Monday, June 20, 2011

The Gamer's Gaze, part 1

The gaze is a term you hear thrown around quite a bit in critical media studies.  It is, at once, both simple and complex.

"Gaze."  It's as easy as looking, right?  And at its most basic level, that's exactly what the phenomenon describes: who is looking, what is being looked at, and why? All visual arts have, in one way or another, a built-in gaze that can be examined and analyzed.

In the 1970s, film theorist Laura Mulvey brought the term "male gaze" permanently into the lexicon of film criticism.  Her essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" [PDF] relies heavily on Freudian theories (even while in a film studies graduate program, Your Critic found this essay a particularly thorny read) but also basically defined feminist film theory.  It's a difficult piece from which to pull a key quote or single definition, but I'll run with this one:
"In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active / male and passive / female.  The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.  In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."

In its most basic, shortest form, the idea is this: on screen, the primary purpose of a woman is as a sexualized (deliberately or not) object, and the viewer for which film is designed is a straight male.

The essay that defines this idea is now closing in on 40 years old, and came out of a different era.  I don't think that, here in 2011, I'd ever be inclined to apply straight-up Freudian theory to media analysis.  (If I ever do display the urge to do so, please take away my computer.)  But the idea of the gaze does indeed hold up, as does the idea of the default viewer.

Here's the thing: it works at a mostly subconscious level.  With very few exceptions, a film director or a game designer doesn't set out actively thinking, "I am going to make this to appeal directly to straight white men and everyone else can get bent."  Rather, the likelihood is high that the creator himself is a straight white male, and so comes to production with unconscious biases in place, that then are reflected through things like the framing of shots or the motion of the camera.  And even if the creator in question is not all three (straight, white, male), the media landscape has been dominated by those elements for such a long time that this perspective is the default, and its point of view may not be challenged.

So as we talk about the gaze and the male gaze in gaming, what do we really mean?  What are we talking about?

Wikipedia has a nice little run-down of the areas of gaze -- the "who" in "who's looking."  The three that are most important to us are:
  • Characters' gaze at other characters
  • The camera's gaze
  • The spectator's gaze
The spectator, in our case, is the person playing the game.  Whoever is holding the controller, or gesticulating at the Kinect, or sitting at the keyboard: that person is the spectator.  The spectator's gaze is unbelievably crucial to both first-person and third-person narrative games.  So important, in fact, that it will be standing alone as a Part 2 to this discussion.

The camera's gaze is the easiest to talk about, and the way characters gaze at other characters is tied into it.  We the viewers see how characters see each other by how the camera behaves.  This is every bit as true in gaming as it is in cinema, although in modern 3D narrative gaming, character placement and framing also play a large role.  (Non-interactive cut-scenes essentially are film, and can be analyzed in the same ways.)

As a general, broad rule of thumb, the way the camera moves around or is positioned on a character tells us something about how we are meant to view that character, both literally and figuratively.  Media saturation is now so high in our culture that we're very nearly all born speaking this language of visual cues and ideas.

We know what heroes pose like, and how they're framed.  You can actually tell a lot about each character from how he's standing.  Ezio's design conveys his positioning in the grey areas of life (he's a good guy by being an Assassin), Supes is, well, Supes, and Snake over there looks straight at you.  But note how they all stand: strong, confident.

You work those shoulders, gentlemen!
We know what villains pose like, and how they're framed.  They are men of action, in motion, presenting their challenge.  And their weapons.  And their black costumes and / or hidden eyes.

No comment on Sephiroth's sword vs. how happy he is to see you.  Such as.  *ahem*

For us, the issues arise with women, and how they're framed.  And so it comes to pass that a super-spy, a world-renowned adventurer, and the galaxy's best thief mainly display their... assets.  When they have weapons, they're held pointed toward the floor.  They don't stand straight; rather, they pose their hips.

And then of course there's wardrobe design. Lookin' at you, Eva.

Of course, gaze is constantly in motion (think of the classic head-to-toe scoping out of the hottie across the room), not static.  These are all just promotional images, right?  So let's go to the video.

