Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Pat Herrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media

Date posted: June 18, 2007

Pat Herrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.): Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media

A review by Julian Kücklich.


It has been three years since my review of First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game appeared in Dichtung-digital. To say that the review created a controversy would be an understatement; in fact, the backlash against the review was so intense that I refrained from writing reviews for more than a year after its publication. To this day, the review is accompanied by a warning that informs the reader that “this review contains inaccurate information about the circumstances of the book’s publication.” This is due to my claim that the contributors to First Person were “given the opportunity to update their writings, but elected to squander it” – which turned out to be false.

Three years older, but none the wiser, I approach the task of writing a review of Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media with a certain wariness, but also with the hope of righting wrongs that I may have inflicted unintentionally because I simply had too high expectations. Therefore, I started reading Second Person with my expectations significantly lessened, but still expecting it to be an improvement on its predecessor– which should allow me to write a more level-headed review of the book. The fact that Second Person is no longer entrenched in the theory wars between narratologists and ludologists, and draws on a more diverse pool of contributors, makes this task much easier.

First off, the list of contributors bears some reflection. In their introduction, the editors assert that the “authors, artists, and theoreticians in Second Person address the exigencies of playable media in a number of ways, and a number of voices.” However, I cannot help but feel that the chorus of voices could be much more diverse. Of the 50 contributors, eleven are women. Most of the authors live and work in the United States. Their backgrounds are almost exclusively Western. Admittedly, this is a problem that plagues not only new media studies but also many other fields of research, but this is precisely why it is a point worth reiterating.

Another point that should be addressed before I talk about the content of Second Person is the book’s format. First Person was set up with much fanfare as an “imagined panel discussion” between the contributors, which meant that each essay was accompanied by two respondents’ commentaries as well as the author’s reply to these commentaries. This sounds confusing, and indeed it was. In my review I described it as a “tangle of arguments and fragmentary counter-arguments” in which the reader frantically searches for a common thread. Therefore, I am very pleased to see that this concept has been abandoned.

The essays in Second Person are divided into three sections, entitled “Tabletop Systems”, “Computational Fictions” and “Real Worlds”. While the first one deals with role-playing and storytelling systems that do not require a computer, the second part is about interactive media including computer games, cyberdrama, and hypertext. The third part is dedicated to games and artworks that are designed in such a way that they change the players’ perception of the world they live in. Additionally, there is an appendix that includes games by Greg Costikyan, John Tynes, and James Wallis.

In their introduction, the editors claim that the contributors to Second Person are “not interested in questions such as ‘What is a game?’” – however, this question lurks in the background of almost all the essays in the first section of the book. Thus, Greg Costikyan defines a game as a “system of constraints” and uses this definition to differentiate game-like storytelling devices such as Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch from game systems which can be used to tell a story. In doing so, Costikyan covers a lot of ground that has already been covered by scholars such as Espen Aarseth, but he does not add anything to his structuralist analysis of ergodic texts.

Costikyan thus sets the tone for the first part of the book. Like many other contributors to Second Person, he still clings to the ideal of ‘interactive fiction’ – an art form that has been superseded commercially, aesthetically and technologically – and propagates the myth of the game designer as romantic author. This is also true for Rebecca Borgstrom’s borderline incoherent, formalist analysis of her game Exalted: The Fair Folk, in which she comes to the unsurprising conclusion that a role-playing session is an information-generating process and that “it is possible to go significantly further in developing a formal language for studying this process […], and that this would facilitate more efficient role-playing game design.”

The formalism that haunts the field of game design theory – represented by writers such as Jesper Juul, Katie Salen, and Eric Zimmerman – is thus revealed as a powerful meme that has taken root in the minds of many game designers. However, while Salen and Zimmerman at least recognize the fact that games are inscribed into cultural contexts, the embeddedness of games is largely disregarded by the contributors to Second Person. This becomes especially obvious in the accounts of the development of various RPG systems – from Dungeons & Dragons to Call of Cthulhu – which make hardly any reference to the socio-political climate in which their development took place.

Overall, however, the first part is especially interesting for researchers in the field of digital games, because it demonstrates the manifold possibilities of integrating storytelling and games in non-computational media. The second part, by comparison, offers less interesting examples and less interesting writing. While some of the descriptive pieces in the first part are nothing but post mortems or thinly veiled advertisements, some of the shorter contributions in the second part seem to serve no purpose than to include the names of some renowned researchers in new media, such as Lev Manovich and Marie-Laure Ryan.

