In Giddings and Kennedy’s micro-ethnography of the play experience encountered in Lego Star Wars the depth of a fresh play experience is recorded and the question of player agency is confronted. Who is actually defining the experience of playing a game? Going against the common position regarding agency in games, that is, to emphasise player agency in the construction of experience, S+K take the position of cybernetics to describe play experience as ‘generated in the intimate and cybernetic circuit between the human and the nonhuman.’
One extremely relevant argument behind this research to my own work (often concerned with sophisticated, experienced play) is the ‘critique of mastery ‘. In critiquing ‘virtuoso gameplay performance’ the usual position of mastery is turned on its head. When watching a professional game or a high level of play it is very easy to start thinking, similar to a conductor of an orchestra, that the player is commanding the experience of playing. Citing an example of John Romero’s famed gaming skills, S+K argue that even in extreme cases of player agency the play is still grounded by the rules of the game. Indeed, in cases of professional play, S+K argue that ‘the player is mastered by the machine’. When play becomes the instant reaction to on-screen impulses, an intimate relationship with the technology is required and far from the player wholly controlling that experience they are necessarily submerged in its rules and boundaries. These rules and boundaries may be pushed and explored, potentially widened (the metagame in League of Legends is a good example of this although so is the exploitation of glitches Consalvo mentions), however mastery is only ever at best, programmed by the machine. The experience is always cybernetic, a mixture of human and technological agency that only becomes more intertwined as the level of mastery increases.
Giddings, S. and Kennedy, H. (2008) ‘Little Jesuses and *@#?-off Robots: On Cybernetics, Aesthetics and Not Being Very Good at Lego Star Wars’, in Swalwell, M. and Wilson J. (2008) The Pleasures of Computer Gaming: Essays on Cultural History, Theory and Aesthetics, McFarland: Jefferson NC, pp 13 – 32.