Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Gamer's Gaze, part 2

We're going to take a brief step back from diving deeper into the idea of the male gaze and spend a moment talking about straight up looking: how do we see what we see in games?  We began by working through what the gaze means when we're discussing the cinematic camera.

But in gaming, the camera goes beyond cinematic.  Games contain a level of spectator participation and interactivity above and beyond that of film.  In addition to the director's choice of camera placement, the player has choice in camera placement.  Whether through direct control or through controlling our avatars, in most modern gaming we participate in the camera's positioning.  However, even when we define the literal point of view taken on the scene, the actual angle, we don't necessarily control the gaze.  It's a delicate balance, but the player does contribute to the gaze in games through active choice, in a way not present in most other media.  The game's authors, by creating the content and the camera, and the game's players, by choosing character perspective both literal and figurative, work in tandem to create the final gaze that the spectator takes.

Our ability to take on a changing and well-defined (or ambiguous) gaze has changed over time, as the technology of game design has improved.  The literal points of view available to us have shifted through the years.  Most players, for example, can admire the landscape and imagery present in an isometric game, but few of us will actively control the camera in such a layout for any reason other than better to understand tactics or strategy.  The gaze is akin to the way a player would look at a chessboard, rather than the way an audience member would look at a play or film.

Diablo II was the grand-daddy of a generation of clone RPGs.

In film, the camera represents and guides our view.  It leads; we follow.  Indeed, we have no other choice.  The director has pre-determined our viewpoint and the boundaries of frame and of on-screen space for us.  Film works because of limitations on the spectator gaze.  In order to create illusory spaces with real people and objects, a director needs to play with the camera and with space in all kinds of ways.

Forced perspective can make hobbits of us all.

Older generations of games were subject to nearly identical limitations.  For example, Myst -- now so very dated, but at the time so groundbreaking -- billed itself as "photorealistic" and meant just that: you moved through a world that was, essentially, a long series of complex and interactive photos.  The landscape was lovely but in terms of how we saw it, Myst was as much a flat pixel-hunt as Maniac Mansion or any shareware adventure game before it.

But in the 1990s, we gained a rather dramatic change with the arrival of explorable 3D game space.  Although it would take some time before our game worlds could be "true" 3D (and even in 2011, we're still fairly limited on that front), the difference was stark.  Given the chance to wander through a three dimensional space, the player suddenly gained some measure of autonomous control -- and notoriously, that measure was aim.  

The Doom games were beyond influential on the perennially bestselling FPS genre.

The most basic mechanic of the first-person shooter hasn't changed all that much in twenty years.  The game's camera and the player's point of view are meant to be one, intertwined.  Through fine mouse control (or later, and now more popularly, the analog stick), the player is expected fully to immerse himself (notably, not herself) in the role of the avatar.  The player explores the world, takes aim, and fires while fully inhabiting the persona of the character.  As a result, the player character may or may not be a well-defined individual.  Indeed, the player character can be nothing but an empty vessel, reduced to nothing but the gun -- but the world through which the avatar, and therefore the camera, moves is of utmost importance.

And those worlds have gotten pretty impressive, as Modern Warfare 2 shows us.

What's most interesting about the spectator's gaze in the FPS, though, is that game designers didn't invent it.  Alfred Hitchcock did, over 60 years ago.

Spellbound, 1945.

It's with Hitchcock (and the eternally fantastic Ingrid Bergman) that we vividly see that the first-person perspective is no accident and is not merely utilitarian.  The transgressive or voyeuristic potential of the gaze suddenly becomes apparent when we, the passive spectator of a film, are unavoidably thrust into the position of aiming a revolver at the film's star.  (The full clip is here, but it's from the end of the film so I'd recommend watching the whole movie instead.)  Whether or not we want to, we are following the aggressor's gaze -- and so we, in a sense, become the aggressor.

In a game that uses the first person perspective, we the player are put into a certain point of view on the narrative world; we are asked to inhabit the space in which the game takes place.  We take on the character's perspective in looking, in all the things that means.  The camera is in someone's head, and we literally see through those "eyes."  But unlike in Spellbound, or any other film, we choose where to look.  There's a level of player control available.

In a game like Bioshock, that control is the absolute key to the telling of the story.  The core narrative is framed around choice, while the story visibly runs on rails.  Progression through Rapture is intentionally linear, and yet the dialogue in the game speaks to freedom.  And of course at the key moment in the narrative, player control is completely removed, up to and including the ability to look around during cut scenes.  In fact, Bioshock is using Hitchcock's trick: the player is no more able to stop targeting Andrew Ryan than the viewer is able to stop targeting Ingrid Bergman.

