female game characters lack agency to declare that fictional female characters have NO agency because they’re not real women.

This is, of course, patently false, and it’s important to explore why.  Character agency, along with developer agency and player agency, form a triangle of agency that’s essential to successful game design that tells a cohesive story while the player still feels meaningfully involved.  The balance and flow among these three types of agency is critical to creating a quality game.

Because the player and the character are locked in a partnership through a game’s control interface, character agency and player agency can be difficult to separate.  Complicating things further is that the developer is the one that grants both player and character agency within the game.  A simple example of the separation between player agency and character agency can be shown in Super Mario Bros.  At the beginning of the game, the player can make Mario do two things: run and jump.  If the player has Mario collect a red mushroom, Mario grows larger and can survive one collision with an enemy or projectile.  This is not something the player does.  This is a skill Mario innately has that allows him greater impact on the world.  Other power ups – note the name – give Mario the ability to fly, throw fireballs, and swim.  In Super Mario 2, different characters have different abilities, and those are the agency of those specific characters, not intrinsic to the player.  The skills don’t transfer from Peach to Luigi to Mario even though it’s the same player.

So there.  In one paragraph, we have proof that character agency is a real thing.  Players make choices about companions in video games not just for cosmetic reasons, but also the ability of these companions to act on their world.  Players, for instance, complained that Alan Wake didn’t have a melee attack, but developer Remedy deliberately didn’t give him that skill because he’s a noodly armed writer.

Furthermore, when a game includes a cut scene, these are moments where the player has absolutely no agency within the game.  For this reason, I believe cut scenes should be used only when necessary.  When you completely cut off a player, character or developer’s agency, your game becomes unbalanced.  Yanking control away from a player, making characters inconsistent, or a developer creating an unstructured sandbox that seems to ultimately result in a futile experience are all example of an unbalanced triangle of agency that leads to an unsatisfying experience.

The recent DOOM game is a great example of creating a clearly defined character through action.  The DOOM Marine, solves problems with his fists and guns.  This is his defining character trait.  So there are times in the game’s narrative where the DOOM marine makes choices without the player’s input, smashing consoles, opening doors with corpses, and generally being an asshole.  The glorious thing about how the game is designed is that these aren’t just moments of dark comedy.  They’re indications to the player that an aggressive play style will have the greatest chance of success.  DOOM is not an RPG, because the balance between player agency and character agency comes through the weapon select wheel.

To facilitate this, id Software chose to make the map progression fairly linear, and this is a valid choice.  Id owned its agency as a developer to create the game it wanted to make, instead of trying to make a game “for everyone”.  The successful results speak for themselves.

The thing is, there are no right or wrong answers for this formula, provided the three types of agency stay in balance.  In an RPG, players expect a much larger degree of narrative agency – they want to see the impacts they’ve made upon the world.  The fan outcry to Mass Effect 3 wasn’t just a response to a lack of player agency – that happens within the game, not through the ending.  No, what fans responded to was an unsatisfying end to Commander Shepard’s story.  Fans felt that the original abbreviated ending cut them off from the resolution to the stories of not just Shepard, but his or her companions as well.  They’d still “beat the game”.  The player’s agency was maintained.  But the character’s agency wasn’t respected, and the fans demanded more.

Now, some would argue that the fans wanted to save the world themselves, but I disagree that this was the reason for the outcry.  The disappointment was that there was no closure to the relationships made within the game – what happened to the Quarians?  The Geth?  The crew of the Normandy?  Players truly cared about happy endings – or at least endings that made sense – for the extended cast of the game.  That’s character agency, not player agency.

Of course, the insider rumblings at Bioware were that there were issues between publisher and developer that prevented them from really making the game they wanted to make.  Developers only have so much control – they have limited time, limited budget, and limited technology.  Developer agency matters greatly, because games aren’t just consumer products.  They’re also art.  Sometimes games are going to challenge the player and do things the player doesn’t like.  Deliberately.  Developers must continue to have that freedom to make the game they want.  Discussions about games must be reasoned and reasonable, not the stuff of shame mobs on the internet, looking to pummel developers into changing their content based on sheer numbers and noise.

“Death of the Author” is a principle that I don’t believe has a meaningful role in video game criticism because players work with the developer to author the story within a game.  A huge element of game criticism is whether a developer succeeds in what it intends to do with a game

Often, critics talk about developer intents when they’re actually making massive assumptions – for instance, the assertion that the outfits of sexy female characters are designed to make them appeal sexually available.  However, these critics don’t reach out to the developers themselves to ask them what their intents were, even though many developers are quite happy to answer those sorts of questions.

For instance, when the Tomb Raider reboot came out, there was a popular complaint that Crystal Dynamics had made Lara’s voice work sound deliberately pornographic.  I decided to ask a developer at Crystal Dynamics about this theory, and the poor guy blushed crimson, then explained that those were just the noises the actress had made while performing the physical motion capture.  That’s all it takes to eliminate speculation on intent.

