Agency of the User in Social Media and Video Games

The aim of this paper is to understand how users of social media and players of video game may exercise their agency with relation to Shakespeare’s presence in the digital space. The paper will focus on the essays by Stephen O’ Neill, Rebecca Bushnell, Janet H. Murray, and Gina Bloom to engage with the issue.

Stephen O’Neill has rightly pointed out in his essay, “Shakespeare and Social Media,” that the connotations of ‘Shakespeare’ extend beyond those of a playwright and a collection of plays. ‘Shakespeare’ has become a cultural phenomenon which pervades high culture, mass culture, and popular culture (275). Multiple facets of this omnipresent cultural phenomenon that is ‘Shakespeare’ are present in social media. O’Neill writes that social media disperses ‘Shakespeare’ across various digital platforms, such as, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Youtube, and so on (274). Each of these platforms create various functionalities for ‘Shakespeare’ and allows the user to approach it in different ways. While YouTube gives the user the opportunity to share amateur performances of Shakespeare, Facebook could be used to form scholarly discussion forums on Shakespeare (281). Social media accords greater agency to the users because it turns them from passive spectators to active contributors. Instead of being a passive reader of Shakespeare’s works or passive spectator of his plays, social media endows the users with the apparatuses which give way to a more active engagement with ‘Shakespeare.’ The user can exercise his/her agency by generating content in social media and then by sharing it with other users. The respondents also exercise their respective agency by articulating their reaction to the generated content by ‘liking’ it and sharing it with yet other users of social media. The users thus get interconnected in a network of generating and reacting to content by virtue of exercising their agency (275).

However, social media is unable to offer unregulated agency to the users. Each social media platform comes with its own “medium-specific attributes” which “shape the kinds of communication, connection, and participation that occur” (274). O’Neill gives the example of exchanging scholarship on Shakespeare through Twitter. He writes that Twitter is an excellent platform to publicize one’s ideas and theories and receive feedback from other scholars. But because of the ephemerality of the Tweets, important arguments often run the risk of being lost before getting noticed by other users. The user does not have any control over the technical operations of Twitter. S/he cannot make a Tweet remain longer than the platform allows it to (281). Also, if the user is choosing Twitter to share his/her argument, then s/he would have to shape it in the way ordained by the platform of Twitter. Unlike a blogpost, a Tweet cannot be longer than 140 characters. So scholarship has to be compressed within that limit and packaged accordingly. Therefore, although Twitter allows the users to generate and circulate their Shakespearean scholarship, it diminishes their agency by imposing a specific form on how the scholarship is presented to the public. Moreover, the building of scholarly communities on social media may create a certain exclusivity at times, which would reduce the agency of those who wish to enter the community but cannot or are not permitted to. For example, membership in a Facebook closed group is regulated by administrators. Therefore, even if a person is intrigued by the discussion of the group, his/her entry to the group and freedom to post to the group will be determined by the administrator. In this case, the user’s agency will be largely regulated by the discretion of the administrator. The feature of making a group ‘secret’ on Facebook also allows for interesting configurations of agency. The users of such a group enjoy the agency of making their group entirely invisible to other users of Facebook and making it accessible only to the members of that group.

Although the users enjoy the agency of generating content and responding to it on social media platforms, the fact that the content is circulated on social media has a special impact on it. If a discussion on Shakespeare is held on Facebook by renowned academics (and assuming it is also made public) and if the same discussion is held by the same scholars on an institutional/academic website, such as the MIT Shakespeare, would both of them have the same scholarly value to their respondents, even if the content is exactly the same? In my opinion, the institutional website would ascribe to the discussion more scholarly capital and authenticity. It is rather tricky to cite Twitter or Facebook in one’s scholarly essay; but it is way more acceptable to cite MIT Shakespeare. It is thus an ironical situation. It is social media which allows the user the agency to create and share content related to Shakespeare; yet the fact that it is created and circulated on social media casts doubt on the scholarly provenance of the content.

In “Hamlet” on the Holodeck Janet H. Murray discusses how the concept of agency functions in case of video-games. Most video-games have a narrative structure of going a quest or solving a puzzle. Murray opines that in a narrative structure we expect to enjoy limited agency (126). In the teleological narrative structure the narrative progresses towards a predetermined end and there is little the interlocutor can do to change its course. Yet narrative-driven video-games give the gamers the experience of or the semblance of enjoying agency. The game asks the user to make specific decisions and take specific actions which determine the future course of the game. The gamer is thus given the impression that his/her choices and actions decide the outcome of the game. Rebecca Bushnell, in “Tragic Time in Drama, Film, and Videogames,” identifies this as the authorship of the gamer, “the player is constantly offered options of speech and action, and through these a form of authorship: the power to create both plot and character” (80). Murray’s argues to the contrary. The gamer is able to make a choice or execute an action when the game prompts him/her to do so. The gamer is unable to do anything unless the game creates an opportunity for him/her. And when the gamer decides to take an action, the outcome is also pre-scripted by the game. As part of the rules of the game, the gamer remains in the state of imperfect knowledge where s/he does not know the outcome of an action, although it has already been decided in the design of the game. Here Bushnell’s query becomes pertinent: “is the player indeed free in the game, or does the game ultimately play her?” (76). The game creates an illusion of agency for the gamer. But what the gamer is actually doing is participating in the game and playing the game by the rules. Murray comments that participation is not the same as agency (128). The gamer’s agency is operational as far as whether or not s/he chooses to abide by the rules of the game. That the gamer’s agency is limited is made evident by such occasions in games where despite the best efforts of the gamer, certain unfavourable events occur. Bushnell gives the example of Heavy Rain where no matter how earnestly the gamer tries, s/he will not be able to prevent the death of a particular character (78). The death of this character is required for the progression of the game narrative and it cannot be prevented by the actions of the gamer. The gamer’s faculty to exert his/her agency is thus undermined by the teleological structure of the game narrative.

