Wednesday, April 22, 2015

What is Agency?

In this article, independent developer Gabby Taylor stresses the importance of player agency.

It’s human nature to want to make an impact, to matter, to leave your mark on the world you will someday leave behind. For most of us, however, any or all of these can only be accomplished in a digital world. That leaves us, as game developers, to create that world as best we can. This involves the usual fare of suspending disbelief, making the macho characters we all wish we could be, and a catchy narrative. Right? … Right?

Nope.

We tend to underestimate a little something called ‘agency’, which is the actual ability to make decisions. Without that, we just exist on rails and it may as well be an interactive movie. We can have the sexiest/most macho character ever take down hundreds of evil dragons and solve all the world’s problems, but it won’t feel like we did anything without the ability to make the decision to perform each action, which is the whole point. I mean, sure, it’ll be pretty badass, but there will still be the unmet need to make an impact, or to matter, even if it is only briefly.

So, how do we give players sufficient agency? There are two main components: decision and consequence, both of which are created within the plot and overall design of a game. While the idea of decisions and appropriate consequences may be simple, they have a huge impact. Let’s go through an example:

Without Agency: NPC runs up screaming about a dragon attacking the poor, helpless village. You run in and slay the dragon, using up all your supplies just to stay alive. You may or may not be rewarded proportionately, or at all, and your efforts may or may not even be acknowledged by the local or general populace. You move on to the next thing.

With Agency: NPC runs up screaming about a dragon attacking the poor, helpless village. You could run in and slay the dragon, even knowing that it’s really dangerous and you have limited supplies to extend your life, and when it’s over be showered in praise, gratitude, and rewards (or just given more quests to help clean this mess up). You could choose to sneak throughout the village and plunder it for all it’s worth and have more supplies but far more negative future interactions with anyone who happened to catch a glimpse of you (and survived). You could choose to run the same direction as the NPC, and let the village burn (or not, you never know). You could choose to give the village a wide berth and continue on your way and the fleeing NPC will hate you forever and people will mourn the loss of an entire village and how was no one there to stop this calamity (you don’t happen to know anything about that, do you??).

Either way you could join in an epic battle to save villagers from a big, mean dragon, and you might be rewarded. Both ways of going about this are fun, without a doubt. With agency, however, there is a lot more of the player allowed in the game. His or her personality can shine through, allowing him or her to be more immersed in the experience and fulfill their need to make an impact, be it to good or bad effect. When it comes down to it, that’s all a player character really is: an empty vessel waiting to be filled with what makes the player who they are. The more we allow for that, as opposed to crowding out the player with our narrative, the more the player can walk away satisfied that they did something, that they mattered, and maybe have the confidence they previously lacked to meet their potential for impacting the real world around them.

Gabby Taylor is a game designer, writer, and artist for indie studio GreyK├╝b. She began doing art for games in 2010, and expanded to design and writing in 2012. Since then, she’s been part of several games on the market and is currently working on a few mods and another game called Avalon. When she’s not developing games, Gabby spends her time woodworking, working on cars and motorcycles, and spreading her love of game development.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

IGDA Webinar: Interactive Fiction - An AI Based Overview

In this video, writer Emily Short reviews different ways to provide player choice in interactive fiction and how AI can be part of this process.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Color-Coded Pink and Blue

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the notion of girl and boy games and wonders if it's time to cease such labeling.

At last month's Digital Kids Conference, a panelist discussing gender barriers revealed that when 5-year-olds were informally surveyed, they tended to identify mobile app icons with the color blue as "boy" games and those with pink as "girl" games.  Boys would not click on a pink app even with a big robot on the icon.   I find it surprising that as a society, we are still so color-coded.  This superficial reskinning from blue to pink can really change the appeal to boys or girls.  According to a research study by Kids Industries, parents may be the ones reinforcing these gender conventions.  The panel noted that this labeling of pink or blue wasn't so prevalent 30 years ago when marketing to kids tended to be more gender neutral.

This year's Girl Toy of the Year
Even though 93% of parents say they shop by category (i.e. activity) rather than gender (as labeled by the manufacturer or retailer), 85% of the parents said they would not buy a pink kitchen toy for a boy, but had no qualms about buying the same product for a boy if it was in gender neutral colors.  They would in fact prefer gender neutral packaging.  The top 3 grossing kid apps at the time of the conference had neither pink or blue icons, but stuck to gender neutral colors like light orange.

This year's Boy Toy of the Year and Toy of the Year
While retailers like Wal-Mart definitely have pink and blue toy aisles, most popular kid game sites nowadays do not have a section for pink or "girl" games but rather, will categorize games of interest as dress-up, etc. games.  I think in the past, separate sections for girl games were created to encourage girls to play Web games and you can still see a special tab for girl games on FreeKIGames.  If you take a look at GirlsGoGames, which features games obviously marketed to girls, you'll notice a lot of pink.

Must we keep the Pink Ghetto for games?  Do we need to label games as girl or boy games?  Parents feel uneasy about the influence of marketers.  Boys can enjoy playing a hair salon game app, but won't touch one that is overly pink or labeled for girls.  A good game can appeal to both genders.

It seems to me that games marketed to girls tend to reinforce gender stereotypes by focusing on fashion, shopping, make-up, cooking and other stereotypically female activities.   Surrounding all these play activities with the color pink allows the color code to continue.

Pink = Girl = Existing Gender Roles.  

Marketing does influence our choices, but we can stop and think about how these choices may affect our children.  Parents do not need to follow the expectations of marketers.

I wonder:  Are we giving girls toys solely based on fashion, shopping, make-up etc. and not toys promoting STEM skills?

A game about space exploration could be marketed to girls and to boys and it doesn't even have to be pink or blue.  I don't think we need to label any game a girl game, just like we don't need to label a gamer a girl gamer.  Is it time to end this marketing convention of pink girl games?

[Sande Chen will be speaking at this year's Different Games Conference on the topic of female representation in games and game development.]

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.