But what if a developer actually wants to use sexuality and sexual entitlement against a player, the way the Metal Gear Solid games do?  This is a valid artistic decision, even when it doesn’t quite succeed in the experiment.  The Metal Gear Solid games juxtapose sex and trauma in a way that is deliberately disturbing – a mercenary may be very resistant to physical damage until he’s distracted by a cunningly placed porn magazine.  Men cartwheel naked through voids while the player is forced to watch.  It’s a decidedly alien approach to sexuality for a Western player.

Meanwhile, the Bayonetta games use the Male Gaze to make a point: the heroine of the game is seen as a villain to the Lumen Sages.  At the core of Bayonetta is a cautionary tale against oppressive sexual taboos.  The war between the Umbra Witches and the Lumen Sages started because of a child born in violation of the blood purity rules, and the ensuing slaughter nearly wipes out both groups.  Bayonetta, therefore, examines lust in a way that is often uncomfortable, even objectifying, to a modern player.  But this also allows the player to understand the strictures under which the Umbra Witches have lived.  Bayonetta’s empowerment comes from her gaming the system, and the sexualized camera angles help establish that in game reality for the player.  Is it comfortable or respectful?  No.  But it’s really powerful.  The developers deliberately empowered Bayonetta in a way that appears sexual to the player.  The player can beat the game, but they can’t overcome the pre-programmed moments when the heroine they identify with is treated like a piece of meat.  The player must choose to see past that and embrace Bayonetta as a whole person or reject her as a whore.  Welcome to being a woman who tries to publicly accomplish anything hard.

But where is the line between developer agency and player agency?  This is where I come back to the triangle of agency.  The connection between the player and the developer is both through the game the developer creates, and the character the player controls within game.  Different types of games grant the player varying degrees of agency within a game world.

Unfortunately, the video game industry is both cliquish and obsessed with trends.  We don’t get two first person shooters in a cycle.  We get six.  We don’t get a couple open world or team based combat games.  We get a glut of them.  This is limiting the number of meaningful consumer choices in gaming.  The success of Grand Theft Auto, The Sims, and World of Warcraft can be attributed, in part, to how different those game franchises were when they launched.  Player agency isn’t just about what a player can do within a game.  It’s about those market choices.  Fresh experiences, and an industry that shows respect for consumer dollars.  Player agency isn’t serviced by making every game an open world game, or a shooter, or a graphics-heavy epic.  The industry can better respect player agency by giving players greater freedom of choice regarding the types of games available.

And, yes, some players like games featuring sexy women, based on the assumption that these women are choosing to dress that way, not forced to. Being forced to do something isn’t sexy for a mentally healthy person.  Some players, on the other hand, don’t want that, and it is possible to provide products for both camps.  But this solution comes from encouraging the products that you like, not attacking the stuff that you don’t.  Personally, I prefer the Saints Row games to the Grand Theft Auto games, but I don’t need the Grand Theft Auto games to change as long as I have an alternative.  No game is going to appeal to everyone, so these waves of outrage seem to me like a waste of time.

Attacking every game with a scantily-clad Amazon character isn’t going to create better games.  Nor does it help to dump on the creative process by denying the in-game agency of fictional women.  Talking to each other and setting examples of respect for others is the only healthy path forward.  In our discussion of representation and inclusion in games, it’s important to remember that developer agency, character agency, and player agency are all real, they all matter, and they all have to work together.

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Here we go again with video games and sexism…

Time magazine online published some sensational coverage of a study they claim “found that boys who played the games containing sexism and violence were more likely to identify with the character they were playing. They also reported less empathy toward the images of female victims.”

The study itself, however, came to notably different conclusions.  Their wording was “Our results supported the prediction that playing violent-sexist video games increases masculine beliefs, which occurred for male (but not female) participants who were highly identified with the game character. Masculine beliefs, in turn, negatively predicted empathic feelings for female violence victims. Overall, our study shows who is most affected by the exposure to sexist-violent video games, and why the effects occur.”

So it’s not that identifying with asshole video game characters causes a lack of empathy.  It’s that some games play to stereotypes, especially in critical times of adolescent development.  These stereotypes are what cause the harm in younger minds, not the act of playing a video game.

Which is precisely why Grand Theft Auto, one of the games used in the study, is rated M-Mature, and is not intended to be given to the 15 year olds that participated in this Italian study.

That’s right.  The study participants ranged in age from 15-20 years old, and only included 154 Italian students.  There was no control group to test whether games induced the lack of empathy found in the participants, and I think this is because the video game wasn’t what they were testing.  The video games were a red herring.  What the scientists were interested in was the identification with masculine traits.

The fact that this study took place in Italy is relevant.  Italy has a unique and stubborn sexism problem that goes well beyond offensive movies, TV shows, or video games.  Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio “bunga bunga” Berlusconi handed political careers to some of his multiple mistresses.  Furthermore, the Grand Theft Auto series is a stinging satire of American masculinity.  That sort of thing is filtered through a very different lens outside its intended audience.  Now, it’s undeniable that Grand Theft Auto is deliberately grotesque in many ways, which is why it’s unhelpful to do studies that expose youth below the recommended age to themes that they might not yet be ready for.

