by Leon Rosenshein

Games And Agency

I recently finished listening to the first chapter of Worlds Beyond Number. It’s a podcast that uses D&D rules to help define a world built for storytelling. Brennan Mulligan is the Dungeon Master (DM) and world builder. He’s responsible for (almost) all of the backstory, pacing, and events. He does an amazing job of not just building a world and making it feel alive, he also provides the context that the three live characters act within. He does it in a way that makes the people playing the characters, and the folks listening in along the way, feel like they have control of their destiny, even while knowing there is a lot they don’t know about the world and it’s limitations.

Another podcast I regularly listen to is Brian Marick’s Oddly Influenced. It’s all about how folks have taken the teachings and writings of other fields and applied them to software development. A recent episode was an interview with Jessica Kerr, where they discussed the book Games: Agency as Art. Or at least that was the reason they did the interview. The interview itself was about far more that games, agency, or art.

One of the things they talked about was, of course, agency. What it was, what it wasn’t, and where it came from. Although similar to what Daniel Pink talked about in Drive, it’s a slightly different take on the idea. It approaches it from how you craft or adjust the environment to help the player have agency. In games, the boundaries of the player’s agency comes from the game designer (and the developer’s implementation of the designer’s vision). The designer provides the goals, which set the direction (purpose in Pink’s description), the player’s capabilities (Pink’s mastery), which define what the player can do, and the rules, which define what the player can’t do (the boundaries of Pink’s Autonomy). The thing about the kind of agency that a game designer can provide though, is that it has to be completely defined up front. The game has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and downloadable content aside, the designer gets no realtime feedback from the player, and has no ability to change the game after it ships.

A DM, on the other hand, such as Brennan in Worlds Beyond Number, has to do much of the same work as the game designer up front, but after that, the DM is right there in the world with the player, getting feedback and making adjustments (staying within the defined framework) that adapt and redefine both the world and the player’s agency. There’s a natural tension there, between maintaining the status quo and keeping the world operating per it’s rules, and ensuring that the players that inhabit the world are having a good time. Because if they’re not having a good time they’ll pick up their dice and go home. If they do that then the game is over. Even though it’s not thecnically player vs DM, if the players quit, the DM has clearly lost (whatever that means).

Which gets us to the Oddly Influenced part. It’s not a big stretch to think of an engineering manager (EM) /development lead as the DM in a world-building game. The EM has an initial set of goals that they want to see met. They have tools and capabilities they can provide to the team, compilers, platforms, compute and storage resources, consultants, and other teams (non-player characters in the D&D world). They also provide a set of constraints (rules) the team needs to work within. Deadlines and schedules. External regulatory requirements and internal processes that must be followed. Networks and the laws of physics. Just like a game designer or DM, they define the Goals, Capabilities, and Rules. They define the boundaries of the agency that the members of the team have.

And just like a designer or DM, a good EM uses those things levers to provide not just agency, but purpose and fulfillment. Make the goals to difficult, or just arbitrarily add a rule that makes using a capability impossible and the team (or player) gets frustrated. Conversely, make the goals too easy or provide rewards arbitrarily, and there’s no challenge or growth. The team (or player) gets bored and finds something else to do.

Also like a DM, the EM has the immediate feedback from the team. Are goals being met? Is the team “enjoying” the journey? Are they getting ahead of the goals, or keeping the goals from being met? How can the environment (cpabilities and rules) be changed to provide more fulfillment for the team while still incentivizing moving towards the goals?

The environment, however, is where things get more complicated for the EM. The game designed and the DM have complete control over the environment. That, unfortunately, isn’t so for the EM. The overall goals are given to the EM. And there’s not just one EM. Typically, not even one EM for any particular goal. The EM has to work with their partner EMs to reach the goals. Or adjust them so they can be met. Meanwhile the group of EMs is getting feedback from their managers and customers/users on the validity of what’s being built. You might even say the EMs are a team with some level of agency working within a framework of goals, capabilities, and rules.

Once again, it’s turtles all the way down. But at least at any given level, you’ve got another frame to view the situation through and to use to help make decisions so that, at that level, the designer/DM/EM knows what levers there are and the players/team knows what their level of agency is. Or, you could look at it the other way around. We’re all playing a game together. Someone else has defined the goals, capabilities, and rules. We can work with them, and each other, within and across the levels of the stack, to provide feedback to each other to jointly maximize goals met and enjoyment/fullfillment. Which is really the meta-goal.