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Video games trick you into thinking you're in control, and that's bad

I can give you control of this story by simply writing five words: A man enters a room.

Instantly your mind is racing, giving substance to that room, life to that man. Perhaps it's a wood paneled room with plush velvet carpeting and a roaring fireplace, or it's bitterly cold in a castle keep, or the room is sheets of riveted steel, soulless, lost deep in space. The man is 20. No, he's 90. He's missing a leg. He's blind. He's wearing a tux.

But drop into the digital skin of that man, a specific soldier in a battle standing in a forest in Call of Duty: Ghosts, and that sense of control is gone, gone despite the very real control you have over him with a gamepad.

You see, video games expect a lot of you, but deliver very little actual agency in return.

In fact, without you at the gamepad many of them cease to function properly.

Imagine playing through the story of the latest Battlefield and instead of walking down that alley, kicking in that door, shooting those bad guys, you just stood there.

What would happen?

Usually very little.

What if you turned around, put down your weapon and refused to fight on moral grounds?

You can't. You can't even walk away. Eventually, in most games, you'll hit a wall, visible or invisible.

Despite their interactivity, video games don't really give much meaningful control to gamers. And as long as that is true, gamers may be stuck playing through an endless parade of exciting, but shallow, sequels. It would be a neverending summer of blockbuster hits with no Citizen Kane.

It all comes down to agency.

Currently, agency, the ability to be able to shape the world around you, is often an illusion in gaming. True agency is so elusive in video games, that even books seem to offer more of it to its readers.

Peter Mendelsund is the author of What We See When We Read, a book that explores how people imagine and remember the things they read. He says that sentence describing simply a man and his room offers an openness that gives agency to readers.


Mendelsund believes that books offer agency because they leave so much, much more than people realize, open to the reader to interpret and contextualize.

"An author has some control over what we do and think as we're reading," he said. "But it's not as firm a control as you think."

In his book, Mendelsund talks about how rarely authors minutely describe their characters, even their main characters like Leo Tolstoy's eponymous Anna Karenina or Moby-Dick's Ishmael.

"Who knows if Melville was thinking what Ishmael looked like when he wrote Moby-Dick," he said. "Maybe in his heart of hearts it was him. I don't think he thought about how big his nose was or where are his ears or what color are his eyes. Structurally, it's more important how they interact with other characters, how the characters are going to be a piece of the narrative."

Mendelsund's fascination with how characters look in books comes from his job at book publisher Knopf where he is an assistant art director. He spends his time trying to condense a book's essence, or sometimes characters, into a cover image.

Taking the things you read and making them concrete on the jacket of a book is Medelsund's everyday job, he said. One day it occurred to him that the process wasn't as easy as he thought. So he started to examine it.

What he found is that while people have a sense of a character in their mind as they read, they often don't have a specific image of that character. For instance, he writes, they likely couldn't describe that character to a police sketch artist. And even those that could would likely come up with different descriptions.

He found that for many people that level of reader agency extended past simply the way characters look to settings and other attributes of a book.

"A friend told me that when he was a kid whenever he read a classic novel he would set it in the house of his great aunt in the suburbs of Albany," he said. "I realized that I was doing the same thing, recasting and resetting of those great works of fiction with the only reference I had as a kid. So I used a high school gym instead of a czarist Russian ballroom."

"I used a high school gym instead of a czarist Russian ballroom."

That ability to fill in the holes of a fictional journey with your imagination doesn't exist very often in video games because so little is left without description. Not only is everything shown in a game, it's becoming increasingly realistic, approaching photorealistic. So in that sense, games are becoming closer to movies you control than books you play through.

Even that direct control granted to video game players, while literally control, isn't truly agency, some believe. Ian Bogost, video game designer, critic and researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology, says that people tend to downplay or eliminate the discussion of philosophical agency in games for what he describes as operational agency, or "the act of playing the game, of getting better at it or scoring more points or progressing through it's missions.

"But we'd never talk about the mere act of turning the pages of a novel as ‘agency,' that's just what it means to read," he said.

The idea of free will, true free will, in a game is so powerful that even toying with the concept has produced some of the greatest works in gaming. Titles like BioShock and The Stanley Parable both use the game's narrative to question free will.

"They're toying with the idea of the act of playing the game and becoming complicit in its directives," Bogost said.

But Bogost dismisses those efforts as cheap tricks, the video game version of an M. Night Shyamalan twist in a movie. While both titles point to the issue of agency in games, neither game really delivers it to players.

"It shows that there really is no agency," he said. "Which makes you wonder: What next then?"

Which brings us back to books.

"We are performing the book."

French literary theorist Roland Barthes breaks literature down into two types: Readerly, which are straightforward stories that expect very little of the reader, and Writerly, which expects the reader to help create meaning in the story they read. Think Hemingway versus James Joyce.

In his book, Mendelsund described reading as a performance created by both author and reader.

"When we think about reading a book we think about attending a performance of a book, sitting in an audience and the thing unfolds," he said. "We are performing the book. When we read, there are lots of gaps in our reading, even if you're a good reader you're going to miss points. But we imagine the story as a smooth, forward-facing narrative. We make the experience whole."

And increasingly in video games, developers are talking about how games are not simply a canned experience, the same for every gamer, but that it's the gamer that helps give the game meaning, different for each gamer.

So when games like BioShock have people asking what could come next, the answer might be, Bogost says, to make games more literary.

"That means more ambiguous and writerly," he said. "More daring in their willingness not to fill in all of the blanks."

Journey, for instance, is almost purely a writerly game until the very end

There are games already testing those lines between readerly and writerly.

The payoff could help push gaming meaningfully forward in a way that better graphics and faster processors simply can't.

To create an experience that challenges a player, not simply through dexterity and reaction time, but in how they interpret gameplay and extract meaning, would also deliver a much needed leap of innovation to interactive entertainment.

This lack of literary games doesn't seem driven by developers unwillingness to create things that are more artful than twitchy. Thatgamecompany's Journey, for instance, is almost purely a writerly game until the very end.

Bogost points out that it wasn't just a high concept, literary game, it was one that sold well and received plenty of awards.

Something that you'd think would spur more literary games.

"But what do we get?" he said. "We get another Assassin's Creed."

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.