The Challenge of Agon
March 14, 2006
So central to the modern videogames industry is agon (competition) that many people consider ‘game’ to be almost synonymous with the notion of competitive play. We play to win, the presumption states, and this indeed describes a great many of our modern videogames. I hope that, by having looked at alea, mimicry, and ilinx before agon, I do not need to put forward the counter-argument (that there can be more to games than agon) and can instead focus on exploring the myriad complexities that this category of play entails.
Agon is one of four cross-cultural patterns of play identified by the noted intellectual Roger Caillois in 1958. Caillios was writing at a time before the hobbygames explosion of the 1970’s, before the proliferation of arcade game novelty in the 1980’s and long before the modern videogames market. Consequently, his descriptions of agon are focused on the nature of sports and contests of skill. He described agon as follows:
A whole group of games would seem to be competitive, that is to say, like a combat in which equality of chances is artificially created, in order that the adversaries should confront each other under ideal conditions, susceptible of giving precise and incontestable value to the winner’s triumph. It is therefore always a question of rivalry which hinges on a single quality (speed, endurance, strength, memory, skill, ingenuity, etc.), exercised, within defined limits and without outside assistance, in such a way that the winner appears to be better than the loser in a certain category of exploits.
Whereas Caillois’ other categories of play have not required significant revision to bring into clear focus with respect of modern games, agon requires some slight expansion. When Caillois was writing, the only reasonable form of agon was between two people in a specific challenge or sport. (One could include, perhaps, the agon between matador and bull in the bloodsport of bullfighting, but since Caillois was insistent in seeing agon as a fair contest between participants, I believe this would not qualify: the bull’s chance of survival is considerably less than that of the matador).
game allows the player to engage in a game of agon versus a virtual opponent. This
seems to evoke the same behaviour as facing a living opponent. Facing the game,
the player first sizes up their capacity to compete. People who cannot throw do
not, for instance, enjoy participating in field events based around throwing.
Similarly, people who cannot operate a first person shooter (a style of game
with a particularly codified form) do not play FPS games in
an agonistic style. But those that have capabilities in a particular type of
game frequently then enter the state of wishing to test themselves against a
degree of challenge. This could be against other opponents – which is quite
obviously a fit to Caillois’ agon – or it could be against pre-set challenges,
such as the main gameplay of a single player game.
It is worth
noting that contests of agon present themselves in certain distinct forms which
are worth identifying briefly, if only to provide a wider foundation. Firstly,
there are games of one versus one agon, such as a fighting game. Such
games are the most intensely agonistic form, and most recognisably fit
Caillois’ description of agon. Then, there are one versus many games,
such as the FPS which (squad variants not withstanding) place a lone player in
contest versus many opponents. Still, the underlying assumption is that the
challenge has been balanced fairly (although pragmatically, few games are so
well tweaked for this to emerge). Finally, many versus many games, such
as strategy games when whole armies fight, which are akin to team-based sports
which offer agon between equally matched sides. These distinctions, while
notable, do not fundamentally alter the nature of agonistic play, although they
may alter the appeal. Fighting games, FPS games and strategy games imply
different audiences, with an affinity for challenge in the forms of fast reaction control
skills, pathfinding & aiming or thoughful complexity respectively being key
asymmetric case of the one versus many scenario is something that we are
highly familiar with in videogames, but which might have seemed strange to Caillois. Even in the case of one versus one and many versus many we see asymmetry in games: playing a fighting game, it is not possible
for the computer opponents to be a balanced challenge for all players. Instead,
the game presents a variable degree of challenge; the player climbs the curve
of difficulty inside the game. Similarly, a strategy game often has scenarios
of increasing difficulty. Instead of presenting a perfectly balanced challenge,
the game starts easily (in principle, at least – few games balance themselves
to be sufficiently easy for all comers), and then increases the degree of challenge until
the player encounters the biting point where they know they will have to
perform at the best of their ability to achieve victory. This is when Caillois’
agon really takes hold: prior to this point, one might imagine the player’s
actions have merely been training. There is a parallel in sport: an Olympic athlete must still rise through many qualifying rounds against opponents of differing capabilities until they find they are competing against competitors of their own calibre.
This rising challenge versus the player is intended, arguably, to ensure that at some point the player will face a challenge worthy of their abilities. I suggest, therefore, that we can consider there to be some relationship between fiero and agon. Fiero, the emotion Ekman identifies with triumph over adversity, is associated with the physical gesture of holding arms aloft in victory; it is something we can readily observe whenever an athlete wins a difficult game, or in sporting fans whenever their team scores. It is, I attest, intimately connected to agon.