Another occasion in video-games, Murray points out, where gamers enjoy a certain amount of agency is when they decide to replay the same game as the opponent of the character they had impersonated when they had previously played the game (147). Bushnell cites a similar situation. She writes when an avatar dies in a game, the gamer can exercise his/her agency by replaying the same sequence and not making the same mistakes the next time over. This gives the gamer an impression of going back in time or undoing time (70). When the gamer plays the game from two opposing sides, the game assigns him/her different goals to achieve. The gamer not only gets the opportunity to play as the opponent but also play the game following a different trajectory toward reaching a different goal. Thus in choosing a different side or in choosing to replay the same sequence, the gamer exercises his/her agency to play the same game differently or redress the mistakes s/he had made the first time over. But again, how different this experience is going to be is already predetermined by the pre-set narrative design of the game. The consequence for each possible action of the gamer has already been interwoven in the design of the game. When the gamer is responding to certain situations in a game, taking certain actions, and confronting its consequences, s/he is authoring a certain trajectory in the game. Murray terms this ‘derivative authorship’ in which the gamer is the author of that particular performance of the game-sequence (153). It is to be distinguished from ‘originating authorship’. Murray states that originating authorship in electronic media is necessarily procedural, “it means writing the rules for the interactor’s involvement, that is, the conditions under which things will happen in response to the participant’s action” (153). Originating authorship is located in those who design the narrative of the game. When the gamer takes an action and faces the consequence, s/he is not authoring that particular game-sequence. Both the action and its consequence have been predetermined/authored by the designer of the game. What the gamer is essentially doing is exerting his/her agency to choose to take that particular action and face its corresponding consequence.
Bushnell further points out how the environment of the game exercises control over the gamer’s agency and execution of choices. The video-game environment often creates a sense of immediacy and anxiety and instigates the gamer to act on impulse rather than on rational contemplation. In such situations the gamers are likely to take irrational actions the consequences of which might turn out to be detrimental for his/her fate in the game. Bushnell gives the example of such an instantaneous reaction when in A Wolf Among Us, she harms the opponent beast. She writes that the decision to harm the beast was superfluous and hasty and was generated by rage, rather than logical discernment. As the game progresses she discovers that her action has augmented the ferocity of the beast and has made the game more difficult for her. The environment of the game, thus, manipulates the execution of the gamer’s agency and uses against him/her the power to exercise agency.

Gamers come close to sharing the authorship of the game-designers, writes Bushnell, when they approach the cheat codes hidden in the program of the game. When gamers access the deeper level of the program and manipulate it, they reach the constituent elements of the game. The craftsmanship of the game is partially revealed to the gamers through the cheat codes. When the gamer plays the game by the cheat code rather than the rules of the game, s/he tries to subvert the teleological principle of the game and author a new narrative trajectory for it. In this occasion, thus, the gamer’s agency comes close to authorship. But playing by the cheat code creates only an illusion of power and authorship rather than ascribing actual authorship to the gamers. The cheat codes are not really written by the gamers, but by the game designers. The consequence of playing by the cheat codes is also often predetermined by the designers. Playing by the cheat codes may appear as subverting the teleological structure of the game narrative, but it only makes the gamer follow an alternative teleology. What the gamer exercises is not authorship, but his/her agency to play by the cheat codes. The rest is again decided by the preordained design of the game (79).

Bushnell states that in the video-game the gamer is at once the author of his/her own performance and its spectator (81). The gamer makes his/her avatar perform in the game and watches the performance on screen. The gamer does not remain a passive spectator, but is an active participant who holds high stakes in the performance. In “Games,” Gina Bloom points out that staged games in early modern drama gave the audience lessons in participatory spectatorship (202). In case of video-games ‘participatory spectatorship’ of the audience gives way to a more active execution of power and agency, but remains restrained by the overarching telos of the game. When we take into account games designed after Shakespeare’s plays, the agency of the gamer is made doubly subservient; primarily to the narrative design of the actual Shakespearean play and secondly to the adaption of the play to the gaming platform where the Shakespearean narrative is altered by the game developers.

Works Cited

Bloom, Gina. “Games.” Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature: Early Modern Theatricality. Edited by Henry S. Turner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 189-211.

Bushnell, Rebecca. “Tragic Time and Choice in Video Games.” Tragic Time in Drama, Film, and Video Games: The Future in the Instant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 65-86.

Murray, Janet H. “Agency.” “Hamlet” on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: MIT Press, 1997. 126-153.

O’Neill, Stephen. “Shakespeare and Social Media.” Literature Compass 12/6 (2015): 274–285.