The choice is a lie

Photo by ppdigital

There seems to be an opinion rolling around in the game community that games are about choice and about player agency, and that one core strength of games is their empowerment of audiences by putting the audience in control. This is nonsense. And it’s not true. And ultimately it is an illusion like a magician’s trick; you’re entertained  by the trick, but what you think is going on is not what’s really happening.

Let’s try an experiment. I’m going to present you with a game. I will give you some choices and I want you to pick one. Right from the start I’m going to tell you that I know exactly what you’ll pick. Here we go: I have a penny, a dime, a quarter, and a dollar coin. You can pick any one of these four and I’ll give it to you no strings attached. And don’t be a dick by refusing. Just play along, pretend this is really happening, and pick one. Keeping in mind that I already know what you’ll pick, which one do you pick? Penny, dime, quarter, or dollar coin? Keep it firmly in your memory and I’ll tell you what it was.

No, don't fall asleep sea lion! This is important.

Photo by hotblack

You chose: the penny, or the dime, or the quarter, or the dollar coin. No, I’m not being a snide jackass with that answer. I’m setting up my point. The majority of you picked one of those options and that’s exactly what I wanted you to choose. I didn’t give a damn about any of those things. What I actually cared about was that you wouldn’t pick “a blank check”, or “your credit card”, or “a night of sweet lovin’ and dirty words” and thanks to the way I structured my offer I am positive that almost none of you chose those options. By presenting a range of options for you to choose from I was able to ensure that a large majority of you would pick within that range and not pick an option outside that range. Some of you may have been very clever and said, “I’ll take all four! The dollar and all the coins!” Even then you’ve fallen into my trap because you’re still picking the things I want you to pick. I win.

If you refused to pick any of my options, refusing to play along, then you don’t count because you represent the people who choose not to play video games since the coin experiment is my allegory for player agency. For those that did pick, I bet when you made your choice you felt pretty free, like you were making a real decision, expect that I, the designer, was the one that made the choice for you. Games do the same thing. They present you with a range of options and you choose one and feel like you have agency even though your choices have essentially or literally been made for you.

Let’s get into some examples. Let’s say you’re playing a game, like Only Communicate Using Bullets, and you run into a room with a Nazi Brontosaurus and a Ninja Alien. You can choose to shoot the Alien first and the Brontosaurus second, or vice versa, but that’s not really choice. It’s not really agency although this kind of situation is often cited as an example of player agency in games. The fact that the dino and the space-monster are in that room to begin with is not your choice. The fact that you have to shoot them and cannot engage them in diplomatic dialogue regarding trade agreements or cultural exchange programs run through public schools is also not your choice. You have to shoot them. Unless you have grenades. Then you can blow them up or shoot them, but that choice is illusory as well. “Shoot or explode?” is a range of options that you aren’t going to stray from so you don’t have a meaningful choice.

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Similarly, after you kill the Nazi Brontosaurus and the Ninja Alien you can get to the next room through the hallway or through the sewers and it feels like a decision except that ultimately you end up in the same place either way. It’s like if a mob boss asks, “You wanna wear cement shoes or do you wanna eat lead?” Sure, you sort of have some free will in that scenario, but not really. You’re going to “sleep wid da fishes” one way or the other. And in fact the mob boss is giving you more agency than a video game. You can try to talk mob boss Raphaelo “the Game Developer” Morcinioni into letting you live, but a video game doesn’t give a shit if you want to talk peace with the Nazi Brontosaurus. You can’t talk a video game into letting you do something it doesn’t want to do, unless you exploit a glitch or hack it, but that’s straying from the point.

