Word Geekery

I admit it. I’m a geek. I write for a living, on the internet. I read what many would identify as “too much.” I enjoy science. I get passionate about things like marketing and Ted Talks. I participate, as an adult, in not one — but two — ongoing Dungeons and Dragons games.

To demonstrate the appalling extent of my geekdom, I want to talk about something that’s bothered me for years. First-person shooters, those video games where you run around shooting bad guys from the POV of the soldier, games like Halo and Call of Duty,ย aren’t really “first-person shooters”. They are second-person shooters. It’s true that the entire video game industry disagrees with me here, but in my not-terribly-humble opinion, they’re wrong. Let me break it down for you.

  • The experience of playing this kind of game is most like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, not a detective novel narrated by the main character. Those detective novels are first-person. Choose Your Own Adventure is second person.
  • When you describe what happened in a session of playing these games, you say “I did this. I shot that. I got ganked and bled out.” When you describe what happens in a first-person novel, you say “He found this. He solved the case. He got hit in the head with a blackjack and woke up in an alley.”
  • First-person movies don’t exist. Third-person movies with first-person narration exist. There are a few examples of second-person movies out there, most notably The Blair Witch Project. The POV in this kind of shooter game is exactly that of Blair Witch.

I think the confusion for most people comes from my second point. When you describe what you did in the game, you use the word “I.” Back in middle school, our teachers taught us that “I” means first-person perspective. However, that means your description of what happened in the game is first person — not what happened in the game itself.

This gets further complicated by the option of viewing your game with different camera angles. The shoulder-cam option might be able to make a case for first-person status. It’s probably still third-person, but you’re following the action of your character from an intimately close angle — much like the way you ride through the action of a first-person novel. I can accept that argument. Obviously, games where you can see the entire body of your character — Gears of War leaps to mind — are inarguably third person.

I’m not sure what makes me more of a geek — that I notice these things, or that I care enough to post about them.

Thanks for listening.

7 thoughts on “Word Geekery

  1. I’ve got to disagree with you on this one… I think that your experience as a writer is creating bias regarding the n-person breakdown of video games. Your point of view regarding the point of view is skewed! ๐Ÿ˜›

    When you play a video game, when you really put yourself in the game, in direct control of the character’s actions, what’s happening to that character in the game is happening to “you”, just filtered through the screen and keyboard/controller. You’re experiencing the events in first-person when you really get into a game. If you’re seeing all this as 3rd-person, I think you’re stuck “outside”. You’re thinking about the events of the game as a narrative being told about the character in the game, which would indeed make it 3rd-person. When you really dig into a game, you’re shifting your point of view into the character, taking what would be a 3rd-person story about that character in the game to a 1st-person story about “you”, because you’re the one experiencing the events now.

    Does that makes sense? Did I make a dent in your opinion on the n-person-ness of games? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • You’re sort of making my point. A “first-person” experience doesn’t happen to “you” — it happens to a third party who describes himself using the word “I.” Stuff that happens to “you” is second-person, such as in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

      On the other hand, your comment about my literary bias is dead on the mark. I’ve noticed that a lot of film writers use “first person” to describe camera angles that would be “second person” in a book. It’s likely more legitimate to use film terminology to describe video games than literary terminology.

      Also fair to say that “first person shooter” means a specific thing and that (almost) everybody agrees on what it means. Just as “irregardless” has made it into some dictionaries, if enough people use a term incorrectly for long enough, it becomes correct.

      • It all depends on your frame of reference… In a Choose Your Own Adventure book, it is definitely written in the second-person narrative voice, but the experience is a first-person one! Same thing with video games, if you’re thinking about it from the perspective of the game telling a story, it’s 2nd or 3rd, but from the protagonist’s point of view, it’s 1st. ๐Ÿ˜›

  2. When you relate the story, you’re definitely telling it in 1st person — and this is the reason for the confusion.

    If you read, watch or play a 2nd person story, you relate the story in 1st person.

    If you read, watch or play a 1st person story, you relate the story in 3rd person.

    3rd person, you relate in 3rd person.

    Relating a story in 2nd person rarely happens outside of conversation, such as “Let me get this straight, you walked into a bar with a readhead, two blondes and a lawyer and you made no jokes whatsoever?”


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