August 6, 2003

Interaction and Agency

by Michael Mateas · , 1:36 pm

I just played Dead Reckoning, the interactive fiction (IF) Nick recently translated. Playing this IF reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, the relationship between interaction and agency. Before continuing, let me provide a preliminary definition of these terms in the context of new media. By “interaction” I mean the act of physically manipulating an input device (e.g. wiggling a mouse, moving in front of a camera, etc.) and eliciting a response (e.g. an image changes on a screen, motors turn on and off, etc.). Interaction is an abstract concept, saying nothing about the character of the relationship between input and elicited response, just that there is some relationship between them. Agency is a phenomenal category, describing what it feels like as a player/interactor to be empowered to take whatever actions you want and get a sensible response. That is, an experience is productive of a sense of agency if it supports the interactor in forming intentions (based on what’s happening, the interactor can think of something they want to do), taking action with respect to these intentions (there is a way to express the action the interactor wants to take), and interpreting the response in terms of the intention (the system’s response makes sense with respect to the intention). Given these definitions, the question that interests me is whether the sole function of interaction is to produce a sense of agency, or whether interaction can yield other, equally interesting phenomenal experiences.

Some of the previous posts on GTxA have held the position that agency is king, that indeed the design effort in building an interactive experience should be directed towards maximizing agency. For instance, in I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, Andrew describes his dissatisfaction with current interactive story forms precisely because current forms fail to provide a strong sense of agency. If it is indeed true that agency is the only phenomenal category produced by interaction, then it follows that every interactive experience could be laid on a one-dimensional axis, judged by how well or poorly it generates a sense of agency. Playing Dead Reckoning reminded me of other functions of interactivity besides the production of agency. Like most IFs, Dead Reckoning disrupts agency. At any given moment during the experience, only a small subset of all the possible actions (verbs) produce a meaningful response; the rest produce a response letting you know that the action is currently not a useful action to take. In fact, part of the craft of authoring IF is authoring the huge number of “you can’t do that” messages such that they stay fresh, are entertaining, and potentially provide hints towards what actions are currently profitable. This property of having a large number of verbs of which a small subset is active at any moment is disruptive of agency in that many of the intentions a player can form are blocked; the IF world supports the formation of intentions without supporting the resulting actions. Yet I find IF enjoyable to play and aesthetically interesting. So, interaction must be inducing some other phenomenal experience than the feeling of agency. And this experience is rooted in the solving of puzzles, which in Twisty Little Passages Nick links to the literary form of the riddle. While Nick focuses on the formal qualities of puzzles/riddles, here I’m interested in their phenomenal qualities, what solving a puzzle/riddle feels like. In solving a puzzle the player is figuring out the logical structure of the IF (recapitulating the author’s view of the IF), problem-solving (and experiencing a sense of mastery at solving the problem), in literary IF experiencing a transformation of their understanding of the world (Nick describes this as the function of the riddle as a literary form – through its solution to offer a transformed vision of reality), and in story-based IF resolving the tension of what happens next in the story. While this list doesn’t exhaust the phenomenal functions of the puzzle/riddle, it is enough to reveal that these experiences are different from agency; interaction is generating different phenomenal/aesthetic experiences. IF certainly offers some agency (more than hypertext, for instance, which is even more removed from a concern with agency), but its strength is in its exploration of the phenomenal qualities of the puzzle. It is interesting to consider what other phenomenal qualities interaction may generate in other new media forms.