There's always Miranda offering her loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2 (00:01 - 01:08):

Or of course there's our introduction to Madison in Heavy Rain (probably NSFW):

With Madison, the issues of what we see and how we see it are both in play.  The camera is... not shy.  (The censored bits between 03:00 and 05:00 are to make it YouTube-safe; nothing's covered up in the game.)  For extra credit, watch Ethan Mars's morning shower from the same game.  The camera is much less fond of his curvature than it is of hers.

In gaming, the camera's gaze and the characters' get tangled together, because we aren't just viewers, but players.  We take on the role of someone in the story, and the camera serves as our eyes.  Male characters tend to be the point-of-view characters, even in a third-person game.  We watch what interests them.  Miranda's deliberately putting herself on display for Shepard.  This makes the moment of male gaze particularly jump out if you're playing a female Shepard, as then the on-screen dynamics feel misplaced, rather than feeling like a default.

So when characters gaze at other characters, the camera follows their lead. Hundreds of games do it.  The running comment I had while playing through the Metal Gear Solid series (spouse held the controller 90% of the time; I provided the running MST3K-style commentary 100% of the time) was that clearly, working buttons and zippers for women were too expensive for these high-tech organizations.

Seriously, Naomi? You're going to leave your boobs hanging out with a kid like that flinging hot food around?

The other issue of gaze in gaming, however, is made more complex by the interactivity and choice factors in the medium.  Heavy Rain is a deliberately cinematic game and so the camera, framing, and direction behave in a deliberately cinematic way.  Madison may not have an awareness of the viewer but she will behave for his eyes all the same.  But what about another genre of game?  How does the gaze behave in an action platformer, an adventure game, a first-person shooter, or an RPG?  How does the male gaze function when the lead character is a woman, or when the player has full control of the camera?

In the interest of not presenting a 10-page paper for your Monday morning, the player's gaze is Part 2, coming in the next post.

[Edit: Part 2 is here.]


  1. I'd never noticed the 'posing at the hip' thing before, but it's a good descriptor. I mean, the poses were obviously sexualized, but I couldn't put my finger on why.  This is mostly in relevance to the comic post @ TNCs today had me scanning some old, pre-swimsuit costume comics and noting that (at least in the late 80s) the 'posing at the hip' stuff was everywhere.

  2. Thanks for the rundown.   The terminology - the use of the word "gaze" - seems problematic.   Wouldn't "viewpoint" or "bias" suit better?  Meh.  I need to think more about this.

  3. Well, bear in mind the background from which it came: Freudian and Lacanian analysis of cinema, and specifically cinema.  In fact, the allusion to voyeurism is deliberate and intended.

    But actually, we're literally dealing with looking here, and so "gaze" fits.  What are we looking at?  (Miranda's ass.)  Why are we looking at it?  (Because she's been given an in-character reason to be a seductress, because the artists like creating a seductress, and because the seductress is likely to appeal to the audience.)  How are we looking at it?  (Framed boldly, with Shepard giving an appreciative glance.)

    There's a definite straight white male bias built into a lot of our media too, but the literal gaze is important.

  4. Why are we looking at it?

    Because the developers shoved it in our faces, at least in that instance. Not exactly the best use of the cinematic camera in video game history. The choice of camera angle doesn't make sense in context of the game, it doesn't make sense when the camera is pointed at Miranda from Shepard's perspective previously in the scene. You move from a scene where she's leaning on something, looking hunched over, like she's got something stressful on her mind (which she does) and the camera basically just switches to a shot of her ass until you make a choice. Shepard's eyes are looking up, toward her face. His head isn't tilted down to look at her ass. The director just decided that to force the player to look there.

    Now, it's possible that the director intended to allude to Miranda trying to seduce Shepard (since it's been established that she uses her engineered looks when she wants to) but it's the least seductive hunch I've ever seen if that's the case.

