But in video games, I wonder sometimes if something much more subtle and instinctive is going on. Perhaps games aren’t really about power, they’re actually more about agency – the idea that we can have any sort of influence and control over what happens to us, and the world around us.This makes sense to me-but that doesn't make it true, just gratifying.
For most of us, control is limited and ephemeral. We have jobs to do, people to care for, rules to follow – and we live in societies that place vast infrastructural limits on what we can do or affect. There are complex cognitive behaviours, from superstitions to compulsive gambling to obsessive compulsive disorders, through which the desire for, or belief in, agency express themselves. Throughout the 70s, UCLA researcher Ellen Langer developed the concept of “The Illusion of Control” studying how people often rely heavily on this unrealistic perceptions of their own autonomy. “The argument I’ve been making for the last 40 years,” she said during a talk in 2013, “is that actually, most of us are mindless virtually all of the time.”Do so many people really feel powerless and that they lack the ability to make choices and changes in their own lives? Agency is really all we have, in my opinion. I like to play video games, but not because I feel helpless to affect my life.
And I think this is actually what video games are about. At a very basic, fundamental level, they are simply about providing a sense of control, rather than necessarily about making us feel like superheroes. Video games merely have to confirm us as sentient agents in order to function.
Maybe video games can be practice for exerting your agency.