However, the great thing about the ESRB is that it’s a voluntary ratings guideline, so a parent of an exceptional kid can give that kid exceptional content.  My nephew was way ahead of the curve in many ways, so he started playing the M-rated Dragon Age series at thirteen.  I took no shortage of crap for that from extended family, but they complained about the gay sex in the game, not the violence or straight relationships, so I stand by my decision to encourage the kid to broaden his horizons.  If I can divert a kid away from bigotry of that sort, I’m damned well going to.  Buying armor from Wade and Herren isn’t going to hurt a kid, because guess what?  He lives in the Toronto area.  Chances are he’s already bought goods from a real world, living, breathing, gay person!

SHOCKER!

My nephew had an unusually high degree of empathy for a young man his age, and that’s why I determined he wouldn’t suffer unhealthy effects from adult video games.  This isn’t the case for the majority of boys: solid research indicates that boys are more likely to display a delay in developing cognitive empathy compared to girls, and they display a temporary decline in affective empathy between the ages of 13 and 16.  Cognitive empathy is the ability to see other people’s point of view, and it starts rising in girls at around 13.  Boys don’t see the increases until 15.  Affective empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings.  This is the type of empathy that drops in boys during adolescence, and scientists think this may have a biological component.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why this is so.  Some researchers claim it’s linked to the development of the prefrontal cortex, which plays host to cognitive empathy.  Others point to the limbic system, which houses affective emapthy.  But it gets even more complicated when you factor in that early childhood nurturing has been found to alter children on a physiological level.  Since we know that boys are socialized notably differently than girls, starting at a very young age, it’s impossible to completely separate nature from nurture on this issue.

Now this doesn’t mean that teenaged girls are inherently nicer than teenaged boys.  They’re just more aware they’re doing something hurtful when they’re mean.  Adolescent girls are capable of vicious, complex cruelty that leverages their increased awareness of other people’s emotions.  Why do you think teenaged girls gossip so bloody much?

Furthermore, that adolescent dip in affective empathy does go away in healthy male adults.  Interestingly, it’s this form of empathy that’s most impacted by early-life nurturing.  So it may not be that boys are “naturally” more monstrous than girls.  It could be that parents need to cuddle their baby boys and emotionally reassure them just as much as they do girls, then pay more attention to what their little princesses are doing as they get older instead of assuming they’re incapable of not being nice.

Any experiment that involves adults directly questioning a young person will result in the young person telling the adult what they think they want them to say. Therefore, boys will play to masculine stereotypes, while girls will play to feminine stereotypes.  In this experiment, the girls weren’t exposed to any stereotypical female protagonists.  I’d love to see how these girls would react after watching Legally Blonde, which is a satire of sorority femininity.  Hell, watching anything involving Lena Dunham makes me want to commit violence, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t watch and enjoy her work.

Either way, any experiment that gives fifteen year-olds access to Grand Theft Auto has to expect that will aggravate a pre-existing reduction in a male youth’s ability to recognize and respond to other people’s feelings.  I think that’s precisely why the researchers selected those games: they needed something that was a charismatic depiction of masculinity with very few redeeming characteristics that a teenager would find interesting.  It’s actually pretty hard to find that sort of thing in media.  But there was a fundamental flaw in the experiment in that regard that a game dev twitter friend of mine pointed out.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Vice City were the only games given to youth where the playable characters were visible on screen.  The Half-Life games feature a first person, silent protagonist.  And Dream Pinball 3D is a simulator with no main character at all.  So what characters could a kid relate to in any game BUT Grand Theft Auto?

A properly controlled experiment would have made sure all the games were third-person action games, if the element tested was, indeed, sexist game content.  It would have been more useful to see what happened when the students played Grand Theft Auto versus, say, Tomb Raider, or American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns.  Alice: Madness Returns would have been especially interesting to test, since the game features an abuse survivor as a protagonist.

As is, however, this study is comparing apples and oranges, unless the test is about exposure to masculine stereotypes, with no commentary on video games as a medium.

Either way, nothing is really learned about the unique impact video games have on sexist attitudes by giving young people content that isn’t age appropriate.  If anything, the study strengthens the evidence in favor of a voluntary ratings system like the ESRB, since girls under the age of 18 played these games with no apparent ill effects.  Why should they be barred from this content because many boys can’t handle it?

More importantly, child development experts stress that individuality trumps gender in determining the personality and sensitivities of a given kid.  Plenty of young men play Grand Theft Auto before they turn 18 and turn out okay.

It’s very frustrating that the entire video game catalogue is tarred in association with the Grand Theft Auto franchise.  It shows an ignorance of medium, and exposing kids below the recommended age to these games is more ignorant still.

The argument for more female protagonists in video games shouldn’t sprout from scare tactics and “think of the children” pearl clutching.  More female protagonists in video games are artistically and socially beneficial, just because increased variety is always good.  Furthermore, no amount of science will change the belief held by narrow-minded publishers that games with female protagonists won’t sell.  That’s the myth that needs to be dislodged for game developers to be able to tell more stories about women.

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