Out of respect for Nicole Lazzaro, from whom I first learned of fiero, I am considering games which tap into this fiero-motivated reservoir of challenge to be games of hard agon (after Lazzaro’s Hard Fun emotional key). These games seem most popular with Hardcore gamers, although this is not to suggest that hard agon is not enjoyed by many Casual players (possibly younger males in particular, although this is far from proven). Fiero can be a tremendously rewarding emotion, and therefore can be a tremendously addictive emotion. Why else would certain players pit themselves against challenges of such depth of adversity that they must endure nearly constant frustration as they pursue with dogged determination the repetitious play intrinsic in most games of this kind? When victory is achieved, the fiero ‘pays for’ all the pain experienced on the way. Indeed, the greater the depths of pain endured, the larger the fiero for some players. (For others, and especially for more mature players, the residue of frustration reduces the fiero to less engaging relief).
Games of hard agon dare players to beat them. Some are so punishing in the demands they ask of their players, that they practically reach the boundaries of becoming an ordeal. But, provided the fiero payoff is there, ultimately, it becomes worthwhile. It is a drama which we are very familiar with – the Rocky films alone made millions out of their gradual descent into formulaic fiero fantasy.
I argue that many players often do not notice the (debatably) ramshackle design of many games because when a game is offering hard agon, shoddy game design (bad control mechanisms, poor mechanics etc.) are just friction adding to the frustrations which are endured on the path to victory. This places a much greater burden on games which do not use agon as part of their core play to have superior game design, delivering a smoother play to their audience.
At the opposite extreme to the trials of hard agon are those games which offer trivial victory over opponents. Some of these games are diluting the agonistic play with aleatory (random) elements. Consider for one example, a party game like Mario Party or Bishi Bashi. These are ostensibly games of agon – but are really a heady mix of agon and alea. It is not the chance to prove superiority versus one’s foes in these games which provides all the fun, but the random chaos of the mini-games. It is also possible to combine agon and mimicry. I presume part of the fun of a game like The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction (putting aside the ilinx inherent in mindless destruction briefly) comes partly from the illusion of power being supplied. The player is invited to enjoy being strong relative to their opponents – practically the opposite of the fiero-related enjoyment delivered by hard agon. [Note: I haven't actually played this game, so I may be incorrect in this assumption, and it's a safe bet it rapidly devolves into hard agon; first hand opinions and alternative examples welcomed.]
I propose to call these styles of play easy agon (again, in respectful reference to Nicole Lazzaro’s influential Four Keys model). These games are almost invariably drawing upon a mix of play elements, diluting agon with either alea, mimicry or ilinx in varying degrees. Some players may consider there to be little of interest in play when it has been made so unchallenging (perhaps reflecting the importance of fiero to such a person). I personally find nothing problematic in exploring such child-like escapism against virtual opponents. Such play is amusing and entertaining, and far more suitable for stress release than the tension of fiero.
The space that the player ends up within in respect of any given game of agon is determined almost entirely by the strength of the player (determined in part by their own abilities, in part by the game parametrics) relative to the strength of the opposition. Games of hard agon are at the very least evenly matched, and more commonly are biased against the player, so that the player must work even harder to win, and thus achieves an even greater payoff in fiero. Conversely, games of easy agon begin when the player’s strength is weighted higher than the opposition – indeed, these games are arguably at their most fun (and by fun in this case we mean the fun of amusement, not the fun of fiero) when the player is ludicrously overpowered with respect to their opponents. This was surely what made Rampage fun to play when it first came to the arcades, and I assume the recent Hulk game shares something of this feel in its early play.
Because it is the relative difficulty which determines which space the player is in (hard agon, through the “true agon” of equally matched opponents, and finally to easy agon), games can deliver both kinds of play by simply having a large enough range of difficulties. The Dynasty Warriors games in particular demonstrate this facet. On their high difficulty settings, these provide hordes of tough troops and even tougher officers which lure the player to overcome the odds stacked against them and earn fiero. On their lowest difficulty settings (and perhaps after some judicious powering up), the player can enjoy the feeling of effortlessly cutting down hundreds of enemy troops, and knocking enemy officers about the battlefield like they were mere stuffed toys. Both can be intoxicatingly entertaining, but in general terms, these two different settings appeal to different players. (My love of these games is perhaps rooted in the balance between the hard agon I used to enjoy as a teenager, and still have a certain nostalgia for, and the easy agon I find more suited to relaxation in my rapidly approaching middle age).
