Videogame Agency as a Bio-costs Contract

Keywords: Videogame Design, Agency, Bio-costs, Conversation Theory, Communication


This paper presents a novel descriptive model for agency in videogames as communication. Literature pertaining to interactive works including videogames has identified the need to overcome dyadic perspectives of communication in such works. Research specifically to do with agency has called for agency to no longer be confused with freedom of action, for an integrated perspective of the player and the system, and for that relationship to be viewed as a conversation. The transactional model in this paper achieves this by proposing a nested hierarchy of levels of communication that operate as an implicit contract, negotiated between the system and the player, where the object of the transaction is bio-costs, effected through the signalling of the attainability of understandings. The paper describes research antecedents, a research agenda, the basis for the model, the model itself, examples of how the model can be used to describe videogame designs, and future research.

Author Biographies

Pedro Pinto Neves, HEI-LAB – Digital Human-Environment and Interactions Labs, Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, Lisboa, Portugal
Pedro Pinto Neves holds a Master in Arts in Digital Game Design from the University College for the Creative Arts at Farnham, UK and a PhD in Communication Sciences, for which he submitted a thesis on Videogame Design and Agency (Universidade do Minho, 2017). He is an Auxiliary Professor at ULHT (Universidade Lusófona de Humanidades e Tecnologias, Lisboa) where he teaches courses on Interative Narratives and on Game Design. His research interests are videogame design vocabularies and conceptual tools. He is a member of HEI-Lab.
Leonel Morgado, Department of Sciences and Technology (DCeT), Universidade Aberta, Lisboa, Portugal
Leonel Morgado is Assistant Professor with Habilitation, at Universidade Aberta (Portuguese Open University), a public university focusing on e-learning, where he lectures on programming and the use of virtual worlds. His main research interest is the use and development of virtual worlds as tools for learning and business, which he pursues since 2000, focusing on multi-user platforms since 2006. He authored over 100 papers, in journals, conferences, and as book chapters. Before pursuing an academic career, he was business and technical manager of an hardware import, distribution, and retail company, terminologist for the localization teams of MS Office 97 and Oracle InterOffice, language consultant for IBM/Lotus, a coordinator of Web-development and software-deployment teams, and manager of a cooperative extension team fighting the digital divide in rural villages.
Nelson Zagalo, Department of Communication and Art, Universidade de Aveiro, Aveiro, Portugal
Nelson Zagalo is Associate Professor at University of Aveiro - Portugal. Got his PhD in Communication Technology on interaction design and entertainment experience. Created a master program on Interactive Media; founded the laboratory EngageLab; founded the Portuguese Society for Videogames Sciences. He is an integrated researcher at Digimedia - Digital Media and Interaction. Nelson has published "Interactive Emotions, from Film to Videogames" (2009) and "Creativity in the Digital Age" (2015).


Aarseth, E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Adams, E. (2006). A New Vision for Interactive Stories. Lecture delivered at the Game Developers' Conference, San Francisco, California, USA.

Adams, E. (2013). Resolutions to some problems in interactive storytelling. Teeside University, Middlesborough, England, UK.

Carvalhais, M., & Cardoso, P. (2017). Creation of meaning in processor-based artefacts. ISEA 2017: International Symposium on Electronic Arts, Manizales, Colombia.

Dubberly, H., Maupin, C., & Pangaro, P. (2009). Bio-cost An Economics of Human Behavior. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 16(3–4), 187–194.

Fallout 2 [Computer Game]. (1998). Irvine: Interplay Productions, Inc.

Harrell, D. F. F., & Zhu, J. (2009). Agency play: Dimensions of agency for interactive narrative design. In Proceedings of the AAAI 2009 Spring Symposium on Narrative Intelligence II. Menlo Park: AAAI Press (pp. 44–52). Retrieved from

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. AAAI-04 Workshop on Challenges in Game AI (Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 17-22).

Louchart, S., Swartjes, I., Kriegel, M., & Aylett, R. (2008). Purposeful authoring for emergent narrative. In Lecture Notes in Computer Science (including subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics) (Vol. 5334 LNCS, pp. 273–284).

Murray, J. H. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press., pp. 273–284).

Pangaro, P. (2002). New order from old: The rise of second-order cybernetics and implications for machine intelligence. American Society for Cybernetics in Vancouver.

Pangaro, P. (2008). Instructions for design and designs for conversation. In Handbook of conversation design for instructional applications (pp. 35-48). IGI Global.

Pask, G. (1976). Conversation Theory - Applications in Education and Epistemology. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Red Faction: Guerrilla [Computer Game]. (2009). Agoura Hills: THQ Inc.

Tanenbaum, K., & Tanenbaum, J. (2010). Agency as commitment to meaning: communicative competence in games. Digital Creativity, 21(1), 11–17.

Upton, B. 2018. Situational game design. CRC Press.

Wardrip-Fruin, N., Mateas, M., Dow, S., & Sali, S. (2009). Agency Reconsidered. Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. Retrieved from

Watzlawick, P., & Beavin, J. H. (1967). Some formal aspects of communication. The American Behavioral Scientist, 10(8), 4–8.

Young, R. M. (2002). The Cooperative Contract in Interactive Entertainment. In Socially Intelligent Agents (pp. 229–234).