The choices you make in video games are real, but the scope of those choices and their consequences make the act of choosing essentially meaningless. That was true with my experiment with the coins. You were able to choose any of the four meaningless options that resulted in me being happy, and your agency as a player was an illusion. In an RPG video game, like A Time Period of Monsters, you might get the option to imprison the Cupcake Zombie or set him free and that may feel like “choice” except you can’t stray from those options. You can’t get the Cupcake Zombie to join your squad nor can you eat the Cupcake Zombie. Additionally, the result of your developer approved choice, a slight increase or decrease in your popularity among the Pastry Wraiths, changes almost nothing in the game. You feel like you have agency and that increases your enjoyment of the experience. Your enjoyment and your sense of freedom disguise the fact that you’re really just doing exactly what the developer wants you to do.

Video games give you as much freewill as Aunt Edna that time she tried to sacrifice you and your brother to Cthulhu.

Photo by kakisky

Video games are like a series of multiple choice questions where every choice either lets you go to the next question, or forces you to repeat the current question until you figure out the correct choice. Actual multiple choice tests have more agency than this. Answering a question wrong, or not at all, doesn’t result in you having to repeat it. Your choice, whether to answer a question or skip it or draw a penis monster, is what progresses the test. However, in video games it’s not your choices that progress the game it’s the designer’s. The designer decides which choices let you continue and which force you to start over. Even in open world games like Mason Carpenter in the Land of Infinite Resource it is the developer who chooses what combination of lumber and stone will create the building blocks for a house; your only choice is whether to play along. In any game the designer might be really nice and give you a lot of “correct” choices, multiple “choice paths”, or the designer might exclude any “wrong” choices so you never have to restart, but no matter how nice the designer is it’s all out of your control.

It seems to me that players have as much agency as a baby in a play pen full of toys. There are enough toys to keep you occupied so you don’t notice the limits of your world, which isn’t a bad thing in games. I like being occupied by fun activities like shaking a rattle and squeezing a squeaky squirrel plushy within the safe confines of an infant enclosure. The point though is not whether it’s good or bad. The point is that “having agency” is not a bragging point when it comes to video games. Agency is not something games really have and looking at games through the lens of “player agency is a core element” is a mistake.

In the overarching nature of of my coin experiment I knew exactly which coin you were going to pick even though “exactly” means “an exact range”. Your only real option was to play along or not at all. And if my coin experiment was a video game then if you refused to play along or if you refused to play by my rules then you wouldn’t be able to read the rest of this article. That’s not agency. Once you’ve agreed to play along there is no choice.


  1. Well this argument is interesting, it doesn’t really bring up any point that haven’t been mentioned a million times in arguments about general human agency and free-will. While it is certainly true that games do not at all conform to a radical existentialist argument regarding free will, its really because free will doesn’t act like that at all. Sure, we’re defined by the system, but we’re always defined by the system—your argument doesn’t work for video games unless it applies to all free will, and at that point, the argument doesn’t even matter (at least according to your heuristic of what matters). In games, we take ownership of our actions, and that whats important in terms of player agency, not that fact that we can’t actually do whatever we want to. What is important is that we choose and explore meaning on our own, find our own path, as part of a system, not that the system exists at all.

    The problem with all your examples is that they’re reductive hypotheticals—life doesn’t work as a series of reductive hypotheticals, in fact, it is its complexity and its specificity which really makes it interesting. Open world or sandbox games probably best put the lie to this sort of approach. Take, for example, Paradox Interactive’s Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun. This game employs an agent-based system to model a global economy in the Industrial Age, and with an agent-based system, the developers really have quite little say into how things actually end up happening or what sort of situations the player will actually encounter. I think its telling how the Dev’s never even managed to get the system to work right, revealing once again how illusitory developer control over final player experience really is.

    Also, the game is engaged in a circuit of co-production with the larger culture, which you dismiss in your hypotheticals, but which is integral to how the game is really played in practice. Modding comes part and parcel with all Paradox titles, as was the case with Victoria, and frankly, most of them would be rather unplayable without them. Most Paradox fans wouldn’t be paradox fans at all without projects like the Victoria Rebuild and Rebalance Project or Magna Mundi for Europa Unversialis. Games, just like other texts, don’t exists as some sort of isolated objects, but as part of a constantly shifting cultural nexus.

