I’ve recently been doing some reading on symbolic interactionism for one of my courses. To make sure it all gelled and stuck, I thought it might be fun to try to apply it to an analysis of a video game. It may be a stretch. Or it may just flat-out not work. But bear with me—I’m doing this for practice and to develop some ideas that I might flesh out later.
What exactly am I up to here? A critique of Heavy Rain through the lens of symbolic interactionism.
While this framework may not seem like the most critical of approaches for a critique, what I want to (try to) look at here is how symbolic interactionism might cast light on certain facets of player agency. In this case, I’m trying to argue that Heavy Rain falls short of providing a strongly agentic experience, and that examining it through symbolic interactionism may help to explain why.
Before we get to Heavy Rain, let’s lay some groundwork about symbolic interactionism:
According to Herbert Blumer (1979), symbolic interactionism has three basic premises:
1. Human beings act toward things based on the meaning that those things have for them.
2. Meaning for those things comes out of interaction with other human beings (which can also include imagined interactions).
3. Meaning is handled and modified through an interpretative process that human beings use when dealing with those things
What’s especially important to note—which will lead us into agency—is the fact that meaning-making is an active process. With this understanding of interaction, human beings are not taken to be passive organisms that just instinctively react to the world around them. They are active, they constantly interpret the world around them, and they construct a sense of self through their interactions with others. Meaning-making is an active, social process.
So too is the process of constructing self. George Herbert Mead (1934) claimed that “Selves can only exist in definite relationship to other selves” (p. 164). To illustrate this, Mead actually drew upon the act of playing a game. In order to play a game (and, by extension, any organized, social group activity) you have to take on and understand the attitudes of the others involved in the game—the attitudes of the so-called generalized other. Your assumption of those attitudes leads you to your actions and responses in the game, as well as your sense of your own role in that game. Thus, only through this process of assuming and actively responding to the attitudes of the generalized other can you develop a sense of self. As Mead pointed out, a game is “an illustration of the situation out of which an organized personality arises” (p. 159).
With all of these social processes and group activities in mind, it might seem a little strange that I’ve picked a single-player video game as my object of study. But Heavy Rain is a highly social game: in it, you take on the role of various characters and then have to figure out how to interact with other characters in order to drive the story forward.
Thus, when you play Heavy Rain, you’re constructing a sense of self on three levels. One is the level of you-the-player. At this level, the generalized other includes the entire cast of characters, including the one you’re playing as. It can also include in-game environmental factors as well. The second level of self-construction is you-the-character. When you step into the role of Ethan, Madison, Jayden, or Shelby, you’re constructing a sense of self as that character through your interactions with the game’s NPCs. But there’s also your sense of self outside of the game as well, the self that you’re bringing to the game experience and that is being constructed even as you play.
One thing I want to clear up is the fact that the generalized other can include inanimate objects. Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society (1934) included a footnote detailing just that: inanimate objects can be a generalized other, insofar as they’re interacted with socially. I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’re interacting with the characters of Heavy Rain (whether our own or the NPCs) socially and that they are part of a generalized other that constitutes self-construction.
Next, where exactly does agency come into this? Although Mead’s work didn’t use the term agency, human agency is nevertheless implied in his elaboration of the way that self is constructed. At the risk of diving into an endless discussion of what agency means and how it’s connected to symbolic interactionism and the process of constructing a sense of self, suffice it to say that the emergence of self includes an awareness of self-as-agent. I’m really oversimplifying here, though.
To keep things simple and straightforward (and to give myself a way to draw on more course readings!) I’m using social theorist Anthony Giddens’s definitions of agent and agency. Giddens (1984) wrote that human beings are purposive agents that have reasons for their actions and that reflexively monitor those actions (and on that note, social reflexivity is also central to Mead’s emergence of self). Agents have the power to make a difference in a situation; agency is the capability to intervene, to exercise some sort of power.
When I played through Heavy Rain during the summer, I thought I might want to write about it and agency. At the time, I was really caught up with thinking about the connection between agency and intention.
A lot of writing that I’ve read on agency with regard to video games has claimed that there must be a clear link between intention and outcome in order for players to experience agency (e.g. Janet Murray). On the other hand, sociological pieces dealing with agency (like Giddens) deny that intention is necessary for agency. I’ve really struggled with figuring out what the connection there is, if there’s any at all. So, at first, I thought that I would write about how Heavy Rain failed to make me experience a strong sense of agency because of its failure to establish a clear causal link between my intention, the action I took in the game, and the outcome I witnessed.
Symbolic interactionism perhaps offers a different approach. Maybe intention is still floating around somewhere in the background, not quite done away with (and honestly, I’m still a little unclear on where exactly intention belongs in symbolic interactionism, but that’s another issue). But instead, I think the game may have actually failed to provide me with an clear experience of agency by failing to allow me to socially interpret meaning and construct a sense of self.
Heavy Rain didn’t really work for me. On top of it being a little too gushily melodramatic, I just couldn’t understand what was going on at any given moment or why. I could never really understand how my actions or choices translated into NPC responses or plot developments or outcomes. I couldn’t really understand what it was that I was doing.
Much of this had to do with the gameplay mechanics. To play Heavy Rain, you have to perfectly perform its (often clumsy) series of button mashing or precise joystick movements. Sometimes there are frantic quick-time events. Other times, it functions a lot like a point-and-click adventure.
