Eduardo Navas on Thu, 9 Aug 2007 05:15:45 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> [NMF] Review: Second Person

REVIEW: Second Person, Role Playing in Story and Playable Media, by David

Second Person: Role Playing in Story and Playable Media
 edited by Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin
 Publisher: The MIT Press (February 28, 2007)
 ISBN-10: 0262083566
 ISBN-13: 978-0262083560

Review by David Cox, MA

Second Person: Role Playing in Story and Playable Media elucidates many of
the techniques, approaches and philosophies of role playing based games,
media and art. It is a dense and well put-together compendium of working
notes, essays and from-the-trenches accounts from designers and artists
working in media which place the identity of the user/player/audience at the
very front and center of the work. It is an amazing collection of ideas,
scintillating, diverse and rich, each separate writer¹s account shedding
light on what it is that makes a memorable interactive title compelling and
immersive. The contributors each provide well illustrated, well written
insights into exactly how games and ?playable media¹ are conceptualized.
Individual case studies describe role-playing related works from academia,
the publishing world, the fine arts and the normally hyper-secret inner
sanctum of the games industry.

Discussed in fascinating detail are such canonical genre classics as
³Dungeons and Dragons² a role-playing game whose solid emphasis upon the
social interaction between players is central to the experience and
enjoyment of all who take part. D&D is the ³Citizen Kane² of RPGs, and it
comes as no surprise that so many incarnations both electronic and none,
have emerged.
 The book¹s central idea in fact, is that of the ¹second person¹. This
refers to that entity in a game or story which stands in, avatar-like for
player herself, her identity and her agency within the myriad threads the
story or gameplay might take. These ?other selves¹ can be either imaginary
characters in a turn-based role playing game, a lurid animated incarnation
in a massively multiplayer online world such as ³World of Warcraft² or
³Everquest² , or a simple stand-alonge player-controlled computer character,
for example the prince in ³Prince of Persia². A fascinating art installation
called ³Itinerant² integrates the terrain of Boston into a locative
interactive narrative. The project interweaves Mary Shelley¹s ³Frankenstein²
with flaneur-like drifting around urban space on the part of the
participant. A section of Teri Rueb¹s artist statement reads:

The participant¹s movement, tracked by GPS, triggers the payback of the
sounds as she moves through parts of the city space where sounds have been
?placed¹. Indeed it comes as no surprise that locative media are finding
increased expression in a world where people are in motion through dense
urban centers, carrying location-sensitive media devices with them. The
central idea of ?interactive cities¹ at ISEA recently proved a major
showcase for such work. Also this melding of art, mapping and technology is
described in detail in William Gibson¹s latest book ³Spook Country², placing
it at the center of cybercultural importance.

Eric Zimmerman¹s ³Life in the Garden² is another good example of pure
interactive storytelling; an amazingly simple idea of utilizing individual
picture-on-one-side-text-on-the-other cards intended to be read as a
narrative, where the story sequence is chosen at random by the

INSTRUCTIONS: Shuffle the pages. Without looking. Select five pages and
place them . Between the covers of the book. Then read the story. Conceived
as ?an experience¹ as much as a published story, ³Life in the Garden²,
according to Zimmerman: ?emerged organically through a process of constant
prototype and play testing, modifying and refining the format and writing,
and later the images¹. This is a kind of media both simple and complex,
where randomness, chance and other notions from the world of play and
ludology have spilled into storytelling and traditional print publishing.
The theorist, programmer and film maker Lev Manovich has a piece about his
¹soft cinema¹ production - a film made up of discrete fragments whose
playback is generated at random from a database in work which itself about
identity, self and interactivity. Pioneer of the idea of database as a
structural paradigm at least as important as that of ¹story¹, Manovich¹s
theories about database-versus-narrative have fuelled something of a
revolution in media culture, especially the landmark book ³Language of New
Media². There are many examples of team-based creative processes described;
what works and does not work when figuring out the myriad and many variables
which accompany the game design process, dependent as it is upon the input
and feedback of so many people.

This ³what-makes-a-good-game-good² stuff is hard to pin down at the best of
times. Games professionals, can on day by day basis turn to online resources
like the venerable Gamasutra for their dose of hot tips, industry gossip,
news and trends, but a book like this as far as I am aware is among the
first of its kind to represent a kind broader worldview required say, of a
textbook for university courses which may or may not involve lots of actual
hands-on games production, rather simply games analysis or appreciation.

Games studies needs this book, indeed might not be able to do without it,
and with time it could be the equivalent of ³Film Art: An Introduction² (the
central text of many a film school) the mainstay of graduate and
post-graduate videogame studies courses. I welcome its arrival on the scene
with great enthusiasm.

David Cox is a once-upon-a-time videogame producer, now filmmaker, writer
and digital media artist living in San Francisco¹s Mission District. He
teaches Computer Skills for Multimedia at City College in San Francisco.

His blog is

His email address is

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