    It’s also worth pointing out that plays have the power to re-purpose games to there own end. To use an example from my own life, when I was young I used to take all the figures out of complex Avalon-Hill games and play army men with them—certainly not according to the original intent of there design. Frankly, I just think this sort of approach is deeply unproductive, and the only place it leads to is the endless death-loop of bad arguments about the nature of free action (which I definitely don’t ever want to get into again).

    • My point though is that we don’t actually “find our own path”, we find one of the developer’s paths. The player doesn’t create anything; the player only reveals the creations of the developer.

      Weirdly enough my examples, at least the examples of situations in games, are not hypothetical. Every one is an actual thing that actually happens in multiple games. Also, babies playing in playpens is also not hypothetical; they exist.

      Maybe it’s true that the “the [Paradox] developers really have quite little say into how things actually end up happening” if you completely ignore the fact they have complete control of all the game’s code and structure. Once you ignore all that it still leaves the fact the developers control is real; they are the ones who decide what state the game is in when it’s released. If they never managed to get the system right and decided to release it without working on it some more then that’s still the developer’s choice.

      I’m not sure what you mean with your “circuit of co-production with the larger culture” statement. If you’re talking about modding then I’m not sure what it has to do with anything that I was talking about in my article.

      And lastly, your toy soldiers example is not an example of a player having the power to repurpose a game. You didn’t repurpose the game, you repurposed objects that are normally associated with a game. It’s like if you took a soccer ball and used it as a basketball; you’re not repurposing the game of soccer, you’re repurposing an object, the ball, which is associated with the game.

      • “My point though is that we don’t actually “find our own path”, we find one of the developer’s paths. The player doesn’t create anything; the player only reveals the creations of the developer.”

        And my point in response to that was that 1) that’s what constitutes agency, the act of finding a path. It doesn’t really matter in the end that it isn’t our own, because it’s never really just our own. And 2) that there is, in actual circumstances, there is much less control over player experience by the developers than you imply, weather it be through the unpredictably of game engines, player’s directly altering the game, or through re-purposing of the game object. You’ve made a good point about the limits of the game system, and I concede that the way agency its often talked about can be very misleading, but I think its worth articulating that there are other ways of thinking about these things.

        • I don’t see how finding a path constitutes agency, but let’s mosey on past that.

          You mention players directly altering the game (by which I think you mean modding) or re-purposing the game object, but I don’t think those are examples of a lack of developer control over their game. It would be like if a group of friends used a book to play frisbee; they’ve repurposed the literary object but that doesn’t mean that the author has less control of his writing.

          • “I don’t see how finding a path constitutes agency, but let’s mosey on past that.”

            Exactly, which is why I called this as a disagreement about the nature of free will, and not really about games at all–its not about finding a path, its about choosing it. Also, games aren’t books, that’s sort of why were even bothering having this discussion about agency at all, and the author is dead. We’ve said our respective pieces, though, I believe, and can’t take this any further without going into deeply unproductive territory–there are deep divides here that run through not only philosophy, but of Theory as well, that will never be bridged in any internet comments thread.

          • Games and books are both cultural artifacts and both are mediums of entertainment, so they have certain fundamental commonalities that allow them to be analogous.

  2. Casey

    But what if we could /TALK/ to the monsters?

    Seriously though, excellent points. So hard for games to actually escape this trap into actual freedom. I can’t even envision a game that DOES give you real choice. Maybe Facadé, but that’s still… yeah, I dunno!

    • If we could talk to the monsters then that would be one of the greatest games ever, it would be set in a intergalactic lobster-man bar, it would probably be called “Cantina Conversations with Crustacean Libations”, and I would play it everyday.

  3. Frank

    Gotta say, I disagree. Because, you know, I chose “Blank Check”, then modded it into my game. So yeah.

