Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Thinking about User Participation in Terms of Negotiated Agency

Early this month, I got the chance to hear legendary game designer Will Wright (Sim City) give a talk. I've followed Wright's work for years because of his unique perspective on the potential for game-players to be game-makers - in other words, to co-create the gaming experience.

In his talk, Wright said one thing that really stood out:
Game players have a negotiated agency that is determined by how the game is designed.
In other words, the more constrained the game environment, the less agency the player has. The more open, the more agency. Think about the difference between Pacman and Grand Theft Auto. Both games have a "gamespace" in which they are played. Both games have rules. But Grand Theft Auto invites the player to determine their own way of using the space and engaging with the rules. The player's agency is not total, but it is significant.

"Negotiated agency" strikes me as a really useful framework in which to talk about visitor/audience participation in the arts. "Negotiation" implies a respectful relationship between institution (or artist) and user. The institution initiates the negotiation with a set of opportunities and constraints. But users play a role via their own agency--both in how they engage and when they break the rules.

Sometimes the negotiation works beautifully. You offer visitors markers and tape and a wall, and they agree tacitly only to write on the tape and not on the wall itself.

Sometimes the negotiation is contested. You tell people they can't take photographs in the gallery or the performance, but the phones sneak out, covertly or defiantly, to reassert personal control of the experience. Patrons clap between movements. Visitors talk over the tour guide.

Sometimes the negotiation can be exploited for artistic means. The theater is dark and the artist breaks the fourth wall and asks for conversation. The symphony conductor asks everyone to raise their phones and join the orchestra. The museum invites art-making in the elevator. This is a kind of negotiation jui-jitsu that can create art through creative tension.

In my experience, this negotiation works best if we acknowledge people's agency and seek ways to create something surprising and high-value through it.

And so I humbly submit two questions to ask yourself when thinking about user participation:
  1. What is our negotiating stance in developing this relationship with participants? How can we make it a win-win?
  2. How will participants seek to assert their agency in the experience? Will we encourage these activities, denounce them, or divert them?
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