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The Obedient Player

What is the role of free will in video games? How much control does the player have over a game? Brace yourself for philosophy as the classic question of free will meets technology in a discussion that settles absolutely nothing.

Douglas Lynn

May 11, 2011

8 Min Read

A few months ago, my cousin Jeff contacted my via Facebook with an odd request.  He told me that he was writing a paper for one of his college classes, and he requested some information from me concerning video games.  The request was an odd philosophical question: what is the role of free will in video games?  I quickly thought about this question and jotted down some statements for him to consider, but it struck me as such an odd question that I found myself drawn back to it.  How much control does the player really have over the game?

The real choice that is constantly at play during a video game is very basic: do I want to continue playing this game, or not?  A successful game is one which makes the player unaware of this very basic choice.  By definition, the “player” subconsciously makes the choice, “Yes, I do want to continue playing this game,” over and over again.  The game’s mechanics respond with the statement, “Okay, if you want to continue playing this game, then this is what you’ll need to do.”  Thus, the player who chooses to continue on will do what the game demands.  In this sense, you might say that any sense of free will is lost.  As long as the player chooses to play, the game has complete control.

Game developers work from this base point to establish just what the game is going to demand that the player do.  What genre of game is it?  What obstacles are there to overcome?  What tools does the player have to work with?  As the developers map out the answers to these questions, they create a controlled series of choices for players.  A game designer creates scenarios that beg the question, “Which choice will you make in order to continue the game?”  In this way, a game designer can dictate that any choice which prevents the game from progressing is the wrong choice.

By their very nature, video games are based upon the idea of making choices.  A movie can run and progress in its entirety without any choices being made by the viewer; in fact, a movie doesn’t even require a viewer once it’s been started.  However, if a game player makes no choices at all, a game cannot progress.  Games also allow players to halt progress by MAKING a choice.  Rules and game mechanics set up the outcomes of player choices well in advance.  The player-game relationship is always illustrated as a player having control of a piece of the game – a character or set of tools – but in reality, the game has full control over the player. 

Essentially, all the player can do is ask a question: “Does this decision allow me to continue playing the game?”  The game responds with a “yes” or “no.”  As long as players accept their role, they can only do what the game approves.  Of course, the player can make a wrong choice and go back to try again, but in doing so essentially says “I understand, Master!  I apologize for my insolence!  I did not fully understand your orders!  Please give me another chance to obey!  This time I will do what you ask of me!”

Players may find themselves battling a large boss creature within an action-adventure game.  The player must battle this creature in order to survive and continue the game.  This is the choice the game presents to the player.  However, this entire choice is generated under false pretenses.  Yes, the player must battle and defeat this creature in order to survive and continue the game, but the player routinely ignores the fact that he has the option to NOT go through with the battle.  The player could take the road of pacifism, opting not to fight in the hopes that the creature will show mercy.  In certain games, making a choice of whether or not to fight may be included as a part of the game mechanic.  (Think of games like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Deus Ex, or maybe Fable. ) This is not one of those games.  That alternative has not been written into the game code.  This creature will not show mercy, and the player character will be dead very soon.

The result of this action is the development of a new association in the player’s brain.  That action didn’t work, so a new strategy is clearly required.  By not allowing the player to proceed, the game has dictated to the player that there is a choice which cannot be made.  In this sense, the game has not necessarily told the player which choice to make, but rather which choice NOT to make.

In essence, though, the player isn’t entirely powerless against the game.  What the game provides is a dictation of how the player should think by providing problems with a limited number of solutions.  The player does still have the ability to solve the problem in a variety of ways, particularly depending on skill level.  A highly-skilled player has the ability to perform strategies that aren’t necessarily the most efficient means to achieve victory.  This isn’t so much to say that players have control over how the game works, but rather that they have more room for error.  A player who understands the functionality of the game mechanics has the ability to work within the established parameters very efficiently.  This allows the freedom to occasionally experiment and take a more unorthodox approach.  If the risk fails to pay off, the player resorts back to the status quo to prepare for another attempt.

On the far end of this spectrum, however, we get into a new realm in which player choices become much more meaningful.  Sequence-breaking tactics and certain types of “cheating” stem from this deep knowledge of a game’s mechanics.  Players become so in-tune with how the game is played that they learn to anticipate the underlying structure.  Through witnessing the game from a practical standpoint, they learn about the game from a technological standpoint.  The experimentation process begins to pay off as the player finds ways of violating key game principles.  As this happens, players begin to change the very makeup of the game and play it in an entirely new way.

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--As a quick aside, I’d like to point out that this discussion refers to free will within the context of the game.  When we discuss sequence breaking and cheating, we aren’t referring to outside influence on the game structure.  Elements such as hacking and codes deliberately change the functionality of the game.  Sequence breaking, on the other hand, works within the confines of the existing game rules in an effort to exploit the system.  While hacking and cheat codes both represent conscious choices on the part of the player, these choices take place outside of the gameplay systems.  They hold less relevance to this discussion.

--Let’s look at football as an example.  (Speaking as an American, I refer, of course, to American Football.)  Hacking would be the equivalent of rewriting the official rulebook.  You would go in and alter the very composition of the game in order to make it fit your needs.  A cheat code would be similar to injecting yourself with steroids.  Through the use of an outside influence, one which may even be allowed by the rules in some cases, you change an element of the game to give yourself an advantage.  It might also take the form of covering your uniform in spikes so that no one can tackle you.  Sequence breaking is more like creating a trick play.  You still utilize the existing game structure, but using some tremendous talent and skill, you exploit the rules to generate a new strategy that the opposing team hasn’t prepared for.  The difference with video games is that the same trick play will work every time.
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Thus, in getting back to the overarching topic, we are presented with an interesting situation.  The game dictates a set of rules – a set of choices – to the player.  A player who makes the choices the game demands will do well.  Free will is thus limited to operation within these predetermined choices.  However, as players become more and more in-tune with what these correct choices are (i.e., getting better at the game), the number of options open to them increases dramatically.  Players develop the opportunity to work around the confines the game puts in place.  Consequently, the player gains a greater degree of control over the game.

To put it another way, the more fully a player submits to the control of the game, the more free will the player obtains.  That’s the strange contradictory pattern I’ve been trying to describe here.

I feel it’s worth pointing out that a discussion on free will in video games covers many of the same points that would be covered in a discussion of free will in everyday life.  All of these points about rules, exploitation, and different levels of choice affect us every day.  That’s another thing that’s nice about games, though.  Through their fantasy environments, games provide us with a microcosm of real life; they give us a chance to examine pieces of our world without any real harm to anyone.

I’d like to thank Jeff for presenting me with the opportunity to explore this topic.  It’s led to a bit of a jumble of thoughts here, but that’s true of a lot of what I write.  Much of this is quite difficult to put into words.  I didn’t delve nearly as deeply into this topic as I could have, but it would be far too easy to begin circling around the questions that have tempted philosophers for millennia.  I think it’s best to call it quits for the time being.

Thank you.  That will be all.

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