Gladiator, worker, operative: the hero of the first person shooter adventure

Printed in Copier, Marinka og Raessens, Joost (eds.): Level Up. Digital Games Research conference 2003. Utrecht: Utrecht University; CD-ROM.


Who is the hero of the FPS? How is the attraction of this figure related to dominant practices of science, work and war in modern western society? In this paper, as a part of my ongoing PhD-research on the genre, I want to look at the First Person Shooter Adventure through the typical challenges and sensations that configure the attraction of its hero. The following brief analysis definitely represents a tentative tunnel-vision of the genre, however aiming to highlight a dimension of its aesthetic which I argue must be of central importance within a more general cultural critique. Hence the most general question of this paper - one that is largely left unanswered - is an ideological one: Who's power is it that defines my pleasure?

The journey of Doom

Doom, released by id Software in 1993, was a formidable spectacle of horror and violence. Its dark Fantasy Sci-Fi world, packed with mutants, demons and other monsters who were to be hacked and slashed by the protagonist, was a quite familiar one to fans of role-playing games and horror films alike. At the same time, Doom was something new and different: a real-time, textured 3D action game, mixing the atmosphere and horror of fantasy adventures with the hypnotising thrills of the arcade shooter. Crucial to the overwhelming and rapid success of the game, the initial 9 levels were released as free shareware over the Internet.

The player navigated the game space through a first-person perspective, and a hand holding a weapon was the only visible graphical representation of the player's avatar. Because this hand was fixed in relation to the framing of the first-person perspective (as if mounted to a subjective camera, immovable), the gunpoint would always be at the centre of the player's vision. Looking and targeting came together in the same movement, and the player was invited to, as it were, follow his gun.

My interest in this paper is the single-player variant of the genre. In competitive multiplayer games, although using the same game mechanics and the same fictional settings, the interaction with the game world in is based on the logic of the tournament, framed within the general metaphors of the arena and the battleground. Multiplayer FPS' are not unlike computerised versions of paintball, but within more elaborate and evocative fictional settings. The single-player experience, on the other hand, is built on the model of the journey, or more specifically: the quest. The role of the absent other player is taken over by the design of the story-game . The solitary play enabled through this design is more defined and restricted than when playing against other players, which is a more open and free-form type of play.

The gladiator: the savage warrior

In Doom, all the basic building-blocks of the arcade action game were in place, including hordes of enemies against a lone hero, repetitive action, and an arsenal of powerful weapons, escalating throughout the game in pace with the accelerating force of the opposition. The built-in excess of this type of play was now made less abstract and more visceral than ever before. Unlike previous 3-dimensional arcade shooters, Doom took the action into a textured and consistent 3-dimensional game world. The slaughtering of monsters in computer games had taken a quantum leap

Doom presented a dark, gory and - at least at the time - a culturally marginalized imagery of fantasy horror. The construction of the fictional game world follows the typical over-the-top mode of representation found in action games. Through a dynamic, exaggerated and vivid surface-aesthetic, this imagery combines visceral spectacle with strong pop-cultural and ready-made emotional connotations. The background narrative setting of the game was a typically conspiratory and anti-authoritarian one, involving evil corporations and "experiments gone horribly wrong" - a tongue-in-cheek general narrative framework that has more or less stuck with the genre ever since.

The strand of what we might call "power shooters" continues to be a significant sub-category of what has today become a broader and more varied genre. Duke Nukem 3D (1996), Quake (1996) and Unreal (1998) seminal titles of the genre, all belong to this tradition. A more recent example is the hyper-fantastical monster mayhem of Serious Sam (2001), which charmed reviewers and players alike with over-the-top and relentlessly frantic non-stop shooter action, unleashing on the player hordes of imaginative monsters to a degree never seen before in a FPS.

In the more culturally mainstream variants of the genre, notably in classics like GoldenEye (1997), the series Medal of Honor (1999), Soldier of Fortune (2000) and No One Lives Forever (2000), the spectacle of excessive violence is still absolutely central, although less frantic and arcade-style than in the tradition of simple power shooters. Soldier of Fortune followed up the tradition of violent excess with its own infamous variant of bodily destruction. The main selling point of the game was that the animations of enemy damage and enemy deaths were more realistic, varied, detailed and bloody than before.

