Liberty & Death: Positive and Negative Freedom Via Virtual Violence


Whether or not video games are an inherently violent medium, it is not their defining trait. The thing which distinguishes interactive media is that it responds to user input. Of course, I don’t mean for this to be some great insight – this is a very basic definition. And as it is necessarily true that a game responds to the player, simply satisfying this requirement is unsatisfactory.  I contend that we should strive for more, that the most important medium-specific trait of games is that they allow players to act according to their own desires and designs.

Not every genre offers the same degree of freedom, and certain gameplay scenarios place greater or lesser emphasis on the two dimensions of liberty. In essence, positive liberty is the ability to do something and negative liberty is freedom from constraints. Some measure of both is required for a person or player to experience agency.

While it is not necessarily true that you must give up one in exchange for the other, a level is typically structured such that as positive liberty increases, negative liberty decreases. To some extent, this tradeoff is perfectly acceptable and indeed necessary for the game to remain fun – the more power a player is given, the greater the obstacle they should overcome. If you give a player a tank, increasing his positive liberty, you will want to decrease his negative liberty by imposing a greater level of external constraints in the form of more numerous and powerful enemies.

And this approach is appropriate – the goal of a level designer should not be to maximize every dimension of player liberty at all points during the game. Without enemies to overcome, an increased capacity to blow them up is irrelevant. However, these gameplay sequences typically feature further limitations to negative liberty by confining player movement. High-impact, bombastic moments – theoretically periods of greatest interest for the player – tend to unfold along narrow, predetermined paths. >> CONTINUE >>