Being a cocky, stubborn video game veteran, I put the game on its hard difficulty setting. I regretted this. But being a cocky, stubborn video game veteran, I kept trying to make it work anyway. And honestly, I’m not sure if changing the difficulty would’ve improved my experience: I could never really comprehend what the ostentatious waving of joysticks or the demand that I contort my hand to hit R2, Square, Circle, R1, X, Triangle all at once and in that perfect sequential order was supposed to do.
How was this going to translate into action for my character? What kind of action was I—my character—actually going to take if I mastered this elaborate series of button-pressing? I could barely conceive of what the consequence might be since I couldn’t even fathom what the action I was about to take was going to be in the first place.
I couldn’t really “symbolically interact” with the character whose role I was assuming because I couldn’t take on his or her attitude. I often just couldn’t know what action I would be taking as that character and as a player.
The most infuriating example of this for me was in the scene with Shelby and Lauren in the sinking car. Shelby is trying to find a way out of the car. Lauren is unconscious. I wanted to find a way to wake Lauren up or free her from her seat and rescue her with me and then get us both out of the car. But in trying to take on the role of Shelby, I-the-player couldn’t figure out how I could initiate this action, if at all. There were places to look and buttons to press but no clear signaling of “if you press this thing, the character will take this action.”
What ended up happening was that I clicked on something that I thought would trigger the desired action. Instead, Shelby said he was going to give up on Lauren and found a way out himself. Lauren died. I was annoyed.
It’s not necessarily that I took an action that had an unintended consequence. It wasn’t a failed intention-action-outcome causal linkage. The problem was that I had no idea what action I was going to be taking at all. I didn’t fully understand the role or self that I was taking on as player or as character—and consequently, I wasn’t feeling much like an active, interpreting, reflexively-monitoring agent. And I sure wasn’t about to be able to give a reason or an explanation for my actions.
Since I already couldn’t understand my role or self as a player, I certainly couldn’t understand my sense of self as a character. Social interactions with NPCs played out just as badly—if not worse. Often, dialogue between characters played out in ways that I didn’t intend (oops, there’s that word again) because I had no way of knowing what I was about to say.
During these social scenes, the game prompts you to select from various dialogue options. These options are little snippets of thought or potential conversation. But I didn’t and couldn’t know what my character was actually going to say when I picked any one of them. Worse still was that I often couldn’t even know what I was about to pick. During dramatic moments of the game, the lines of dialogue would rotate around characters or shake or shudder or otherwise become unreadable. With a severely restricted amount of time to reply, I frequently didn’t have enough time to even know what my options were before I was mashing a button and hoping for the best.
What I think much of this ultimately amounts to is a failure of the game to enable me to consistently take on the attitude of the various generalized others in the various levels of self-construction. I frequently couldn’t socially interact in any clear, consistent, meaning-making way with the character whose self I assumed or, through the self of that character, with the game’s other NPCs.
Just to be clear, though, I’m not saying that there needs to be a direct, one-to-one correspondence between action and outcome. I think that there are potentially effective ways for games to subvert those kinds of expectations and still facilitate agency. I’m also not saying that I didn’t experience agency while playing Heavy Rain; it’s not a matter of there being no agency or no self-construction. My problem is that I regularly had insufficient information to effectively read and respond to situations in the game.
Although I’m definitely not claiming that there is no agency to be found as a player of Heavy Rain, I still think it may be useful to think of agency on a more-or-less spectrum. There were times in the game when I did experience more agency than I did in the game as a whole.
Those were the times that I tried to fail.
Later in the game, as my irritation and lack-of-care about obtaining an ideal outcome mounted, I stopped replying to the game’s cues. I wouldn’t answer dialogue options. I walked away from important decisions. I would purposefully input incorrect commands. Then I would watch things go awry. Or, at other times, there would be unexpectedly desirable outcomes—things would go better than I had anticipated.
Once again, intention and unforeseen consequences were not at the heart of my agentic experience in these situations. Instead, what was crucial was that I was able to better understand what action I was taking, what selfhood I was constructing. I was experimenting; I was rebelling against what the game was trying to make me do; I was forging my own path. I felt more powerful, more aware of what I was doing and why.
In the end, I still managed to get one of the “good” endings. I didn’t really understand how I had done this.
Heavy Rain has variable outcomes and a fairly wide array of possible ending scenarios, many of which reflect critical decisions that players have made throughout the game. Usually, I see multiple outcomes being discussed as important components of a strongly agentic game experience (which I think is often because a lot of writers tend to equate agency with choice and then talk about agency as though its about making choices and then experiencing observable consequences for those choices). But multiple outcomes don’t mean a whole lot in the construction of a gaming experience that generates powerful sense of agency if players don’t have clearer information on the kinds of actions that they’re taking before these outcomes occur.
To recap: I’m not arguing that self-construction and agency are totally absent from Heavy Rain. Rather, my point is that Heavy Rain is an example of a game that doesn’t do a great job of communicating possible actions to its players. It’s hard to understand what game you’re playing when it’s not really clear what you’re doing in that game.
Blumer, H. (1979/2003). Symbolic interaction. In R. W. Budd and B. D. Ruben (Eds.), Interdisciplinary Approaches to Human Communication (pp 135-153).
Giddens, A. (1984). The constitution of society. Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.