In an interesting and well-thought out piece on his blog Fullbright, Steve Gaynor of 2K Marin (the developer of Bioshock 2) makes a persuasive case that the tools of games as a medium are uniquely suited to accomplish a particular kind of transport. He says “video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.” One of the things I took away from his post is that the bargain struck between the player and designer in a game is quite different from the sort of bargains stuck by other media. Game design is, to a greater degree more than other media, a form of collaboration between the designer and the player, since the transport-- the sense of “being there”-- provided by games is crucially linked to the player's sense that their choices are a meaningful part of the experience. I'm going to summarize Gaynor's argument by rephrasing it as an agreement of this sort, with the aim of comparing it to another type of agreement that is central to the history of moral philosophy.
The setup is like this: the designer and the player have a certain common goal--transport-- but they each must play a different role in the realization of that goal. The designers have to make the rules for the world that the player is going to inhabit, and the player must accept the limitations on their choices that come along with being in a world governed by certain artificial conventions. While the designer's ideal aim is “verisimilitude,” the player will have to accept some restrictions on their arbitrary liberty-- the player just won't be able to accomplish all the interactions with the world that he is capable of in real life. (We have to suspend our disbelief and accept the bizarre conventions of games all the time-- bodies that disappear after 30 seconds, the narrow range of manipulable objects, exploding barrels, and so on.)
The aim of these rules, Gaynor says, is to enable the player to make their own story with the rules given to them: “the core experience of playing a video game is itself unique to each player-- an act of realtime media interpretation-- and the most powerful stories told are the ones the player is responsible for.” The function of these rules is the transfer of power from the one who makes the rules-- the author of the game-- to the player. “Video games at their best, “ Gaynor says, “abdicate authorial control to the player, and with it shift the locus of the experience from the raw potential onscreen to the hands and mind of the individual.” By participating in the game and learning the rules laid out by the designer, the player realizes the common goal that governs their relationship: giving the player a sense of “agency and autonomy.”
When I was reading Gaynor's piece I was struck by the fact that the agreement between the designer and player he depicts there shares some interesting structural features with the social contract described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. According to Rousseau, a “social contract”-- an agreement made among citizens, which creates a political community-- was the basis for the legitimacy of the laws created by a King or other political leader. What the “social contact” and the agreement I described above have in common is that they are structured around a mutually held end-- the freedom and autonomy of the people to be ruled by the laws established by the contract. The sovereign has the authority to make the laws that govern those subjects, but on Rousseau's account this authority itself only comes from the fact that these laws are appropriate given the common goods, particularly agency and autonomy, realized by social life.
Now, I don't think we can make too much of this similarity; I don't mean to suggest that the collaboration between player and designer that occurs has the same sort of moral and political significance of the social contract. I just think that these two “agreements” share a certain texture deriving from the fact that they are both guided by the value of agency and autonomy.
But what also intrigued about both of these contracts is a certain paradox: they both work off the fact that submitting to rules can feel liberating. Even though these rules place artificial constraints on how we act in the world, we can feel that we are more free when we work within them. This is certainly the sense that we get when I figure out how to get around in the world created by a game or overcome the challenges it throws at us. Games can abuse us or humiliate us by imposing limitations that feel unfair and arbitrary, but when these rules are well-crafted they can create the terrific feeling of agency. (This is even true of games, like Half-Life 2, that are a great deal more structured and linear than Gaynor's ideal.) Rousseau offers some interesting perspective on this idea, because he also believes that the regulation of our conduct by laws makes us more genuinely autonomous agents; it is only when we consent to being governed by just laws “that the voice of duty succeeds physical compulsion and law succeeds appetite; man, who up that that point had only regarded himself, sees himself forced to act according to other principles... Though he loses, in this state, many advantages that he had in nature, he wins much greater ones back. He exercises and develops his faculties, his ideas flourish, his sentiments are ennobled.”