The implications for game design are that for games wishing to court a wide audience, there may be much value in beginning by balancing the game for easy agon. This is the harder task for almost all games; it is very easy to conceive of means to make a game harder, but generally difficult to conceive of means to make a given game easier without subtracting game mechanics (and thus changing the nature of the gameplay). However, I suspect that game designers who work on highly competitive games of hard agon might argue that balancing for hard agon is an equally challenging task, if for no other reason than the Hardcore audience for hard agon is extremely demanding and particular in their tastes. I welcome insights from people with practical experience in this area, as my own disenchantment with designing games of hard agon limits my knowledge of this particular field.
The nebulous notion of game difficulty seems to be important when considering agon, whereas this was largely unimportant to the other categories of play identified by Caillois. I used to believe that it was possible to build self-calibrating games that could adjust to match the level of difficulty desired by the player. However, it is becoming readily apparent that the level of difficulty desired by the player is not something we can presuppose. Some players want to be met at about their level of challenge (they desire “true agon”), some want to be met with very little level of challenge (desiring easy agon) and some secretly yearn to have the game beat them into a bloody pulp that they may later emerge victorious and aglow with fiero (desiring hard agon).
will be necessary for games with dynamic difficulty mechanisms to identify the
player’s desire with respect to agonistic play from the onset. Sorter questions
may be the easiest option; something like: “Do you want to: (1) Play for amusement (2) Face a reasonable degree of challenge (3) Triumph against overwhelming odds.” Wrangling the language so that this can be presented to players without
confusion is a difficult task, but I remain confident that sorter questions are
a viable means by which we can establish the nature of play that the player
desires. I am hopeful of a more elegant solution, but perhaps not any time
The fact that different players desire to be in a different place with respect to the degree of challenge connects notably with the model of Flow. The flow channel (depicted), where abilities and challenge are equal, is an area, not a line. When ability outstrips challenge, boredom results, when challenge outstrips ability, anxiety results. Hard agon therefore lies near the top of the flow channel - where the player is close to their limits. Easy agon lies near the bottom of the flow channel - where the player faces just sufficient challenge to entertain. "True agon" lies in the centre of the flow channel. Perhaps finding means to chart a player's position in the flow channel will allow for an automated game balancing system in the future.
Agon is a noble pursuit; the desire to improve one’s abilities and to face others in competition in order to see who will emerge victorious is a motivating force behind all sports and many games. Videogames have expanded the remit of agon to include a wider array of challenges, beyond the central ground of equally matched opponents, and into asymmetries of ability that manipulate the emotions of their players, either through the addictive challenge of fiero, or the trivial escapism of amusement. As tools for entertainment, this blurring of the honourable challenge of agon is essentially harmless in videogames. Furthermore, it provides new opportunities to think about play – even the well-worn play of competition – and perhaps to explore new ways to bring that play to an even wider audience.
Glad to see you finally tackle Agon. Your supposition of an intrinsic connection between certain types of agonistic play and fiero is hard to deny, and as such the terms you suggest really do help to distinguish closely related, but differing types of play. Especially when it comes to such hardcore and highly refined sensibilities as those that govern FPS games and the like, these kinds of terms I believe are a great step forward for refining game design. Bravo.
Posted by: Jack Monahan | March 14, 2006 at 04:57 PM
"Perhaps finding means to chart a player's position in the flow channel will allow for an automated game balancing system in the future."
Yes! This has been something I've approached for years, though its easier said than done. I suspect that the challenge/skill axes aren't adequete for mapping agonic system dynamics in general, rather I see the flow channel existing between material and formal constraints, with challenge being the amount of "room" between the constraints and skill having to do with the consistency of the wave-like performance function reflecting skill. I think if I understood system dynamics theory better I might have more insights into how precisely you could take the mechanics of the game and translate that into adjustable functions describing the mechanics, to be continued...
Of course, agon is a very real and corrosive prescence in our society, as a recent post of mine examines through a quote from Chris Crawford's "Art of Interactive Design". EA is probably the quintessential example of this, their ruthless smothering of competition has lead to an industry dominated by agonic games.
Posted by: Patrick | March 14, 2006 at 08:18 PM
Patrick: of course, EA also produced The Sims, the antithesis of their usual output. That said, they did all but try to stop it being made. :) My chief complaint with EA is that it's a scandal for the publisher with top turnover to be bottom in investment in original IP.