    Seriously, this is an enormously limited way of looking at gaming. People have been hacking, modding, and reinterpreting games since they first came out. Look at Half Life 2 and the enormous variety of source engine mods. Heck, look at Gary’s Mod.

    The first “Zombie” FPS mods were entirely run on player rules. Players agreed that if you died you’d switch to the ‘zombie’ team and only use melee weapons. There was no external rule structure, just players agreeing to play the game in a different way. There are certainly games where playing in unintended ways is more difficult, but there are just as many games where the ‘rules’ are more of a set of guidelines, and frequently broken.

    • You’re not actually disagreeing with me. As you say, you’d choose ‘blank check’ and mod it into YOUR game. Not my game. My game remains intact and unaffected by your decisions. To gain real agency you had to stop playing my game and create something yourself using my game as a basis. I mean it’s like if you write a page of prose and stick it into Moby Dick; you haven’t changed the story of Moby Dick, you’ve just added a physical page to a physical book to essentially create something new.

      That’s the nature of all modders. They are designers who are using another game as the foundation for their creative efforts. That doesn’t mean they created new choices in the original game though.

  4. Just because you will never be able to everything you want in games doesn’t make the choices you do make meaningless. Even if everything comes down to a win and loss condition, it is within our framework that we “play” with the rules by making choices that will determine whether we hit the win/loss condition.

    And of course player’s are limited by what designers want! Every time a designer wants a player to be able to do something (s)he has to code it! If anyone is looking for unlimited choice then they should not be playing videogames!

    I have to agree with J. Marshak, this is a limiting way to think about videogames. Choices are never “meaningless” and without frameworks, games wouldn’t exist in the first place.

  5. LuisM

    Perhaps games shouldn’t identify themselves as bastions of choice and freedom, but I think that’s as far as you can take your argument (which, upon rereading is all you really wanted to say). If game A was considered more of a ‘game’ than game B because it allowed the writing of blank checks then that would imply there is some supergame whose choices include those of all other games. If a game were only praised in its ability to provide choice, then eventually all games would be the same: open world sandboxes with limitless possibilities. Thus, I’d say what makes the game is its limitations (and concessions) that guide the player with elegance and subtlety, allowing the illusion of freedom. So, IMO games are still defined by choice, but less is sometimes more.

    On another note, I find these musings to be productive in distilling the truth behind instinctual game design decisions. You talk about the illusion of choice. In a certain way, posing the question limits the player’s expectations on possible actions. From another perspective, however, if we allow as many actions as the player can come up with then we probably achieve the same illusion. We don’t always need to smack the player in the face with the limitations of the system in order for them to play along. That may or may not influence a game’s accessibility: for instance, veteran gamers are apt to relinquish total control and play within bounds; however, others might be fazed by why some option is not available.

    And that’s all I had to say (not really criticism, just thinking out loud I guess…)

    • LuisM I like the way you think and I like the cut of your jib. The idea that games might be defined by their limitations is an interesting one. I’ll have to think more about it.

      And your first sentence is correct. That is all I really wanted to say.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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  7. I’d be interested to know what you think a truly free choice looks like in the real world. If a cop pulls me over and starts introducing my balls to his sniffer dog, there are many things I can try and fail to do, but I don’t even have the option to try and fly away , ‘charm’ the dog, or turn into a cloud of bats and make my cackling escape. Unless you’re a quantum woo-believer after the fashion of What The Bleep Do We Know, the difference between game agency and meatspace agency is one of degree, not of type.

    Moreover, it seems perverse to claim there is no qualitative difference between a game which allows me two ways to tackle a situation and a game which allows me ten.

    In most contexts, you will eventually face consequences for what you write in a multiple choice test. Perhaps you’ll get a high grade and get into a good university, or perhaps you’ll fail, turn to alcohol and masturbation, and die in the ditch next to Paul Dacre’s. Perhaps your teacher will merely ask you to retake it. Either way, there will be consequences, and they will be limited by the options available from the academic institution giving the test. The difference between a multiple choice test and a videogame is that the videogame automates those consequences and provides an engine which brings them to life on an immediate basis.