The third person perspective, on the other hand, is both simpler and more complex.  We the player do not literally inhabit a character's point of view.  Rather than the role of protagonist, we are cast in the role of director, and we move our actors through their stage. We can see the player character, and how she or he is framed in the world.  In a sense, it's the difference between puppet and puppeteer, although that analogy makes the distinction sound sinister, which it's not.  Rather, it's a matter of artistic choice and mechanical necessity.

In a third-person game, the player does have the anchor of being tied to a player character, but also has the freedom to move the camera independent of the PC's perspective.  The trade-off for a broader perspective, though, is more limited range.  The game's designers control what positions are available to the player, and while in some settings the player can put the camera anywhere that doesn't require pathing through a collision plane, in other cases the view is as tightly scripted as Hollywood.  EverQuest II is a good example of the former, in that the player can put the camera anywhere around the character except underground, can zoom in or out as much as she likes, or can choose a first person perspective.

The latter option, however, seems to be the current trend in most console game design.  If the player is guiding Kratos, Ezio, or Drake through a story, then the camera will be a fixed tool that provides directional guidance and a set perspective.  Camera motion shows the lay of the land, potential climbing or escape routes, and likely avenues for weapon retrieval or enemy breakthrough.

In terms of gaze, this fixed third-person camera operates effectively as a cinematic camera.  Because the player does not contribute to its placement, the player is effectively freed from the implications of its gaze.  We may be watching all manner of unfortunate scenes, but our role is considered passive, at least in the sense that it is unintentional.  The damsel may be in distress or in disarray, but if we happen to watch her a certain way, it's because the game put it there for us.

Although I'll actually give credit; the Assassin's Creed games don't present this view all that often.

So when we take a deep examination into the presence of the male gaze in gaming, this is what we mean: when does the player have a choice over where to look?  How does the player look?  What is the physical presentation of women (and of men) when the player has control of the camera?  What is the physical presentation of women (and of men) when the player doesn't have control of the camera?  How is character agency reframed when the player controls the perspective?

The very literal gaze of the camera is what we've just digressed to here: what angle does it view from?  How far afield can we see, or how close up?  But our real concern is this: what viewpoint and bias do those cameras reveal through their placement and methods?  How is player perspective from inside, say, Duke Nukem's (ick) head different from perspective six feet behind Lara Croft, and what do those literal perspectives tell us about the value and archetypes assigned to the worlds they inhabit?

In short: how does literal on-screen framing tell us more about the figurative framework of the society that made the game?

We'll loop back around to that question, and unite parts 1 and 2 of this little series, in the third and final (I promise) installment.

[Edit: Part 3 is here.]


  1. I was just reading a post by Chris Bateman that compares first-person and third-person cameras to playing with toys vs. playing with dolls.  It's a tangent to what you're talking about here, but it might be an interesting tangent, given all the cultural implications of dolls. 

  2. I wanted you to know I quite like this, though I have nothing particular to say about it.   

    I haven't watched the Twilight movies, but I am told that they have something of a female gaze to them.

  3. Thanks. :)

    I'm not sure I'll ever be able to stomach Twlight long enough to find out, haha.  Though media with a female gaze do exist.  That's something I hope to be able to get into a little bit when I wrap this one up.

  4. From the teenage girls I know I'm expecting an imminent explosion of female gaze oriented pornography and pseudo-pornography (stuff with Taylor Lautner shirtless in it). They take at least as much pride in being raunchy as boys do. 

  5. This is where it gets into really tricky territory, actually, because then there's the question of: is that an actual "female gaze," or would it be a female co-opting of the male gaze?  And are those the same thing?

    (I'd be inclined to argue "the latter" and "no," in that order, but I certainly won't argue it about a movie I haven't seen.)

  6. I don't think the new girl raunch culture is any less authentic or more the
    result of advertising/commercial culture than traditional laddie

  7. It might be hard to argue about a movie you haven't seen, but I'd be interested to find out more about what the difference is between a legitimate female gaze and a co-opted male gaze, in general.

    And if beefcake alone doesn't subvert the male gaze, how about something like the optional fan club sidequest from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, where the player is offered direct access to female-targeted fan club newsletters for four of the most important male characters... through the (presumably straight) male player character's inbox.  As the PC himself has little reason to be interested in the scent of Sephiroth's hair, the letters seem to be directed at a female audience (though the filter of the male PC probably complicates things somewhat).

  8. Writing about the female gaze would be another really long post.  I may do it eventually but today isn't the day, especially as if it exists at all in video games (and it might), it's a distinct minority.

    What I mean about a co-opted male gaze, though, is something you see most visibly in, say, parodies.  When the camera behaves at a guy the same way it would behave at a girl -- only because it's a parody (I can think of a scene in one of the Austin Powers movies that goes this way), it's meant to be funny or jarring that a man gets this treatment that's so default for women.

