Finding the First Person


User perspective is a vital part of what makes or breaks a simulation experience for the learner, but it’s too often an afterthought for developers. When building a simulation, developers often create a “fly on the wall” environment, where learners are overhearing a conversation between two other people.

But there’s a better way. Create immersion and engaged learners by employing the power of the first-person perspective.

High school English was a long time ago for many of us, so to refresh your memory regarding narrative structure, third-person perspective is when a story is written from the viewpoint of an outside narrator. This is the “fly on the wall” point of view. The writer uses pronouns like “he,” “she,” and “they,” and the storyteller is usually not an active part of the story itself. Louise Erdrich uses this perspective effectively in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (full disclosure: this is one of my favorite books ever). In this excerpt, Nanapush and his wife, Margaret, are entangled (literally) in a battle with a moose he attempted to hunt by roping it by its antlers from his canoe while it was swimming in a nearby lake. When the moose barreled out of the water, Margaret was able to escape, but Nanapush was caught in tackle he’d left at the bottom of the boat and became stuck, so he was dragged by his intended prey all over the reservation. For days.

All the time, of course, the moose was wildly running. Pursued by this strange, heavy, screeching, banging, booming thing, it fled in dull terror through bush and slough. It ran and continued to run. Those who saw Nanapush, as he passed all up and down the reservation, stood a moment in fascinated shock and rubbed their eyes, then went to fetch others, so that soon the predicament of Nanapush was known and reported everywhere. By then, the moose had attained a smooth loping trot, however, and passed with swift ease through farmsteads and pastures, the boat flying up and then disappearing down behind. Many stopped what they were doing to gape and yell.

(You see why this is a favorite? The next paragraph is even better! And the next…)

First-person perspective, on the other hand, employs a narrator who is a part of the story. It’s written with pronouns such as “I” and “me.” This excerpt from Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is a good example. Scout, the narrator, is walking home with her brother, Jem, from a school play on a chilly night in October. She’s still wearing the ham costume from the play when they run into trouble on the road.

“Run, Scout! Run! Run!” Jem screamed.

I took one giant step and found myself reeling: my arms useless, in the dark, I could not keep my balance.

“Jem, Jem, help me, Jem!”

Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, floundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots. Someone rolled against me and I felt Jem. He was up like lightning and pulling me with him but, though my head and shoulders were free, I was so entangled we didn’t get very far.

We were nearly to the road when I felt Jem’s hand leave me, felt him jerk backwards to the ground. More scuffling, and there came a dull crunching sound and Jem screamed.

It’s pretty self-evident that there is an advantage in each approach, depending on the writer’s priorities and the needs of the plot. Choosing the proper narrative voice, as writers call it, can make or break a story. Third-person usually engages the whole scene for a reader, allowing us to experience what was probably terrifying for Nanapush from a humorous distance similar to the rest of the tribe. However, being inside Scout’s head in To Kill a Mockingbird puts us inside the experience of her terror as she gets only a limited perspective on the scene. First-person perspective is often more immediate, and that limited perspective, in the hands of a skilled author, can increase the power of the story significantly.

For an example closer to the simulation experience, compare this first-person short video of BMX riders in New York City with a video of the same group from a third-person perspective (each are somewhat on the long side, but be sure to spend at least a couple minutes with each so you can get a feel for them).

Which video made your heart beat faster?

Which video made you flinch when a car passed too closely or a pedestrian was narrowly missed?

In short, which video immersed you in the action more?

I would be shocked (and, frankly, I’d suspect you of being a little contrary) if you chose the third-person video over the first-person video in response to any of these questions. First-person puts you closer to the heartbeat of the main character. It brings the viewer or reader intimately into the action.

Also consider the fact that your simulation is meant to give learners practical experience in what you’re training. Putting learners as close to that experience as possible is in their best interest, and not leveraging the capability of a simulation to immerse them in that experience squanders part of the simulation’s power. Consider that learners shouldn’t necessarily have the whole story, and they should be able to employ the resources they’ll have at their disposal in their day-to-day experience to extrapolate the information they need (or, in some cases, to realize they need more information in order to progress). Learners who are directly engaged in this type of simulation, rather than watching a scenario play out and making decisions as an outside party, learn better and faster. When you engage learners directly in experience that gives them relevant, low-risk opportunities to fail forward (remember my last post?), they learn more quickly and retain more than they could from even the most engaging video or slide deck.

So, when you write your simulations, put the camera directly inside the action and invest your learners in the experience and learners will not only be more engaged in the action, but they will remember more of what you want them to retain. Now that you’re thoroughly convinced that this approach is the only way to write a scenario to engage your students and increase retention (you are, right?), I’ll continue our discussion in the next blog post with tips about how to effectively write a simulation in first person.

Sara Crow is currently living her life from the first-person perspective as an Instructional Designer at NexLearn. An award-winning writer, she has spent the past half-decade with the company helping clients create immersive experiences that change behavior by making a decisive impact on learners.

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