Beyond Agency: Why Good Ideas Only Take Us So Far

In a previous post, This is You: Agency in Education, I argued that we need to create educational software that, through extremely limited tools, forced its users to think in new and powerful ways. I used the term agency to refer to having an avatar (or agent) in a larger system with which one can identify. I’m sure educators have another word for this concept, which I will happily adopt just as soon as I find out what it is. I presented agency as one deliberately limited tool that can be used to focus thought. I also held up the video game Osmos as an example of how to use agency in compelling ways.

This time, I will present another video game as an example of taking agency too far: Spore. The highly-anticipated and much delayed 2008 title lets players evolve from a single cell into a space-faring civilization. The cell stage is the epitome of agency: the player’s cell is all they can control as they battle for survival in the primordial soup. Later, on land, the lines are blurred as players recruit other creatures to their posse and eventually control a planet-scale civilization with fleets and cities. So far, it’s set up to start with agency and gradually wean the player off of it into abstract, non-localized thinking.

But then the space stage starts. Instead of setting dials on dozens of colonies, establishing trade routes without worrying about the individual freighters, or sending fleets of identical ships into battle, the player controls a single spaceship flying around the galaxy. It’s impossible to wage a war or build colonies when existing colonies, and those of the player’s alien allies, need to be babysat and they’re half a galaxy away. The player should be Emperor Palpatine but instead they’re Captain Kirk.

What makes Spore so tragically flawed is not only does it fail to give players the controls they need, but it spends the bulk of the game teaching the player the cognitive skills to use the absent controls. Spore‘s galaxy of half a million planets is created using advanced procedural generation algorithms, but the game doesn’t offer its players so much as an if-statement. In this way, Spore is the opposite of most bad education: it provides a guided learning curve but no expectation or way to apply what was learned. Much of the learn-to-code movement provides plenty of tools, even innovative tools, but instructing their use is an afterthought. Neither of these symmetrical mistakes makes for a good user experience.

What Spore does right, up until liftoff, is to start with agency and move away from it. Agency is actually not a powerful idea at all; it’s too weak to support the space stage. Agency is a natural idea, one that is easy to adopt based on our physical bodies and evolutionary wiring. It’s a way to get comfortable with advanced concepts but it’s also really crippling when you want to apply those concepts. We need to find ways to provide learners of all ages with tools that are easy to learn and powerful — and rarely will the same tool be both.

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