Friday, July 1, 2011

The Gamer's Gaze, part 3

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.


  1. 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.

    Some examples? I understand that there aren't many of them, and I'm accepting as proven the case that the male gaze is the default, I just don't know where you go other than "not that" which isn't helpful if you actually wanted to, say, create a game about and for women, or even just look for the "female gaze" in other games.

    If we were to look for a female gaze in gaming, my hunch is that we would find it in a handful of jRPGs.

    Depending on the definition of the female gaze, I'd be surprised if it was limited to RPGs. I'm sure that most of them might be considered problematic, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't represented in Japanese games across genres. Bishonen manga and anime and all that, and there's heavy cross-pollination between game and anime/manga visual style and design in Japan.

    Re: Fallout 3

    Some of the improvement between Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas is related to the improvements to the design, expanded dialog choices, and better writing of those choices. The hiring of so many of the Fallout 2 and Van Buren design and writing team for the project contributed, I'm sure.  Fallout 2 is an incredibly gender neutral game, even now. 

  2. Yeah, that was poor word choice on my part.  I was thinking more in terms of assumption but I realize it could be unclear.  It's not so much intent -- it almost never is, I don't think, with possible pieces of excrement like Duke Nukem Forever excepted -- as it is ignorance or, as you say, privilege.

    More and more I think that we're stuck in a cycle.  Games and gamer culture are hostile to many women, so those women don't show up.  Therefore there are "almost no" women around, so the culture gets more hostile, so some more women drop out, so...

  3. Therefore there are "almost no" women around, so the culture gets more hostile, so some more women drop out, so...

    Except for the statistics showing that more and more women are playing games. They may not be playing as many of the blockbusters, but that doesn't matter as much anymore. They're still playing and buying games, and as we have so recently seen that is beginning to have an effect. Not to mention the increasing number of women making their own spaces to talk about stuff away from the Duke-tards of the world.

    Try not to sell yourselves short in the middle of big and continuing victories.

  4. I think there are cases of both.   I don't know that I am capable of reading minds, but I'm far less forgiving of a game where I feel there is an intention to manipulate me with tits and ass.    It's as if they are saying, "Well, we couldn't really come up with a compelling story or interesting gameplay, but we've got lots of sexy women for you to look at, and you can act out a fantasy where they fawn all over you."   

    Honestly, life has taught me to be deeply distrustful of a beautiful woman who gets sexual with me immediately.   I don't know, maybe this is generational, I like to joke that I'm 3000 years old.  This may well be unfortunate, but I prefer to take things a bit slower, even in a game or a fantasy.Nothing repels me more than the sense that someone is trying to manipulate me through my sexuality, and I'm a hetero cisgendered male, if not highly "masculine" by some people's standards.   Those standards include in the definition of "masculine" the idea that I would hump anything with the requisite plumbing at a drop of a hat, to do less so would be to less "manly".    Which is kind of why I feel a gendered critique of such games doesn't quite go far enough.  I think it embodies a huge misunderstanding of sexuality and how it works.   Of course, there's a pile of money to be made by propagating that misunderstanding...

  5. Yeah, there's a stupidity here, but there's also a business response.   Women play games, and buy games, and would very likely prefer games that don't remind them of the worst experiences that they have in life.   In my view, Nintendo more than any other game company has clued in to this and is making tons of money off of it.

  6. I think the "Neutral" viewpoint was very successfully employed in Metroid Prime.   I love the feeling of seeing Samus' face reflected in the visor and realizing that Samus is a woman.

    But the Metroid games have no social sim to them whatsoever.   I don't think a game with a social aspect to it, such as what Mass Effect has, can be gender neutral.     Everyone has a gender identity, there is no such thing as "having no gender identity" for human beings.  I'm not talking about the gender binary - even intersex people have gender identities - their struggle is in expressing their inner truth to the world.

    No, I think what's desired is something that's gender plural.    Gender-neutral is Metroid Prime, and having no voice, but instead written text.   Gender plural is hiring using multiple voice talents, to support the chosen gender, and either using alternate animations/scenarios, or making sure that a character really works as bisexual, and takes a more realistic view of sexuality and how it works.

  7. This makes my brow furrow.   Didn't you just say you wanted to be attractive, that you designed your character to be attractive?

