RPG Social Mechanics, Player Agency, and the Fantasy of Free Will

 I was listening to the most recent episode of Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast while walking in to work today, and once again the topic of social mechanics in games came up. Specifically, the conflict between player agency, through their characters, and using social mechanics on other player-characters. On the one hand, if someone creates a socially adept character, you don’t want to make that decision dependent on their own roleplaying skills, or make it a far less valuable choice than creating a character who is adept at magic or combat. (Of course, in almost every RPG ever written, the social stat is still the dump stat). On the other hand, there is a concern about a player’s agency – that if their character loses a social conflict over something important, and has to act against their wishes, then that is a serious problem.

Full disclosure: I don’t think it’s a problem for a player to lose control of their character periodically, and I think it’s odd that we focus on social mechanics in this discussion. I mean, if your D&D character is critically hit by a Dragon and dies, or by a Beholder and is turned to stone, no one complains that they have lost “player agency” or anything of the sort. Those are the rules, the dice were rolled and that’s it. Similarly, if a character is chasing an NPC and the NPC uses a spell to become invisible and escape, no one complains about player agency. The character wanted to catch the NPC, but they couldn’t, because rules.

But then, in a game with a social mechanic, a character gets into an argument with an NPC, and the NPC wins the argument, and suddenly if the character has to behave any differently, that’s a big problem for many players. When I’m a player, I just roll with it, and it doesn’t bother me at all. I come up with a reason my character is convinced, s/he acts against their better judgement, and the game goes on. Maybe later there will be a reckoning and maybe not, but the story moves on. We do things against our better judgment all the time, and one big reason for this is the influence of other people close to us.

As I was thinking about this, I thought about free will. Specifically, what philosophers call libertarian free will, which is not something to do with Ayn Rand, but rather the term for fully free will in contrast to determinism. Basically it says that free will cannot exist in a deterministic universe, and therefore determinism is false.

Inside all of us, I think, is a sense of someone in charge of everything. There is an inner sense that we deliberate and make choices and remember and so on. We think of this inner sense as our true self, or soul, or free will, or mind, etc. Particular with regard to punishment, we have an intuition that people make free choices, and that it is fair to punish them for those choices.

This is in direct contrast to actual research on the topic. There is a lot of research that shows how free will is limited, and may not even exist. Our brains make some decisions before we are even consciously aware of them. Our perceptions are filtered unconsciously. Our memories are re-interpretations rather than recordings of past events, and they change over time. We are primed to see what we expect to see.

And while we have the intuition of a decision-making self, we also all probably have had experiences where we have not been able to choose what we wanted to choose. We’ve consciously, or semi-consciously, made the wrong choice. Maybe it was because of an altered state, or because of the influence of others, or being in the grip of a strong emotion or whatever – but there are choices we are not able to make, even if we theoretically have the capacity to make them.

This should also be true of our characters – they aren’t just sitting back making rational decisions. And I think this should be reflected in play and in the use of social mechanics. Libertarian free will does not seem to be the reality we experience, but I think the fantasy persists in the way we play games. We want total control over our characters even when we do not experience total control of our own lives.

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