Choice vs Agency – How a WoW post applies to a sans-WoW player

It’s funny, I was leaning toward writing a post about all the overtime I am and will be working in the near future and the already palpable way this affects my overall ability to function. Then I found something to focus on and think about, a new concept to explore and a new way to view my gaming experiences. I thrive on that stuff.

It’s also on the reddit, written by user sindeloke:

Choice vs Agency and why making azerite traits “better” isn’t enough

I’m not going to reproduce it here in it’s entirety, but highly suggest you read through it. I will reproduce the definition bits though:

To start with some simple definitions – choice, in this context anyway, is when you have two or more options that are a) meaningfully different, b) mutually exclusive, and c) basically equal in value once all their pros and cons have been accounted for. For example, “do I want to level in Eastern Kingdoms, or Kalimdor” is a choice – you can’t do both at once, you get a different story in the different zones, but in the end neither is objectively better or worse than the other.


What’s agency? Agency is when a player can make a decision about what they want to see happen to their character, take a concrete action in-game, and immediately see a tangible result from that action that matches their intent. For example, you want to get a different set of shoulders that matches your current transmog. You look at the transmog interface and see a pair that looks good to you, and that it’s a reward from a quest in Sholazar Basin. You travel back to Sholazar, start the quest chain, get the shoulders, and now your character looks the way you wanted it to, and you feel good about yourself. This is agency, and it’s the single most important thing in a video game. It’s what makes games escapist – they give us the power to control things and get predictable desired outcomes in ways we can’t in real life.

Now, I can think of several handy examples of both of these that are outside the context of WoW that this article has. In Guild Wars 2, the zone you choose to do content in is a choice. In Elite: Dangerous, the system(s) you live or operate in, if any, are a choice. This feels a little strained in areas like Warframe. I personally feel that, for the most part frame and weapon usage are a choice, but that objectively better bit is debatable.

That’s with all games though. At the end of the day, a maximally optimized build is going to feature little to no choice. It’s a mathematical number game and for any given class there will be a mathematically superior build; For any given role there will be a mathematically superior class. That’s the nature of optimization. That doesn’t mean you have to do that though, is the point. As long as most builds of most classes are roughly comparable in their ability to complete content, they’re reasonably balanced.

Agency is the big one though, like sindeloke said in his post. Nothing is more frustrating than feeling like you can’t do the thing you want to do. A lot of the classes I have liked in Guild Wars 2 were because I saw a way to build it, I built it, and it did what I wanted it to do. It’s about goals and tangible progress. That’s one place I tend to run into issues. For any given game the ability to save and quit or log out and feel like I’m closer to whatever goal I’m chasing than I was when I loaded it or logged in is important. Some part of some games obviously don’t really provide that.

For Guild Wars 2 inventory management is a good example. It’s a constant ongoing game of moving/managing things to ensure you have a functional amount of space. It doesn’t really contribute to my personal feeling of having actually done something. If I log in, do inventory management, and log out, that wouldn’t do much. That’s specific to my tastes though, some people would feel much better about that than I do.

So, after my What Is – Elite Dangerous post the other day I had a few back and forth comments with a more experienced player that got me wanting to do some more exploration. My goal was to log in and at least upgrade a couple of modules to help me do so. That’s exactly what I did. That’s all I did, but I felt great about having done it. That’s the exact agency being talked about here. I had a goal and some specific tangle steps towards it and went and did them.

For a minute I wasn’t sure about something like, say, XCOM. I was thinking that it’s awful random on the small scale and that’s not really predictable or controlled is it? But that’s because I was thinking of combat mechanics as the game and that’s not right. The game is about strategy. About setting the big goals, complete this research, occupy this territory, long term decisions that play out over long periods of time. It also has a smaller scale, kill that specific alien, which requires you to make a series of moves that, with strategy and some luck, yields the desired results.

This idea of choice defined as “objectively better” is driving me crazy though. Some amount of randomness is required and that means it’s often difficult to impossible to know which choice will have the “objectively better” result. If you really reduce it down to numbers I’m sure someone would be able to make a case for either of them being objectively better than the other because it’s hard the remove the subjective experience and goals from anything.

I need some more time to stew on this, I think. I’ve got a related idea about Dark Souls’ “difficulty” bouncing around in my head and I haven’t nailed down how much it relates to this just yet. Besides, my usage of quotes there expresses a pretty strong opinion on it’s own.

I’m gonna wander off and stew in my own brain juices for a while. The ones that aren’t asleep anyway.

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