A recent renewal of the power shooter tradition is found in the Xbox launch-game Halo (2001). This game offers more varied types of combat than Doom and Quake - partly due to more powerful technology, the inclusion of vehicles, more advanced AI and a more tactical weapon dynamics - but the main focus of the game is firmly on eliminating countless numbers of aliens in different shapes and forms. This updated and rather family-friendly version of the power shooter features a highly advanced physics engine, enabling endlessly variable physical responses from the enemies in the game. Nuances of visceral gore and destruction are plenty, varying according to types of enemies and types of weapons, as well as physical variables such as distance, angle of impact etc.

The ambiguity of the gladiator

In Man, Play and Games (2001 [1961]), Roger Caillois sets out to analyse the historical relationship between different types of games and the development of modern civilization. His central argument is that at any point in history, the diversity and structure of play-forms within the separate realm of play acts as a mirror of the serious business of economy and culture. Certain types of games have developed in correspondence with the emergence of civilization. Culture can be read from its games.

It is as a part of this wider theoretical project that it becomes important for Caillois to construct his now well-established typology of play principles. Agon (competition) and alea (chance) are the building-blocks of rule-based games, which are ultimately civilized forms of play. Mimicry and vertigo, on the other hand, are principles of play that were dominant in the primitive past of our modern societies. They do still have a place in modern societies, admits Caillois, but cannot easily be combined with rule-based and more sophisticated forms of play - in particular games that are strongly competitive.

Although recognising that mimicry has developed into highly civilized forms of art, Caillois makes great effort to explain how dangerous to culture the potential combination of mimicry (or 'simulation') and vertigo can be (2001: 81ff). The two principles live in a natural symbiosis in traditional and religiously based cultures, taking the forms of various ecstatic rituals and festivals. The gradual suppression of this wild, trance-like, and unruly form of play is one of the distinctive marks of the civilizing process. This suppression runs parallel with the development of more complex and rule-based play, games in which the principles of agon and alea co-exist under the laws of numerical rigidity. Pure forms of vertigo (as found in amusement parks) are in modern societies nothing more than harmless outlets for the majority of simple-minded people. They are necessary residues from pre-modern times, preventing the regressive influence of the more dangerous mimicry-vertigo-combination.

In this perspective, Doom stands out as a remarkably uncivilized game. Caillois gives a quite striking description of this strongly mimetic and sense-assaulting type of play:

"Games involving glass, special effects, and ghosts all lead to the same result - the creation of a fictional world in desired contrast with the ordinary life that is dominated by the conventional species and from which demons have been banished. The disconcerting reflections that multiply and distort the shape of one's body, the hybrid fauna, legendary monsters, nightmarish detectives, the grafts of an accursed surgery, the sickly horror of embryonic gropings, larvae, vampires, automatons, and Martians (for everything that is strange or disturbing is of use here), supplement on another level the wholly physical thrill by which the vertiginous machines momentarily distorts one's sensory stability." (Caillois, 2001 [1961).

Caillois' way of identifying in modern entertainment some distinctively pre-modern forms of culture finds general resonance in psychology as well as in cultural and literary theory. Due in large part to the influences of Edmund Freud and Mikhail Bakhtin, bodily and sensory vulgarity and excess has come to be associated with the forces of the pre-modern, or more specifically the pre-bourgeois.

However, Mikhail Bakhtin turns the implicit ideological judgments of Caillois upside-down. In Rabelais and his world (1984), he celebrates the anti-authoritarian aesthetic of the carnival. The carnivalesque, according to Bakhtin, is an aesthetic of mockery, inversion and excess, grown out of the body-based and grotesque elements of popular culture in the middle ages and the renaissance. To Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is not so much a description of historical practices as it is a certain kind of spirit, an aesthetic of vulgar, popular gaiety which is identifiable in the writings of Rabelais. Central to this spirit is the appreciation of what Bakhtin labels grotesque realism, an attitude that turns the vulgarity of excrement, orifice and bodily dismemberment into a joyful affirmation of the materiality of the body.