Jack: thanks for the kind words! Sorry for the wait - it's been busy here. :)
Posted by: Chris | March 15, 2006 at 07:28 AM
I'm not so sure if fiero in games is as harmless (or even noble) as you suggest. I've been wondering lately about the behaviour of conqueror-type gamers on forums (especially because of thier "amusing" reaction to our Endless Forest "anti-game"). They tend to be extremely aggressive. But also very arrogant and "smart-ass". They have an attitude that I would associate with people who have achieved something in life, people who know that they are important, powerful, etc. But these are usually just spotty kids locked up in their room playing war games on the computer in the attic all day. They have achieved absolutely nothing and have zero power. I think their experience of fiero in the games that they play leads them to believe that they are somehow superior beings. They mistake overcoming the challenges in a game with overcoming challenges in real life because the pay-off feels the same. And the trance that the victory in a game puts them in, blinds them for the fact that the emotion was triggered by a simulation and not by a real event.
I'm not saying that these people are going to break out a gun and start shooting their class mates now. But I do think their experience in games influences their social behaviour in a bad way.
Posted by: Michael Samyn | March 15, 2006 at 08:51 AM
Michael: it is an interesting question. I chose not to pursue any possible negative connotations about fiero in this piece, but in the back of my mind were some concerns. However, how can we tell that the behaviour of these people is a *consequence* of playing games, or if they are have just been poorly socialised - and this has lead them to play games?
I suspect the alienated youth end up playing video games, but this does not prove that playing video games causes alienation, if you see what I mean. Cause and effect are so hard to unravel.
I tend to suspect that even if these people were not playing games, they would *still* be aggressive and rude. There has never been a shortage of rude people - it's just the internet now collects them into larger clusters. :)
Posted by: Chris | March 15, 2006 at 04:54 PM
"They have an attitude that I would associate with people who have achieved something in life, people who know that they are important, powerful, etc. But these are usually just spotty kids locked up in their room playing war games on the computer in the attic all day. They have achieved absolutely nothing and have zero power."
But isn't that the point of playing those games (at least for these players)? To feel like you're really someone special, even if you're not?
Posted by: William Willing | March 17, 2006 at 03:51 PM
Chris, I'm sure you will agree that the fact that you can't prove something does not mean it isn't true or that you can't believe in it. I know that peaceful games, like our Endless Forest have a soothing effect on me that lasts much longer than the time spent playing. So I can imagine that the effects of fiero work in a similar way.
William, if that's the point of those games then I personally think that this is very dangerous. I am a parent myself and I really hate the tendency of popular entertainment to tell kids that "everybody is a star". This is simply not true and the illusion that it is, is harmful. It leads to the wrong expections of life. I have been a victim of this myself. It took me more than 30 years to realize that it is ok not to be the best, not to be a "star". I think it would be more constructive for these kids to play games that teach them that being ordinary is just fine, that there is a lot of joy in being a "mere mortal".
Posted by: Michael Samyn | March 18, 2006 at 07:59 AM
Of course, Michael, we are free to believe whatever we wish. I personally don't believe in big-T Truth, though, so even if something is proved I *still* don't consider it to be True (absolutely and completely), so I can't agree that if something *can't* be proved that it doesn't mean it isn't true; I believe all knowledge is subject to the same limitation in this regard! :)
From my studies of players, I believe that a tendency for arrogance in general terms is associated with a particular set of personality patterns, and also with a particular age range (specifically: teenage to early twenties). This group also seems to correlate strongly with a particularly strong enjoyment of fiero. Therefore I still maintain that the love of fiero is symptomatic and not causal of the behaviour you describe. (Though I recognise of course that this is just my belief).
I would rather these people were getting their fiero from the safety of a computer game, than from drag races, gang fights, violent crime et al which are vastly more dangerous to both the participants and innocent bystanders! :D
I think there is reason to be concerned about the effect that media exposure (of all kinds) has on the youth as they grow up; I become increasingly interested in so-called Cultivation Theory, and its sobering implications.
I am not against games of fiero - I believe they have every right to exist - but I am against an industry throwing all it's weight behind these games and only these games. There seems little doubt that players have diverse play needs, and that we are doing a lousy job as an industry at meeting those needs except in certain narrow channels. But I believe the situation is already starting to improve, and the best is still to come.
As for the joy of being a "mere mortal", this perhaps is a wisdom that can only be borne of age. :)
Posted by: Chris | March 18, 2006 at 10:59 AM
So how about creating a game that simulates age then? ;)
I doubt is the geeks that frequent the game forums would particpate in drag races and gang fights, though. I think you're overestimating the appeal of games.
Posted by: Michael Samyn | March 20, 2006 at 08:48 AM
So how about creating a game that simulates age then? ;)
I doubt is the geeks that frequent the game forums would particpate in drag races and gang fights, though. I think you're overestimating the appeal of games.
Posted by: Michael Samyn | March 20, 2006 at 08:58 AM