  5. Well, the reason it stands out -- the reason we see it at all -- is because it's so clumsy, and ham-fisted, and out of character.  The game in question does a fairly good job of avoiding such egregious fanservice in general, and so it's very easy to cite this one example of a place where they fail like whoa.  In context of Mass Effect 2, it's a big, "WTF?"

    On the other hand, it's so endemic to some other media that you only notice when it doesn't happen, or when it stops happening.  Or, worse, you just don't notice it at all, because to do so would be like noticing that you have air to breathe.

  6. K. handled this pretty deftly, but think of it this way: the camera, in most film, is meant to hold the eyes of the audience. And when that camera does the classic "introduce female by starting at the legs and slowly rising over every inch of her body before seeing her face," it's assuming the eyes of the audience will see her as attractive. The female viewer, the gay viewer, the asexual viewer aren't considered as actually being in the audience. Instead, everyone watching "checks out" new attractive females whether or not the individual audience members would be attracted to them.

    Folks who are attracted to women [particularly femme women] don't usually notice it. But the idea of the "gaze" is partially to emphasize how female and queer desire is erased even in something as fundamental as camera angles.

  7. It's not so much that I don't understand what you and K are talking about, but that I object to the language. Why not "male camera" or "male viewpoint"?

    To call it a "gaze" pathologizes looking at one another. If I look at another woman and feel desirous, then I am transgressive, regardless of how interested the makers of the art were in having me feel that desire. Do we really want a world wherein nobody looks at anyone else with desire, ever?

    I think there is a linguistic problem between women and men when it comes to the word "looking". I once had a discussion with a woman who had successfully sued her former high-tech company for sexual harassment. She was describing some of the things that had happened to her. One of them was, she said, "I would be walking through the office and they would be looking at me." She said "looking" with some emphasis. I was supposed to know what that meant, but I had no clue.

    "Er," says I, "There's a certain amount of, um, admiration that just goes on."

    "Oh not that!" she replied, "I mean they were staring at me and making faces, leering."

    So it isn't "looking" that's the issue.

    I've got a long essay in my head about this. The short version is, I call some aspects of this nothing more than bad art, lacking in truth. A female ninja superheroine simply would not look like that. The Queen of Qeynos would not look like a stripper.

    Referring to the problem as a problem of "male gaze" confuses the issue about who the perpetrators are.

  8. Well, it seems to me that Miranda's behavior is less of a problem than some other examples, like Lara's screaming and moaning. It's in-character after all, and I may be wrong, but maybe even in character for her in the case of FemShepard. Some femmes seduce other women that way, don't they?

    As I said in reply to Ophelia, my problem is far more with the language than with the concept.

    To take it in a different direction, I can think of a few noteworthy moments of "female gaze" in film. Bond coming out of the ocean in "Casino Royale" for example. There's an extended shot of the entirely naked Brad Pitt in "Troy" that comes to mind, too. There's a fair bit of it in "Thor" as well, if not as overt.

    I bring this up to reject both "That's cool, more of that" and "Let's get rid of all of it." My position is, "Does this work within the framework of this piece of art? Does it get to truth?" Those examples, I think, worked fantastically well.

    To me the criticism is much simpler and more direct if you say, like @Andy did, "Since when is Lara Croft a coward?"

  9. The game in question does a fairly good job of avoiding such egregious fanservice in general

    Really? Not to be more Catholic than the Pope, but I thought Mass Effect (which I *adore*) was pretty heavy on fan service. Miranda certainly takes things to a whole 'nother level, but I'm still hung up on the most powerful race in the galaxy (which is theoretically non-gendered (*phhhbt*)) spending most of its time stripping for males of lesser species. You posted Tali's picture, and there's Samara who certainly doesn't seem like a seductress but who runs around the galaxy in heels. Jack is nearly naked. When you sign up to fight Archangel as FemShep the Batarian suggests you strip instead. There's the girl-girl hookup option but no guy-guy. Compared to Dragon Age Origins, where only one NPC (including recruitable and non-recruitable characters) is sorta-seductively dressed and "the slutty one" is a male elf, ME seems to drip with male fanservice.