According to Bakhtin - and in many ways echoing Caillois' model - this affirmation of the grotesque has been suppressed and dispersed under the influence of rationalism and modernity from the seventeenth century onwards. In other words, what is destructive and dangerous to Caillois seems to be equally subversive and life-affirming to Bakhtin. Although he does not address to the same extent the specific activity of vertigo-like play, he takes his clues from the same pre-modern and cyclical practices of ritual, festivity and play, and contrasts them with practices and perceptions defined by the linear, rational progress of modernity.

First person worker

However, Doom is not all about spectacular excess. The structure of navigation, the combat and the principle of resource management show many similarities with the Platform genre, although in Doom the avatar cannot jump. Navigation and gathering of resources are inseparable activities, unified in the same logic of kleptomaniac exploration. The player is not supposed to play around, but must dedicate effort to the serious business of exploration, colonization and careful resource management. The mayhem of big-gun massacre is a means to an end; the omnipresent military imperative to Secure The Area.

Half-Life, developed by Valve Software and released by Sierra in 1998, marks a significant shift in the development of the genre. Compared to the established power shooters, Half-Life offered a rationalized, more complex and more constructive type of forward-investigative play. The name of the developer, Valve, is really quite illustrative, suggesting that this is a game for the engineer as well as for the soldier. Consider this excerpt from one of the many game-guides or "walkthroughs", giving detailed solutions on how to progress through the game:

"Go to the next toxic pool and use the pipes to get to the elevator. Go up, shoot the explosive barrels to kill the bullsquid and go right. Kill all the houndeyes and take the medikits. Continue through the bridge and kill the headcrabs. Enter the door and open the next using the switch. Kill the mawman and enter the control room. To kill the huge tentacle, you must activate the oxygen, the fuel and the power."

This is clearly a very different task than simply just running around killing monsters. There is quite some killing going on, and the monsters are still in the picture, but equally striking this time: Progressing through the game is like an exercise of rational, problem-solving, painstakingly systematic, and ultimately very civilized, work. The teleported monsters as well as the 'government marines' are placed in an environment of switches, hatches, conveyor belts, docking bays, science labs, valves (!), toxic pools, pipes, elevators, control rooms and in general a truckload of various industrial-scientific machinery, with a lot of operating and 'activating' to do for the adventurous player. During most part of the game, the environment is unmistakably industrial and scientific, filled with hostile substances and machinery, and with monsters which are the result of foolish experiments and questionable ethics. The player-avatar and protagonist of the adventure is named Gordon Freeman, a bespectacled and physically rather unimpressive PhD-student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The genre has matured; childish play has become more firmly contained by a rationality that mimics adult work.

The design of weapons, enemies and system of resources in Half-Life enables a more tactical, slower and yet intense form of combat. The military-styled combat evokes a sense of realism and strategy as much as the sensation of excessive violence. The most apparent evolutionary leap in this respect is undoubtedly the level of sophistication in the artificial intelligence governing the actions of the enemy soldiers. Freeman is not a gladiator. He is a professional, a soldier-worker, who acts with patience and precision. The player is asked to perform the routines of a super-human, lethal machine.

The cyborgian operative

The action-adventure FPS is a relatively coherent form of fantasy, in which the carnivalesque and the modern is played out in mutual interdependence. Rather than following a principle of simulation, it has established its own alternative way of playing out the fascinations of technologically augmented warfare. Its playful mimicry of civilised destruction is, after all, more akin to the parody than to the simulation. As a simplifying model, we might say that the action-adventure FPS represents an inverted, exaggerated and grotesque version of Tom Clancy's special-ops hero. The FPS-hero can be compared to, and is commonly inspired by, the cyborgian heroes found in Sci-Fi and cyber-punk. However, this time the cyborgian logic is more about play mechanics than symbolic imagery.

The archetypical feature of today's mainstream First Person Shooters is the sniper rifle. It belongs to what we might call resources of hyper-information, which are abundant in the majority of the games. In a basic form, the sniper rifle equips the player with a screen-mediated, hyper-informed vision within the game space. The power given to the player lies not only in the destructive power of the gun, but in the control and surveillance of the target scope. Rather than the desperate immediacy strived for in Doom, the playing mimics the screen-mediated kills of modern combat, while retaining the spectacle of up-front bodily destruction.

