Agency and the Free Will debate

By Justin Parsler

Interesting and pretty simple to understand point on agency without a lot of need to know philosophy.


Caveat – Philosophy has been going for thousands of years, so not going to detail that, and that not going to give a grand unified theory of agency.

Two slightly separate things for agency – the first not gone into detail, but the second being the fact of agency.

If something has agency, it is an agent. This agency is the power to “control and determine the meanings the pleasures they experience”. Lots of places use agents, not agency – and lots of different meanings. Actor network theory for instance. AI Programmer of agency would be quite different too.

In Libertarian Incompatabilism basically a human is the only one that can cause an event not affected by other events.

Now with an empty server, a WoW server for instance, everything is predetermined and predictable – you might be able to say some things are random, but they are not intentionally caused.

There is when a player is there a cause and effect seemingly comes from the player. You can generally see the big difference. Everything that happens is caused by the players. Everything else is random or predetermined.

This doesn’t answer the whole question – moving onto cause and effect.

So, when you are driving in a racing game, you might not be able to turn left but can’t because; I have a broken finger, my car is damaged.

We want to ignore the broken finger here – the player himself is not the point of the research. Interested in the car being broken. We are not forgetting the finger entirely – it has importance, just isn’t the point.

A cause might only allow an agent to do one thing. A cutscene for instance. “Press A text” scrolling text. That is something the player perceives as something they are doing – but there is no choice, so no agency.

There are also non-choices – certain parts of RPG’s have a choice to take a quest or not take a quest. Basically the same choice to play the game or not play the game. The answer is almost always yes.

Some ones are specifically hidden – Sim City games force the players to build industry, or get stiff penalties. Some freedom but it is incredibly challenging to get by that.

Getting to equal choices – meaning getting into causes. Not enough time to talk about them now much, but forking paths – not infinite choices, making a choice leads to other potential choices. Defines agency since although only an individual choice, down the line the choice has substantially changed the path the agent is on.

You can’t put an infinite amount of choice in a game however (even RTS games are limited if they at first appear unlimited), however, so it is not strong agency.

Most games have a line of divergent paths – one line, but some links off it to secondary choices (which are many games). Some less linear games have a trellis of choices, with a set end. A one minute bejewled game for instance is this. Can say it is not strong agency, not deep and meaningful, but it is agency.

By analysing the game you can see if there is agency in that specific game. There may not be an unlimited amount of choices, but there is agency.


Q (Ian Bogost) – Do you want to make a distinction between the agent that is the player outside the game or the player inside the game? Or to say is the player a rational being in the philosophical way?

The way I’ve framed it there is no difference. I don’t think the difference makes a difference, understanding the games as artefacts.

Q – Is agency a litmus test for a game. If you are given no agency is it a game?

If you are given absolutely no agency which is very difficult, you are basically watching a film.

Q (follow up) if there are moments when you have agency, and moments you don’t, which parts are the game?

Will have to start defining “game” which I am not doing, while you can do (laughter).

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