  10. This is good stuff, stuff we men don't really know. There's a linguistic problem here, there aren't really words to describe the difference. I would really like some women writers to step up to this and develop some language that highlights the difference.

    I would point out that there are certain social situations where one is invited to stare, to engage in voyeurism, where the person being looked at is consenting. Behind the camera it's common, but there are other places.

  11. Excuse me, I never played Kasumi's DLC so I assumed Tali. I'm with you on Jack's nudity fitting into context better than most, but remember the conversation with the Scottish engineers?

    Anyway, you're the one with the knowledge of theory and experience with gaming so I won't argue with you. I'll just say that I do feel like Mass Effect panders to the 13yo boy that's supposed to be my gaming ego even beyond Miranda. 

  12. I certainly don't want to invalidate your opinion or experience -- I think it's interesting that you experienced that.  I also think it's interesting that I definitely started ME2 feeling like it was a LOT more fanservicey than ME1 (in the first 5 - 10 hours, I bitched about it extensively to Husband) but then that wore off as the game's focus shifted.

    As for the fancy expert background - it mostly just gives me words to explain something we all know innately. :)

  13. The thing is, there really is a dangerous "look."  It's one that's lavicious, that puts you in your place as a woman, and that most girls over 16 know not to court because of its implicit threats.  But of course, we don't have to court it; most of the times I've been on the receiving end of that look, I've been simply walking home (in NY / Boston) or walking to the Metro (in DC).  It's part and parcel of having the audacity to be female in public, and it's really, really uncomfortable.

    Looking itself shouldn't be patholigized, you are correct, and appreciation is all well and good.  (I will not deny what my gaze does when confronted with, say, a Johnny Depp.  *fans self*)  But the appreciative glance is not the same as the sustained, uninvited stare.  One is a guy checking you out, and probably trying not to be seen doing it.  It's an aesthetic reaction and a normal human response.  The other is a power imbalance, objectifying.

    What we have had in cinema and now in gaming is the sustained, uninvited, voyeuristic stare.  Miranda invites that stare, by deliberately using her sexuality as a tool.  (Or rather, to discuss it properly, the game's designers have written and modeled a sexpot and script her to behave according to adolescent male fantasy.)  But not all female characters who receive that voyeuristic "look" court it in the narrative.

  14. I wrote before about Miranda, Jack, and Asari strippers.  I actually don't think of Jack as particularly created to titillate; her character is, rather, transgressive and aggressive about it.  (Starting from the male name, then carrying through the rather flat-chested design and the shaved head, removing most iconic female markers from her design, then getting to the tattoos, uniform, etc.

    I do most heartily grant that Miranda (and Kasumi) pretty much are the walking incarnation of the male gaze.  And that they keep relying on the naive ingenue trope (in ME1 Liara and Tali in both games) drives me up a wall.  But still, as compared to a huge swath of other games, ME2 is still male-gaze-lite.  And a huge part of that, I think, is what Line described here, re: gender-neutral protagonist design.

    In short, while ME2 certainly has the male gaze in its camera, I'm not so sure it generally emphazises that in the player's gaze, with some exceptions (which stand out).  And that's the difference that I hope to be able to tackle successfully in part 2.  We'll see if I succeed or not. ;)

    [Edit: Also that's Kasumi, the DLC character, and not Tali. Tali's not actually physically sexualized in that way but she does have a host of potential other squicky issues, depending how you play.]

  15. If I remember AP Psych, and I don't, consent and voyeurism don't mix. Voyeurism presumes an element of spying unseen.

  16. I don't actually remember ever recognizing Miranda as a seductress. She mentioned that her father had her genetically programmed to be attractive (creepy layered on creepy) to give her an additional advantage, but she's not flirty like Yeoman Kelly or sultry like Morrigan or passably polite like say Wrex. It may be clumsy implementation of her all business attitude, but she comes across to me as downright rude to the point of insubordinate, thinly justified as strict professionalism. I've played through as a paragon lady who at best felt sorry for Miranda and a renegade dude who wanted to bed her basically as an Achievement but I don't think I ever felt that that homegirl was trying to charm, seduce or befriend Shepard. 