In most FPS-games following Half-Life, hyper-informed vision include devices far more advanced than scopes and binoculars. Typical is the support by some form of 'headquarters' or back-up unit, a powerful information and coordination centre offering a range of modern or futuristic forms of intelligence and gadgetry. Standard generic inventory in an espionage- or Sci-Fi themed FPS includes night-vision goggles, satellite surveillance, radar and motion-detectors, as well as more exotic gadgetry like for example thermo-optic vision, x-ray vision or remote-controlled spy cameras. The narrative framing ensures that a high level of information-enhancing resources can be integrated in the fictional game world.

Obviously, the technological enhancements of the avatar are not limited to visual resources. The amount of firepower that the avatar can resist without running out of health and armour is truly super-human. The same goes for the force and weight of the artillery that the avatar is supposed to carry and operate. The archetype of the cyborg warrior has acquired a fundamental position within the FPS genre. Scientific-industrial and techno-futuristic environments are found in a wide range of computer games, not just the FPS, and can be seen to reflect or mirror the computerized, machine-based nature of the play form itself. Any computer game does by definition involve the challenge to master, and to take pleasure from, the procedures of a machine, in a very physical and hands-on sense. The fantasies performed are fantasies about abilities, made possible by the representational and procedural powers of the computer. In this sense, all computer game avatars are 'cyborgian'.

The subjective camera-gun

Still, the FPS does represent a quite specific articulation of the cyborgian computer game logic. In terms of narrative, the fictional genres of science-fiction and espionage seem to be more or less hardwired into the genre, more consistently than in other action-adventure games. The persistent leaning towards techno-fantasies finds a perceptual grounding in the tunnel-vision of the subjective camera-gun. Historically, there are interesting similarities between the technological power-play of the FPS and the attraction of the various "ride-films" from the beginning of the 20th century, which were shot with a camera mounted on the front of a train (Fielding 1983). The FPS-look is a machine-look, offering a form of pleasure not unlike the sensation of driving (or being driven by) a train, a car or an aircraft. The super-human avatar of the FPS finds strong support in this cultural tradition of machine-driven subjective cameras.

The first-person perspective of the FPS, then, is not about 'immersion' in the literary sense, or about the self-forgetting identification with a virtual reality. Many games allow the player to switch between first-person and third-person modes, without confusing or significantly altering the conditions for identification with the game world through the player-avatar. In terms of player control, the first-person alternative is, rather pragmatically, about effective aiming - most fully realized in the FPS through the omnipresence of the sniper-rifle. Maybe more important still, the characteristic 'trapping' of the player into a continuous first-person perspective is constructed around what we might call the 'subjective camera-gun' - a weapon fixed to the frame, as if mounted to the subjective camera. This enables a unified control of vision and destruction, based on the central-perspective of the 3-dimensional space.

The visual and auditory response from the weapon that occupies the central position of the game space is hyper-reactive, loud and graphically in-your-face, forcing an awareness of sheer power and destruction. Above all, 'first person' in the genre of the FPS means first person gun, a unique and rather extreme perceptual articulation of the broader attraction of 'gunplay' that exists in various forms in our culture. Therefore, the qualities of the guns - their look and sound, their functionalities and forms of impact, their variety and balance - is absolutely central to the success of any FPS. As a cyborgian form of challenge and spectacle, the FPS holds up and celebrates the gun as the ultimate technology, a focus point as well as a paradigmatic substitute for a wide range of modern technologies. Captured by the First Person Shooter, they all shine anew with destructive power, interpreted in the image of the gun.

The FPS cannot be unambiguously situated within a historical tradition of techno-scientific rationality and control. The genre also belongs to an alternative technological history, a story of magic machines and sensational joyrides. An important reason for this is the perceptual grounding of the genre in first-person perspective. The dimension of vertigo - the thrill of bodily movement and disorientation - is enabled by the restrictive tunnel-vision of the first-person point of view and the ability to move the avatar around in a 3D environment at high speed. In the midst of the battle for control and mastery, there is always a contradictory dimension of loss, of being trapped by, overwhelmed by or unavoidably taken for a ride by the first-person-camera. The FPS is - to return to Roger Caillois - a vertiginious machine, and in many ways a terrifying and disturbing one.

