Agency in Solitary Play (Pt. 1)

Note: This was written as a research paper for a class that focused on new media and video games. Consider this a rough-draft for a larger paper I would like to write on the concept of agency and gameplay.

The existential individual lives in an algorithmic reality. She is governed by rules. The context of her life is defined by social and physical barriers. This individual is guided by roadways and stairways, standardized tests, career paths, and media streams, to name a few. People in her physical environment define her by her occupation, her purchases, her extra curricular activities; she is only empowered to seek happiness through extrinsic rewards. (1) For her, life is less about living, and more about owning; she is encouraged to purchase that which defines her. Her agency, her capacity to act in the world, is provided through consumerism; she is restricted to live within the images of others. These artifacts construct her identity; they codified her, the consumer, with recognizable images and meanings. (2) With them she seeks like-minded peoples and communities, and she is, in part, accepted by others because she is a familiar artifact herself. But this catches the individual in a paradox; how can she be an individual when she is like everyone else? At the risk of being an outcast, she becomes what others want her to be. She role-plays, and society allows little else. (3) In real life, the individual is left with little agency to adventure outside ideas of the preconceived self, and the very notions of discrimination and racism verify this truth. Counter to the individual’s pursuit of liberty, she cannot be whoever she wants to be. She can only become someone society is familiar with, or else risk rejection from that society. So, how does she reconcile her identity? Reading literature and watching cinema, as agential experiences, has long provided her with various narratives to explore different themes;

“A stirring narrative in any medium can be experienced as a virtual reality because our brains are programmed to tune into stories with an intensity that can obliterate the world around us… The experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place is pleasurable in itself, regardless of the fantasy content.” (4)

These mediums, however, are designed to be passive experiences; they are only a one-way transmission medium. (5) The level of immersion we derive from books and films is shallow, and they lack an interactive quality.  The individual cannot interact with characters on a screen or in a book, only observe. As a medium to explore identity, they fail to provide her with any real agency;

“The only necessary condition for experiencing ‘agency’ and interactivity is that our actions make a difference.” (6)

The only space that allows for such agency is virtual,

“Digital media, video games included, enable us — for the first time in history on such a scale — to manipulate our ‘selves’ and to multiply them indefinitely.” (7)

If reality is a depressing space, then this alternate reality is a play space. (8) A place the mind can wander under a cloak of anonymity. The existential individual can now escape from one game into another; virtual spaces and video games can provide alternate realities that allows greater freedom for her to explore aspects of identity and ideology that are difficult (if not impossible) to explore in real life.

Read Pt. 2 here.

(1) McGonigal, Jane. 2011. Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press, 47.

(2) Stearns, Peter N. 2001. Consumerism in world history: the global transformation of desire. London: Routledge.

(3) “Role-playing is one the [sic] social life’s basic elements, and is used in our everyday functioning.”
Miroslaw Filiciack, “Hyperidentities,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 92.

(4) Alison McMahan, “A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 68.

(5) Torben Grodal, “Stories for Eye, Ear, and Muscles: Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experiences,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 142.

(6) Grodal, “Stories for Eye, Ear, and Muscles: Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experiences,” 142- 143.

(7) Miroslaw Filiciack, “Hyperidentities,” 88.

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