    J. Marshak is also right that you give too much credence to developers. Developers are not totally in control of their work or its emergent properties because they have incomplete knowledge of these things; I have strong doubts that, as you put in your response, they ever have “complete control of all the game’s code and structure”. Coding can be a pretty inexact science and developers spend weeks trying to deal with the knock-on effects of fixes and patches they thought would be simple. In the development of a troubled game, a persistent tendency to generate these effects and a failure to solve them can lead to the design being forced to change.

    Accordingl, your article’s biggest problem is that videogames often allow for behaviour unanticipated by the developers in a way your small change game does not. Rather than giving gamers binary ‘choices’, developers instead choose to model systems like physics and location. When these systems combine, or interact with each other, they can reveal strategies or exploits that could not have been predicted. Deus Ex and Half-Life both players to climb walls using sticky bombs because the bombs work as physical objects or ledges for the purposes of their physics systems. Likewise, during the development of Half-Life 2, Valve were genuinely surprised when, having put a car in their game, and physics in their game, and applied physics to the car, players started using it to run over the Combine. They had no idea that was going to happen. Speedrunners do things with games the developers never thought possible. Online gamers find exploits that developers can only wish they’d been able to stop. Half-Life 2 players manage to fly by looking down and jumping while holding flat objects. This is the equivalent of you offering me a choice of change and me revealing to you that I already have it in my pocket – and they do not require ‘hacking’ or ‘modding’ but instead arise purely out of the rules themselves. In short, the choices that make up a videogame can be so complex and so twisted that even those presenting them have no idea of their implications.

    • I get what you’re saying in your first paragraph. Since we can’t just do anything in real life, since we’re limited by physical reality, how does this differ from games. In real life, true, you can’t charm the dog or fly away. You can charm the police officer, talk to him, try to run away, or attack him with an axe. And all those options are available to you with any living person you come across, as long as you are physically able. Hell, those options are even available if you run into a tree; you can talk to the tree, try and run away from it, or attack it with an axe. However, in games, restrictions are not inherent. They are created at the designer’s discretion. Some people you can talk to but cannot attack; some people you can attack but not talk to; some objects can be moved or destroyed, and other objects are immobile and invincible; some lockers open to reveal items and some are just props. The very physical reality changes based on what’s convenient for the designer. Moments where you go, “Wait I can blow up this metal door, but not that wooden door I saw earlier??” those are moments where you really see how little agency players have and how much control developers wield.

      That’s the thing. Game developers do have complete control of their game’s code. A human being has to write every single line of code; that code doesn’t appear out of nowhere. (By the way, Valve was genuinely surprised when people used a car to run over enemies? Really?? How could they not see that coming? People have been running over things with cars ever since cars were horse drawn chariots.)

      I feel like some of this disagreement just comes from a misunderstanding. When we “play a game” there are two things we are doing simultaneously: we are physically interacting with physical or virtual-physical objects, and we are mentally interacting with rules and systems. Most of what I’m talking about in my article is the mental-conceptual part of games while I think most of the disagreements are referring to the physical part of games. I might have to write an article talking about the difference between the two and the fact that everything, games, books, reality, all have the same level of agency in regards to the physical aspect of interacting with something.

      • I’m broadly on board with the idea that other forms of media are more ‘interactive’ than we give them credit for – though players have a common intuition that the interactivity of videogames and the interactivity of (say) books is somehow different. While this is an intuition we don’t quite know how to account for, it is also one that should give us pause.

        Your first paragraph says more about conventions in game design than the fundamentals of the videogame. Sometimes developers are inconsistent in the rules they create, but not always. It is quite possible to write videogame rules that function similarly to the ‘laws of physics’, and it is equally possible that these rules produce emergent consequences and phenomena not inherent in any single one of them, i.e. they function like the universe. See the way players have managed to build functioning computers in both Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress. Beyond this, you seem to be arguing that game agency is an illusion (where meat agency is real) because games are the the product of intention and design – but when you consider how easy it is for game systems to have unintentional consequences, that seems problematic.

