Thursday, July 25, 2013


I chose the subject and title of today's article because it's a word that is very common and still I have a feeling that we never hear about its deep meaning.

What's that?

Out brain recognizes an element of our environment as an "agent" when this element does not just endures gravity. If you put a rock on a slope it will simply obey gravity, slide, roll, fall. If instead, you put a beetle, the beetle will walk around. And even if it slides, its attempts to counter the fall will make it follow a trajectory that is not only the subject of gravity. And that is what our brain recognizes as an "agent".

And why do I care?

Because agents are not just a piece of our environment, they are more than that. We project part of our human attribute on agents. And because we do that, we also sanction morally our interactions with agents. Why is it cruel to tear off the legs from a fly? Why isn't it cruel to tear off the leaves from a tree? Because a fly is an agent!

While we recognize a sense of agency in animals, in robots, etc. we may also lose our own sense of agency. When we feel powerless, when we are crushed by the system, be it administration, our manager, etc. we may feel like our actions have no effect on our environment. And ensues a sense of powerlessness, loss, even self-hatred.

This feeling, the feeling of agency, is essential to everyday life but also more specifically to the development of children. Children who feel that their choices matter perform better in their studies and attaining the career they desire than children who don't. Which suggests that part of a good education or part of the games we play with children should include mechanisms to reward their efforts and build in them this sense of agency.

Aside topic

It is a personal perception, therefore I might be wrong just as I might be right : among adults, I feel that society has dis-empowered people in the recent years. Unforgiving hierarchies, promotion rewarding backstabbers rather than performers, they contribute to dissolving our sense of agency. And that's where video games may feel a void, with the risk of addiction... or more precisely compulsive behavior. Because in games, the rules are clear: you get rewarded for performing and sanctioned for underperforming. And the rules always apply. You can't tell a game that despite the rules, somebody's getting a promotion because he's a nice well-connected fellow, and that is a reason for beating all the other people who were inline for a promotion and who were abiding by the rules.


  • We learned about agents and agency. Neat!
  • We learned that agency must be cultivated in children. Important stuff!
  • We learned that society is not fair. Shocker!
  • We learned that agency also matters for adults. If you feel like you lack some agency, I recommend you do something with visible effects on short term. Growing a plant, maybe? Green beans and peas grow quickly enough and fit in an apartment. Mint, too! If you have a garden or a growing bed go big with tomatoes, potatoes, chilies...

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