In part 1 and part 2, we discussed the historical origin of the term "male gaze" and went over the actual literal ways in which the camera "looks" in gaming. There are some great commenter insights in the comments of those posts, too.
The inspiration for this whole mini-series originally sprang from a comment Enstarstarstar left on the Tomb Raider post, where he asked:
"my question is this: isn't this true about games in general? that is, the format of a game--you, the player, have control over much of the perspective and action--makes it in many respects about you. horror games in particular do this prolifically: they take you (and the character you control) through situations that make you feel helpless, or threatened, or out of control. at the very least, narrative games put your character into situations that are designed to play your emotions (think, for instance, bioshock, which even explicitly takes control away from you at the climactic moment).
i guess i'm wondering--aside from the looming threat of sexual violence, the echoey shrieks of the main character, and the different tone of the story and setting--how that intro is different from the intro to uncharted 2. drake wakes up, shot, on a train hanging off from a cliff, and the whole place is falling to pieces around him. there is no question about it: the threat to drake is meant to be something that you feel, something that tosses you into the middle of the action in order to pull you in to the story.
lara's situation strikes me as meant to do exactly the same thing. where they differ, i would argue, is in the way they go about doing it."
My initial response to his insight? "Exactly."
Modern narrative games are designed to put you into a character's metaphorical shoes. First-person and third-person games go about it in two different ways, but either way, at least some element of the narrative is in your hands. That's what makes it a game. Which elements you can control, and how deeply you the player can affect any of them, vary widely.
Enstar is right to observe that in one sense, Naughty Dog and Crystal Dynamics are indeed aiming to accomplish the exact same goals. But he also highlights a crucial problem: in this instance, the difference between a male character and a female character is in the looming threat of sexual violence, the echoey shrieks, and the tone of the story. And he's exactly right: the difference is not even so much in the story that is told, but in the way the story is told.
All of it, across three posts, adds up to this: the stories we play contain visual (and sometimes auditory) cues that tell us, in unquestionable terms, that the player meant to be viewing these stories and sharing these perspectives is an archetypal sort of heterosexual male.
Most of the time it's so ingrained and built-in that we don't really notice it until we're presented with an exception. None of us were surprised to be in the role of a mystery man in Bioshock, but discovering Chell in Portal made many of us utter a surprise squeal of delight. Madison's treatment in Heavy Rain isn't shocking, just disappointing. And because lady Commander Shepard is so great, Miranda's ...assets... particularly stand out.
When the player character is male, we don't have as many opportunities to notice this design bias. We're seeing what we expect to see, what we've been trained to see. It's easy, however, to come by moments of cognitive dissonance when the male perspective is being filtered through a female player character -- and it's especially easy to catch when the player gets to pick the sex of the protagonist, as in Fallout 3. In "When 'You' Is A Girl," Jenn Frank observes:
I admitted I wasn’t very far into Fallout 3, so my impression was, and remains, cursory. But it would have been one thing, I reasoned aloud, if I genuinely felt bonded to my Fallout 3 character, or if I had felt like the Character’s story were my story, too. But I didn’t feel that way at all.
Like, in the story, when another little girl comforted me during my botched birthday party, I suspiciously felt as if she were coyly putting the moves on my (ten-year old?) “self.” And I think I was supposed to like her, at least in the context of the game, and instead I just felt sort of weird, a dissonance, an artificial and completely fabricated gender dysphoria. And it would have worked if she had talked to me, well, I guess maybe like a lesbian, but instead the dialogue was vaguely heteronormative, like when eight-year old girls play House together and one girl says, “Now you be Dad” (we did! We did do this!), and then she talks to you in this put-upon, artificial way like she thinks Mom talks to Dad, instead of using the vocabulary and lexicon eight-year old girls use to talk to one another, which on an especially well socialized child sounds like “Can you please braid my hair.”
And then, I complained on the patio about how, maybe twenty minutes further into Fallout 3, some teenaged bully is following me around, shouting, threatening—and trying, I think, to punch me in the teeth—and I just cannot shake the feeling that he thinks he is shouting at a guy. It’s as if his every pronoun has been shifted from “he” to “she,” carefully rerecorded for my personal edification, and yet it is glaringly obvious that the game’s “You!” was never intended for me.