    So there are times, particularly but not limited to in comedies, where everything just flat-out inverts.  When the camera uncritically switches sides, as it were, but it's still looking at men the way that "men" (i.e. the male gazer, not necessarily any actual man) look at women, not the way that "women" (the female gazer, not necessarily any actual woman) would look at men.

  9. For summary of what I mean by that idea, see what I just replied to RedJenny, above. ;)

    What a strange and interesting piece of sidequesting that is.  I'm not sure what I think!  It might just be to unsettle male players or make fun of female fans but you're right, it seems to be doing a bunch of things at once.

    Also now that you've made me think of it, I will actually say that if there's a female gaze to be found anywhere, I suspect you could find it in at least some more recent jRPGs.  I'm having trouble remembering all of FF13 (husband played it, I kept up unwelcome running commentary on how little sense that game makes) but if I'm remembering it accurately then I think at least some scenes would qualify.

  10. I think I am unusual in this regard, but I tend to find the first-person perspective to be *less* immersive than a third-person one. The reason is, that while the FP "camera" takes the perspective of the player character's gaze, it's imperfect. There's no peripheral vision, and I can never get a feel for how the character is situated within his or her surroundings. With third-person, even though I am not looking through the character's eyes, I find it easier to imagine myself in their space, because I know what their space *is*. (This is probably why I do not really get into FP games--my perception clashes with the game designers' intentions.)

    Additional random thoughts:

    1) It's possible that if I played games on PC, with my face less than 2 feet from the screen, I wouldn't feel the same level of discomfort with the FP perspective? But when I'm sitting in my comfy chair and the TV is on the other side of the living room, it feels like I'm looking at the game world with blinders on.

    2) I recall, actually, that Bioshock has a level that doubles down on this effect, where the player character walks around in a diver helmet, and the viewable portion of the screen is an even smaller portion of the world than it had been previously.

  11. I'm primarily a PC gamer (it's only been since 2008 that I had consoles in the house at all), but actually I have the same disconnect that you do with first-person gaming.  It's only since Portal and Bioshock that I've really been able to handle first-person games at all, and when I started playing Fallout 3 I was just as likely to pick the third-person point of view at any given time.

    I tend to be more likely to "inhabit," as it were, a character that I can see.  That doesn't mean I can always see the character, but in, say, Fallout 3 or New Vegas, though I primarily explore and fight in first-person, I'm likely to switch back to third person every so often while wandering the Wasteland, as if to get my bearings.  Though I also think, now that I'm sort of thinking aloud here, that part of that actually does relate to the "gaze" structure that I need to wrap up in the next post -- when I can see the person who I "am," I don't have to face the disconnect of that viewpoint not seeing the world the way I do.  Whether it's a personalized character (my Shepard, my Courier) or a complete person who I'm just controlling (Solid Snake, or whoever), it's easier for me to accept the difference in their camera and my gaze when the two aren't one and the same.  Hmm.

    The inside-the-suit part of Bioshock really, really bothered me.  I had a strong and visceral displeasure with that chunk of the game, and the helmet is definitely a big part of why.

  12. Ah, thanks.  I see what you mean about the co-opted male gaze (though I'm still not quite sure I understand what an inherently female gaze would look like).

    If you read the mails that you get as a part of the sidequest, they don't seem to be designed to unsettle male fans or put female fans down for their benefit; there's definitely something there for female fans outside of the game as well as inside.  It's just particularly unusual in terms of perspective, considering who the audience is playing as.

    And, yeah, from my experience, the JRPG genre is one of the very few whose most influential developers recognize and react to the interest of a female fan-base.  Final Fantasy XIII definitely had a few good examples of that (even if it's unquestionably male gaze-y in other ways).  On the other hand, I'm not sure how representative Square-Enix is of JRPG developers as a whole; a game company that keeps a life-sized nude statue of one of their most recognizable male villains in their official store is probably fairly unusual even in Japan.

  13. when I can see the person who I "am," I don't have to face the
    disconnect of that viewpoint not seeing the world the way I do.

    Yes, I think you are right! I hadn't thought about it that way before, but it makes sense. Again referencing Bioshock, it really bothered me--to the point of distracting from the story-- for at least the first half of the game that I was being forced to play some random dude, and why couldn't I be a random woman instead? Of course it eventually became clear that I wasn't just some random dude, but that was well into the game, and I think it would have been less distracting if I could have *seen* the dude I was supposed to be.

  14. Great article. Quick correction though: Alfred Hitchcock didn't invent it. That perspective was first used in a 1910 Australian bushranger film called Moonlite.

  15. Great article. Quick correction though: Alfred Hitchcock didn't invent it. That perspective was first used in the 1910 Australian bushranger film "Moonlite".

  16. That's really interesting!  Thanks for the tip.  I'm not sure if any of my grad school professors even knew that one.  (If they did, they certainly didn't convey it...)