        (as for Valve, what can I say? It was in an interview I read before the release of HL2 and they’re not known as the kind of developer who lies or exaggerates for publicity!)

        Yes, someone has to write every line of code, but that’s like saying that generals have “complete control” of a war just because someone has to wield and fire every weapon. Perhaps technically developers can determine to a perfect degree what results from their code. In reality, developers very rarely have perfect knowledge of the complex programs that constitute a videogame and for that reason very frequently find themselves offering choices they didn’t mean to. If there were no unintended consequences, if complete control existed, neither playtesting nor bugfixing would be necessary. But they are, and players manage to completely subvert player intention on a regular basis. We’re not just talking about small patchable exploits here but completely bizarre shit. Again, I don’t think you could viably be smug about the limits of the choice you offered me if I somehow managed to take a hundred-dollar bill out from behind your ear.

        Despite all this, one thing I think we should all take away from your article is that ‘player choice’ does not deprive developers of the capacity to enforce authorial intention. Remember when Ebert said a game of Romeo and Juliet couldn’t be art because hey, you could just choose not to commit suicide?

        • Just a note: I don’t believe I ever said agency in the real world was real; I just said it was different from agency in games. If I did make claims about whether or not real world agency was an illusion I’d have to spend an entire book, or even several books, discussing this idea while citing research done in sociology, psychology, neurology, and behavioral economics. Which is totally something I could do; I just don’t feel like it.

          Also, if you pulled a hundred dollar bill from behind my ear I’d call you a thief, kick you in the shins, and take back my hundred dollars.

  8. Agency always exists within constraints. Recognizing and accepting that is a part of adulthood; yelling and screaming about how a situation that constrains your identity “JUST ISN’T FAIR!” doesn’t change the existence or nature of the constraints, and neither do the constraints erase the agency that you DO have.

    Given that, I’m not seeing the issue here. Yes, designers constrain agency. But everything constrains agency. What matters is what people do with the agency within those constraints. The people who choose the penny are going to be very different than the people who choose the dollar coin, and there’s a lot of interesting things to be gleaned from that choice. In fact, by forcing them to make a choice, you may elicit more than you would if you hadn’t done anything at all, simply because the agent in question is in a situation where they’re confronted with a choice in the first place.

    And, yeah, if you get back to Salen/Zimmermann, then the whole thing becomes somewhat academic. As you granted, games are all ABOUT limiting choice. That’s the foundation of the whole “magic circle” concept. When you play Chess, you’re deliberately choosing to obey the rules of the game, instead of simply grabbing the opponent’s king and yelling “HAH! I WIN!” Same deal when you play Skyrim; you’re accepting everything from the input scheme to the character statistics to the odd idea that you can shout dragons into submission.

    It doesn’t have anything to do with “video” games. It’s what a game is. What makes the game interesting, and what makes LIFE interesting, is how and why players employ their constrained agency.

  9. Lots of games are like you describe, but games can move apart from that. There are games where you could choose to be the heroe or the foe. Designers can choose to give players proper choices, as well as the can choose not to give them.

  10. One possible counterargument to this is that real life has the same limits to a different degree of magnitude. This gets on the subject of “free will” very quickly, but I think the important difference is that degree of magnitude. There is a vast difference between a single-cell organism and, say, a member of homo sapiens. Yet homo sapiens are still made of cells. The issue with player agency, from this perspective, is an argument of degree. Which requires a designer to understand they’re not even crafting the innards of a single-cell organism. You could even extend the argument to an analogue of the abortion debate: at which point is a player’s agency in a virtual space sufficient enough to count as legitimate? Whatever that point is, we’re not even close to reaching it.