She later writes a fantastic line about how Fallout 3 lets you change the player character sex, but not actually the character gender -- all of the behaviors of NPCs and narrative still default the Lone Wanderer to male. As with so many other games, it reads as a reskinning of the default male player character with long hair and breasts and a find / replace on some pronouns.
There's this argument one hears all the time from male gamers (I have lost track of how many hundred times I've seen it): that they create female avatars in third-person-perspective games so that they have someone attractive to look at. Which is funny, because when I create female avatars in third-person games, it's so that I have someone attractive to be.
That difference in approach is, right there, the player's personification of the male gaze. There's certainly no crime in appreciating your protagonist's physique. (For example, I'll grant that I, a straight woman, definitely appreciate Nathan Drake's character design.) But a game isn't designed for a male player to appreciate a male lead character's ass. It's designed for a male player to project some aspect of himself into that male character, and to take back some of that male character's general badassery unto himself. When a female player character arrives, she is pretty much always still the personification of that male ideal, just now also dressed up in a slim and curvy body for the male player to appreciate.
When we play Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, there is absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind that the player sees the game through Monkey. Trip is, well, a problem character. As designed, she's a force for compelling Monkey to reveal his heart of gold, and a prize to be endangered, thus requiring rescue.** As the game is presented to us, Monkey is absolutely justifiable in his early rage toward her and, other than an ability to become completely useless over time, Trip has very few defining characteristics overall. In fact, Trip's character could have been written a hundred different ways (and has been, as in the original myth her role was filled by a Buddhist monk). And of those hundred different ways, which is chosen for gaming? The attractive, somewhat under-dressed, doe-eyed girl, who needs the player character.
This is what made Commander Shepard's female incarnation such a landmark character: Shepard's behavior, motivations, animation, and so on really do apply equally well to either the Mark Meer or Jennifer Hale iterations of the Commander. As Line pointed out, Shepard can veer neither into overly "masculine" or "feminine" behaviors, as both versions are given full respect by the development team. So while the world Shep inhabits still has some definite issues with male gaze, the player character generally does not.
In terms of success in a first-person game, I actually felt that Fallout: New Vegas had the neutrality that was absent from Fallout 3. Generally the newer Fallout games are played in first-person and the Courier is unvoiced, so the third-person nuance from the Mass Effect titles isn't present. But in general, every NPC to whom the PC talks is presented front and center, in a neutral straight shot. The S&M styled hookers in New Vegas come in both male and female varieties and none are presented as particularly alluring. Villains, companions, and denizens of the Wasteland are indeed a relatively organic mix of male and female, and the removal of limitations on sex-based perks removes a significant chunk of the privilege from the default.
This is not unique to gaming by any stretch; film and television are just as guilty as they have ever been. The difference is that while film and TV have also created genres (still problematic) that do inhabit "female gaze" territory, gaming has been slow to catch up on that front. As we see over and over in every other aspect of gaming -- writing, art, and especially marketing -- the common target is still the mythical basement-dwelling adolescent (but with adult income) socially inept male. Many games are designed, up front, to appeal to that small handful of modders who, first thing, are going to apply nude textures to every woman in the game, as if the internet didn't have enough boobs on it already.
If we were to look for a female gaze in gaming, my hunch is that we would find it in a handful of jRPGs. My memories of Final Fantasy XIII are hazy because all I ever did was make fun of it, but as I recall parts of it at least had what I would consider a "girly" take. (Though it may just be that I'm remembering the use of soft focus, which would be read as feminizing to the characters on screen but not necessarily a female point of view.)
Regardless, my preference is for attempts at gender neutrality in the construction of games. Some male characters are going to be chauvinists and some female characters are going to be seductresses; those are (still) the stories we tell. But when the use of camera and framing in a game make those characters more "okay" than others, we run into a system that keeps making games about men and for men, even when the player character and the player are both women. And that's just not going to do.
**I'll mention here that we're still in chapter 8 or 9 of this game, and have not yet finished it. It is possible that in the last act Trip and the design studio will redeem themselves, but I am decidedly not optimistic.