  17. Nah. Her attitude makes her sexy. It's all about attainability. Her voice and face are well-matched. Her other physical attributes are comically obvious. Miranda becomes a lot less hot when she falls apart. Her persona is poorly suited for vulnerability. I think that's the point of her character, "tough chick fallacy" or some such (no linguistic puns intended with "fallacy"; I know how you think, RJ).

  18. I played ME2 all the way through. Not once have I found ME2's renderings of the female form noteworthy. Results clearly indicate we're looking at the channeled imaginations of younger males (most of them likely "relationship-challenged"). I conceptually understand their intent but can't muster a visceral reaction. This isn't about age, experience or maturity. I didn't think comic books provided stimulating imagery years ago, when hormones were in overdrive. My gaming experience is limited by choice and I avoid overtly sexual fare like GTA. Voyuerism is a cheap substitute for good design, IMO.

  19. The thing is, all of this -- what you and RedJenny and DocJay and Stephen Winson have all discussed across the trio of posts -- is what specific men actually find attractive.  And that's going to vary from man to man.  (For starters, some men don't prefer women at all...)

    But the whole concept and construct of "male gaze" isn't designed for a specific man.  It's designed for a system that's populated by and controlled by a theoretical single "male" perspective.  In truth, it doesn't benefit most individual men any better than it benefits most women.  I used to date a guy who felt like he was somehow "doing it wrong" for preferring my physical type over the Lara Croft type, because society kept telling him he should want the latter.  Does the male gaze help him?  Oh hell no.

  20. The number of living women with a Lara Croft physique is vanishingly small. There are so few, in fact, that "men's magazines" resorted to surgically-enhanced women years ago. I agree with you on "male gaze" as a "system" but think that game designers are simply aiming at a broad class of immature males. IME, women reach maturity around 25, males around 30, personal experience obviously varies. The "games are aimed at 12 year olds" thing is a bit of a trope. Thirty and under males form a huge market.

    The business-speak irony is that digital gaming is a "maturing market". Corporate budgets took over awhile back. Game publishers set sales targets based on historic performance, which dictates largely formulaic product development. Every industry travels through a cycle of innovation, technology proliferation, market exploitation and then terminal obsolescence. The simple fact that digital gaming is discussed as an industry is telling. Technology deployment is governed by financial objectives. It's a lot safer and cheaper to draw up some eye candy than to make a bet like L.A. Noire.

    Let's extend that a bit. I'm on record expressing distaste for the GTA series. Yet GTA profits were reinvested in what appears to be a bold gamble. I can only respect RSG for its pro-innovation bias (while still seeing GTA as cheap & gratuitous market exploitation).

    "...because society kept telling him he should want the latter".

    "Society dictates behavior" smells like another trope. I see the pathology you cite as an expression of personal deficiency in a minority of males. Past generations had their own Lara Crofts (e.g., Barbara Eden) and they grew up to find happiness with women who didn't fit the mold.

    I think your former bf struggled with the onset of maturity. Granted, the current 25-35 generation has a greater percentage of delayed-development males and, conversely, a  larger share of confident & balanced women. Ratios are likely the inverse seen two generations ago. Religion also plays a smaller role in the lives of educated women than 30-40 years ago, a huge positive and causative factor, IMO.

  21. "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance"

    Where women are the ones in power, while simultaneously being the ones to protect.

    There are laws that let women change their mind AFTER sex about it being consensual.

    Especially if she had any alcohol in her, or the man lied about how rich he is.

    Read this article about male rape victims FINALLY getting help, and how
    people simply told them to suck it up.

    Look at all the cases of female pedophiles getting away with it cause everyone thinks the man wanted it.

    Men hold no real power in this society. Sexual or otherwise.

  22. Engage in good faith or not at all.  There are good arguments to be made about the appalling way in which male sexual abuse victims are treated, but these aren't them.