Again, there is an abundance of examples, particularly in the area of interactive fiction, but ultimately most of these are so obscure as to render them invisible outside of the small circle of academics who study them. Thus, I found Jordan Mechner’s fairly technical post mortem of The Sands of Time much more relevant to contemporary media research than the theoretically sophisticated contribution by Nick Montfort on interactive fiction. On the end of the spectrum, Chris Crawford’s speculative essay about a programming language for interactive storytelling is so completely out of touch with the reality of contemporary media that it borders on science-fiction.

One of the few genuinely ground-breaking essays in the entire book is D. Fox Harrell’s essay on the computational narrative generation system GRIOT, in which he manages to blend the domains of cognitive linguistics and algebraic semiotics, arriving at a non-deterministic model which goes significantly beyond the structuralist paradigm so prevalent in Second Person. This is a conceptualisation which could help to overcome the limitations of formalist approaches, such as Mateas and Stern’s framework for their interactive drama Façade. Accordingly, Mateas and Stern’s contribution to Second Person focuses more on the failures than the undeniable achievements of their model.

The contributors in the third part of the book look at alternate reality games (ARGs), persuasive games, and massively multiplayer games, as well as more experimental forms of play such as improvisational theatre. Clearly, this is the miscellaneous section of the book, and it is hard to discern any kind of overarching theme in the contributions to this section. The blend of technological utopianism with thoroughly conservative modernist aesthetics which is evident in John Tynes’ opening essay, is characteristic of the contributions to this sections, most of which adhere to a televisual logic of exposure and persuasion rather than a new media logic of multitudinous manipulation.

This attitude is obvious in Tynes’ insistence on overcoming the paradigm of escapism, and arriving at “authentic experience”, but it is also present in the contribution by Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca, who describe the process of creating a persuasive game used in an electoral campaign in the United States. This is a particular interesting example of how theoretically advanced positions are rejected in favour of simplistic models of representational identity and monolithic citizenship in order to package politics into a game. Considering Bogost’s sophisticated argumentation in Unit Operations, this political naiveté is particularly unfortunate.

A similar unwillingness to reflect one’s role as a researcher in the creation of games is evident in Jane McGonigal’s contribution to the book. While she is aware of the problematic power relationship between the players of an alternate reality game (ARG) and the ‘puppet masters’ who orchestrate the game, she only reluctantly admits her own role in ‘I Love Bees’, and she never mentions the fact that the game was part of the marketing campaign for Halo 2. This refusal to engage with the economic context in which ARGs take place threatens to render her entire argument moot because she disregards capital as a source of power. Even more dubious is her suggestion that player performativity solves the problem of unequal power distribution in ARGs.

While there are some essays in the third part which raise interesting questions – particularly Jill Walker’s reflections on networked quest structures in World of Warcraft – this must be considered the weakest part of the book. This is at least partially due to the fact that it lacks coherence, and there is hardly any interplay between the individual essays. This, however, is a problem that plagues the book throughout. While there is a semblance of coherence in the first two parts, it is quickly revealed to be superficial. While First Person tried to hard to engage the contributors in a conversation, Second Person has given up on the idea of intertextuality almost entirely.

In this respect, Second Person is very much like an RPG source book. It contains a lot of information, but most of this information is only potentially useful. And while I wouldn’t want to fault the book for trying to integrate description with analysis, the balance between these two modes appears off-kilter, especially considering the fact that it is much easier to find good descriptions than good analyses of games. Considering the recent inflation of game-related books it would have made much more sense to create a companion website with background materials for the book than to put all this material in the book itself.

In the final analysis, then, Second Person is clearly an improvement on its predecessor, albeit a small one. It is a relief to see that the theory wars and the concomitant essentialist theoretical positions do no longer occupy much space in this book, and that the editors chose to continue their integrative policy vis-à-vis phenomena that would not necessarily fall under the ludological definition of a game. At the same time, it remains unclear which audience this book is trying to reach. Most academics will probably reject it as too shallow, while game designers are likely to shun it for its lack of practical advice. Considering that Second Person strikes me as fairly cliquish and exclusionary, I fear that the only people who will take an interest in it are the contributors themselves.

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