Celebrating the modern grotesque

In the world of First Person Shooters, an inversed form of civilized challenge and mastery is celebrated - one that is equally rule-based, explorative and scientifically grounded, but mediated through a monstrous individuality. The player of a First Person Shooter performs the role of an individual hero, a re-articulation of the ancient mythical warrior of Achilles or Odysseus. Gordon Freeman is a true super-man, not from the planet of Krypton, but from the science lab at MIT. This modern Odysseus represents a rationalistic and techno-augmented violence, which is as grotesque and spectacular as in the ancient coliseums. In comparison, this paradox is radically played down in the popular trend of 'tactical shooters' following the success of Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six (1998).

The typical FPS-adventure encourages a ritualistic rather than a creative form of engagement with technology. Doom is uncivilized and 'pre-modern' not just because of its excessive violence, but because of the simple, repetitive, trance-like and mimetically evocative form of play. Looking beyond the specificity of Doom, all FPS-adventures share an overall structure of linear restrictedness, blending the satisfaction of navigation and exploration with the thrill of on-rails action . Many of them, like the Medal of Honor series, also include arcade-inspired sections of on-rail rides (on trucks, tanks, cars etc), where the player does not control navigation. The endless turning on/off of switches, activiating/deactiviating of devices, and opening/closing of valves is, most of the time, not really a part of any intellectually challenging puzzle. Such tasks are quite often set up as simple checkpoints of navigation. The player just presses whatever buttons are placed along the linear path of the forward-moving adventure.

In all its techno-fetishist excesses, this peculiar modern ritual is a celebration of modern technological power - not only in a virtual world, but also in a very hands-on and physical realm of computer hardware in various forms. The continuous attraction of the FPS is - more than with any other genre - closely tied to obsessive fascinations with the ever-escalating representational powers of digital technology, in particular on the PC market . In a more concrete way than in other forms of entertainment, the computer game consumer engages in active mastery of the latest piece of industrial technology. In the FPS as well as other genres, the sensation of the machine is typically augmented through simulated grotesque power. The abstractness and invisibility of modern technological power is being transformed into a simulated realm of mythic heroism and violence, where it suddenly becomes something concrete, magical and terrifying. Both in an abstract and concrete sense, then, the FPS represents the carnivalesque in a box.

The FPS holds up a grotesque mirror of civilized rationality. It represents a celebration of, as well as an escape from, the technocratic nature of modern, complex societies. The motion ride, the horror house and the FPS adventure are as much true representations of civilized modernity as quantum mechanics and spreadsheets. The FPS is an epitome of the modern grotesque, playing out the violent and destructive potential of modernity. Its relationship to dominant languages and practices of power is ambivalent and slippery. There is no voice of cultural or political critique to be found, only regressive parody. As such, the genre represents a distinctive contribution to society's variable repertoire of playful practices.


Aarseth, Espen (1999): "Aporia and Epiphany in Doom and The Speaking Clock: The Temporality of Ergodic Art", in Ryan, Marie-Laure (ed.), Cyberspace Textuality. Computer Technology and Literary Theory. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1984): Rabelais and his world, Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Caillois, Roger (2001 [1961]): Man, Play and Games, Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Fielding, Raymond (1983), "Hale's tours. Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture", in Fell, John L. (ed.), Film Before Griffith, Berkeley: University of California Press.

MacTavish, Andrew (2002): "Technological Pleasure: The Performance and Narrative of Technology in Half-Life and other High-Tech Computer Games", in Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska (eds.): ScreenPlay. Cinema/videogames/interfaces, London and New York: Wallflower Press, pages 33-49.


Deus Ex, Ion Storm; Eidos Interactive 2000.

Doom, Id Software; Id Software 1993.

Duke Nukem 3D, 3D Realms; FormGen 1996.

GoldenEye 007, Rare; Nintendo 1997.

Halo: Combat Evolved, Bungie; Microsoft 2001.

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, Red Storm Entertainment; Red Storm Entertainment 1998.

Medal of Honor, Dreamworks Interactive; Electronic Arts 2002.

No One Lives Forever, Monolith; Fox Interactive 2000.

Quake, Id Software; Id Software 1996.

Soldier of Fortune, Raven Software; Loki Games 2002.

Unreal, Digital Extremes/Epic MegaGames; GT Interactive 1998.