First Person: Introduction

First Person: Introduction

Pat Harrigan

Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin introduce First Person, an interactive, multi-player collaboration between ebr and the MIT Press.

In addition to their long nonwired histories, game equipment and literature now exist as forms of computer-based experience. We might say they exist both as “new media” and perhaps “physically” or in “real life.” Game equipment and literature are not the only concerns of First Person The new media field includes those who learned the term “first person” as the name for a grammatical tense and literary point of view; those who use it to describe the well-known cinematic POV; those who associate it with the movement of a virtual “camera” through a computer graphic scene; those who mainly utter it as the first two words in the computer game genre of the “first person shooter”; and even those for whom it evokes images of invention and discovery, as in “arguably, the first person to make it work.” As creative exploration continues, and the new media field evolves, our meanings for “first person” will no doubt continue to evolve – but there seems little chance it will leave our vocabulary., but they are central – let’s start with them.

It is now the case that the market for computer games (handheld games, arcade games, games for PCs and consoles) dwarfs that of their physical counterparts (card and board games, sports equipment, tabletop role-playing games). Meanwhile, the market for computer literature seems nonexistent. But is it really? Many of the most popular computer games, those that have pushed the industry’s growth (until its revenue is not just larger than that for non-computer games, but rivals the feature film industry’s box office revenue) clearly have some form of story as a major component. The first big game hit of the 2000s wasn’t a descendent of the abstract Tetris; it was The Sims TM – a system for generating stories about suburban life. Similarly, in the 1990s, the first massively popular CD-ROM was Myst – in which players uncovered the story of an intricate and beautiful world.

But maybe these are overly facile categorizations. Couldn’t it be argued that The Sims is a resource-management experience, and that Myst is an exploration and puzzle-solving experience – that the gameplay is the central experience, and that generated or embedded stories are at best “themes” (which could be switched out for others), or even distractions? Isn’t it the case that Counter-Strike – which speeds up the essential multiplayer interaction and removes the replayability limiting story – is a better game than Half-Life, on which it is based? Counter-Strike, after all, was created by players, who might be better guides to what makes a good gaming experience than the creators of narrative games (who may be in the unfortunate throes of what Eric Zimmerman calls “cinema envy”). Yet it was players who, in the first year of this new century, kept sending games with strong story components – The Sims, the book-derived Harry Potter, the mythic, multi-act Black and White – to the tops of the charts.

This line of questioning, about the relationship between stories and games, is one of the major themes of First Person, and is addressed by theorists and practitioners from a wide variety of backgrounds.

Yet we began by talking about literature. Surely “story” is not all there is to literature in new media; if we are talking of literature, where is text – where are the words? The Sim characters for which the game is named don’t utter sentences that tell a story – much less language that edifies or entertains – but rather communicate through icons and gibberish to indicate what is on their simple minds.

And this seems appropriate for the roles these proto-characters play. But this begs the question: what about the times when some more complex linguistic form is called for? Settembrini, in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, may insist that form is folderol, but the editors of this volume respectfully disagree. Text in new media – fiction, poetry, performance – must have some utility other than in the form of the cut-scene, although to find it we may have to look outside the mainstream. If The Sims and Black and White are the surprisingly good summer blockbusters (or the better bestsellers), we still may still wish to locate the art films (or the small presses).

This is another major concern of this project: the exploration of new textual experiences – and other new literary/linguistic experiences – created by artists, poets, programmers, and fiction writers. Our concerns are broader than those found in 1990s surveys of “hypertext,” A term now generally used more narrowly than intended by its creator, Ted Nelson. See the section “Hypertexts and Interactives” in this volume. yet are more focused than a rundown of abstruse textual possibilities. In First Person we provide examples of textual/literary practices (including hypertexts) that in their internal procedures or audience interaction can be thought of as performance or gameplay, or that provoke us to reconsider these terms. Although far from exhaustive, this survey counterpoints the “storygame” discussion, and opens up for examination some of the most noteworthy intersections of new media and literary practice.

First Person is organized as a series of imagined panel presentations, Not surprising, considering that many of these essays began life as presentations at conferences such as ACM SIGGRAPH, Digital Arts and Culture, and ACM Hypertext. which are extraordinary in two respects. First, they gather a selection of field leaders and rising stars from a wider range of backgrounds (theoretical, technical, and artistic) than are commonly found together at any conference. Second, these panels incorporate exceptional audience members who – virtual microphones in hand – respond to each contributor, encouraging them to review fundamental aspects of their argument, reevaluate claims, or expand on statements too-lightly delivered. Each author then offers a final statement to her or his respondents.

From these presentations and their follow-up discussions we have created the First Person book and web site, constructed as an experiment in publication. The web site – created in collaboration with electronic book review – will build over time, while the book will be released, unsurprisingly, all at once. All the panel presentations will appear both online and in print; the first set of audience responses will appear only in print, and the next set of responses and the authors’ final statements will appear only online. From there the online discussion will continue to grow – with expanding “first person” commentary from another level of thoughtful readership: including, perhaps, you.


Noah Wardrip-Fruin, editor

Pat Harrigan, editor

Espen Aarseth

Mark Bernstein

Mark Bernstein and Diane Greco

John Cayley

Chris Crawford

J. Yellowlees Douglas

J. Yellowlees Douglas and Andrew Hargadon

Johanna Drucker

Markku Eskelinen

Mary Flanagan

Gonzalo Frasca

Matt Gorbet

Diane Gromala

N. Katherine Hayles

Mizuko Ito

Henry Jenkins

Natalie Jeremijenko

Jesper Juul

Brenda Laurel

Bryan Loyall

Michael Mateas

Jon McKenzie

Nick Montfort

Stuart Moulthrop

Janet Murray

Celia Pearce

Simon Penny

Ken Perlin

Rita Raley

Rebecca Ross

Warren Sack

Richard Schechner

Bill Seaman

Phoebe Sengers

Andrew Stern

Stephanie Strickland

Lucy Suchman

Eugene Thacker

Camille Utterback

Victoria Vesna

Jill Walker

Adrianne Wortzel

Will Wright

Eric Zimmerman

Section One: Cyberdrama


Call of Cthulhu. Sandy Peterson; Chaosium. 1981.

Delta Green. Dennis Detwiller, Adam Scott Glancy and John Tynes; Pagan Publishing. 1997.

Dungeons and Dragons. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson; Tactical Studies Rules (TSR). 1974.

GURPS. Steve Jackson et al.; Steve Jackson Games. 1986.

Unknown Armies. Greg Stolze and John Tynes; Atlas Games. 1999.