What makes video games fundamentally different as a form of entertainment when compared to books, movies, TV or other forms of art? Agency – the ability of the consumer to act upon the world and influence the narrative around them. A book can tell you the story of a person going through an event. A movie can show you someone going through that event. Video games are unique in that they can put you in a character’s shoes and give you agency over their actions. This allows you to gleam a sense of accomplishment when the hero fights through impossible odds to save the day. It can also put incredible strain on players when the actions of a narrative character are attributed to the players actions. Video games are the only medium that can put a character into difficult real world situations, then blame the consumer for the way the scene played out.
Sometimes this agency can put video game consumers in troubling situations, which I believe puts a duty of care into the hands of video game creators that doesn’t exist to the same degree in other artistic mediums.
Here’s an example from a recently released video game (which I will not name to avoid spoiling the narrative for players who have not yet experienced it). You as the player are placed onto a roof alongside a close friend who is planning to commit suicide by leaping to her death in front of a large crowd of people. As you friend stands on the ledge, you are tasked with answering questions to try and convince her not to jump. A huge onlooking crowd is watching you, expecting you to talk her down. Several questions are asked, ending with one question that you would only know how to answer properly if you had intrusively snooped through the friend’s private files and read her emails without permission. One mistake made and your friend leaps to her death, leaving you looking down at an amassed crowd who all know you failed to talk your friend out of taking her own life.
Only a few minutes later, players who fail are informed that the vast majority of real life video game players managed to successfully save her life. Not only did you fail to prevent someone committing suicide, but you’re informed that most people in your shoes would have managed to save that life. Any ability the player had to convince themselves that they were not to blame, that the character was going to commit suicide and you could not have done anything to stop them, is stripped away.
In any other more passive artistic medium this scene would not have had the same impact on the player, but it equally would have had far less of a duty of care toward consumers. A movie that has it’s lead character fail to prevent their friends suicide does not make any statement about the viewer’s ability or lack of ability to handle an incredibly traumatic event. In a video game setting where the player has agency, that scene is in many ways potentially dangerous.
As someone who has personally had to live through a suicide I could not prevent, this particular video game giving me agency in that situation put a large amount of pressure on me and made a lot of implications that were difficult to handle. I was made to relive the experience of trying to talk someone down from suicide, a hugely troubling personal moment from my life, and I failed. I was told by the game that most people in my position would have been able to save my in game friend, that the clues existed and if I had paid more attention I too could have saved her. Years of insisting to myself that no matter what I did in real life I could not have stopped my friend committing suicide suddenly came into question.
I was crushed. I spent the next several hours crying, struggling with incredibly upsetting personal questions.
The point I want to make here is that video games more than any other medium have the potential to effect the emotions of those engaging with them, but this ability does come alongside a heavy duty of care that should be placed in the hands of creators. Be aware of the additional impact that agency can have on your plot. Be aware of the positions you are putting players into and how that could effect real life consumers. Understand the power you wield and where necessary give players the ability to find out within the game what moments they might be expected to have agency over and where they can get support if having agency through real world events causes sincere distress.