First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game

Image of book cover

Harrigan, Pat and Noah Wardrip-Fruin. First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2004. Print.

The contributing authors to this collection of essays question the relationship between stories and games and explore new types of textual experiences made possible in the digital environment. The connection between stories and games especially relates to the digital storytelling and gameful experiences theme of the Stories in Play Initiative. The authors examine blurry terms such as play, games, narrative and interactivity in their work. Reflecting the interactive digital environment in examination, the book is structured as a series of panel discussions, where each essay is followed by responses. The contributors represent a range of backgrounds including theorists, game designers and artists. Furthering the notion of interactivity, readers and the public are invoked in the book’s concerns, as the editors of First Person also created a website in collaboration with electronic book review with the opportunity for further online discussion.

While games and stories have often overlapped, questioning their relationship has caused contention among gamers, game designers and ludologists. Much of the controversy among scholars involves the relevance of narratology in game and digital culture studies. Ludologists believe most of the existing game theory does not focus on the gaming situation itself and that computer games are under-theorized. Regarding the question of whether games can be considered “texts” raised by some scholars, Espen Aarseth argues that rather than being textual, games share more qualities with performance arts, material arts and verbal arts, as they are comprised of many forms. Janet Murray discusses the structures games and stories have in common, including the contest and the puzzle. Considering the history of games and stories, she argues the element of story always comes before games since it is a core human activity. Contrastingly, Aarseth claims games are likely older than stories and even human culture, also representing a form of interspecies communication. Examining the function of narrative in games, Celia Pearce argues that since games center on play, storytelling is meant to engender compelling, interesting play. Other contributors note that while not all digital games tell stories, many do have narrative aspects and aspirations. Those that utilize such storytelling conventions can be studied as electronic literature.

In determining the role of practitioners, specifically game designers, Henry Jenkins argues they are less like storytellers and more like narrative architects, as they design and sculpt game spaces. One of the differences Murray notes between the two forms is that stories have a greater emphasis on plot, while games have a greater emphasis on the actions of the player. Murray does not subscribe to binaries between stories and games, however, as she notes player action and plot event often merge in games. Another author notes that stories are essentially about conveying character, further demonstrating the blurred boundary between games and stories. As practitioners weigh in on the relationship between stories and games, others in the field would likely be interested in their responses.

The public is addressed in these essays in relation to the position of gamers. As Aarseth claims, unlike stories, games are not about the other, but rather about the self, or the player’s decisions. Thus, the player who assumes the role of a first person character is not merely observing events, but is immersed in the story. In multiplayer online role-playing games, the players’ agency is also important to the narrative, as the story emerges from social interaction. Players, as members of the public, thus become types of storytellers in a digital environment. Ken Perlin analyzes how agency functions in both genres, comparing linear narratives to interactive games, as he examines characteristics of the game player. He states the novel asks the reader to set aside their agency to observe the protagonist’s struggle. Contrastingly, games do not ask the player to relinquish their identity as the game depends on it. In examining how scholars, game designers and players view the significance of storytelling in games, this book takes up concerns that are central to SIPI.

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