    I think you missed the distinction she's trying to make between "someone attractive to look at" and "someone attractive to be."

    Characters who are "attractive to look at" give something up to appeal to men.  Their proportions are unnatural and unhealthy, their outfits are uncomfortable and impractical -- their design is based around what the men looking at them want, regardless of what it costs them.

    A character who is "someone attractive to be," on the other hand, can't make those sacrifices, because most people who play videogames don't want to be that kind of person.  They can still look good, but that's less important than whether you can project yourself onto them, and they never look good in a degrading way.

  8. This is helpful. It seems there is a linguistic problem here. "Attractive to look at" is subjective, even if you are a hetero male.

    I don't find the exaggerated sexuality all that interesting, though my response is complex. It certainly gets my attention as an immediate thing - there's a lizard brain response. Over the "long term", 5 or 10 seconds, the higher brain functions kick in and the appeal fades. Someone with a less mature sexuality might be hooked by the symbolism employed - larger breasts and hips standing suggesting "sexier" sex. Scanty clothing symbolize availability, and overall slenderness denote status - the status a male might gain with other males for having her as a partner.

    Within a game, this is fantasy fulfillment, and can turn into predation, game designers exploiting the immature sexuality of males for cash. Women as human beings pretty much disappear from the equation all together.

    If women think that they would rather not play a pawn in some struggle between men, I don't blame them.

  9. It's been really interesting to me to watch this discussion unfold.  The truth of the matter is that yes -- there's nuance, and an absolutist statement will rarely stand on its own.

    The problem with the "attractive to look at" meme is that it's everywhere.  You hear it with male players of FemShep (who, sure, is slender and athletic by necessity, but is also well-proportioned and well-armored) in Mass Effect.  You hear it CONSTANTLY in MMORPGs -- and while WoW gives its female avatars pantsless hyper-sexual plate mail, you hear the same in EQ2 which is a lot better on that front.

    I think, personally, that part of it is that it's the only "acceptable" male response.  Sure, girls can read books about boys and watch movies about boys and play games starring boys, but for a guy to choose a feminine character for the starring role?  Well, it must be driven by sexuality, right?  Then it's manly enough for the public sphere.  But I have no research whatsoever at hand to back up that theory -- it's just a hunch.

  10. I agree that there's a difference between gender-neutral and gender-plural.  I'm just thinking realistically that most games won't have the support or budget to be 40-hour choose-your-own protagonist epics.  Usually when you have more choice over your character, the game is first-person and unvoiced -- and that's a lot cheaper and less time-intensive.

    Some stories are also going to be male-viewpoint centric, and that's okay.  God of War for example, is a big pile of M-rated sex and violence starring an angry, angry man and I'm totally cool with that because that's the story it's telling.  It'd be nice if there were some more mainstream female-viewpoint centric stories to go with, though.

  11. More and more it seems to me that all that is needed is to make good art.

  12. You know, it's interesting. When I first started D&D in 1980, we flipped a coin to see if each character would be male or female, and I had some really interesting women - including one whose legacy lives on to this day.

    But I've been playing MMO's for years and only have one female avatar - and she's a crossover from tabletop, half-orc, big and strong. I think she's good looking, but not in that "mainstream" way. My guide for this is Serena Williams, whom I also think is good looking.

    I do not usually take at face value the statements that men make about why they are playing female avatars. For some, they may be accurate. But for others, they are trying to avoid masculinity shaming. There are some few who are exploring gender identity - I have a gut belief that this is quite common in MMO's. But this is so shameful in the adolescent patriarchy that they need another, acceptable reason to do it.

    I am fairly certain that most men aren't that picky when it comes to attractiveness of a woman in the real world. But there is a "rating system". The point of which is status among other men. Date a higher "rated" woman, and increase your ranking among men, and perhaps among women, too, though I don't really know about that.

  13.  Yes, there are plenty of woman gamers! Many of us even play and enjoy big AAA games! But a distinction should be drawn between "people who play games" and "(visible) gamer culture." The latter is still extremely hostile to female perspectives, if not female participation. Speaking for myself, I avoid the comment sections & discussion forums on the big gaming sites because it just gets tiring to have to put up with being accused of "overreacting," "being PC," or "feminist rage" every time I make an innocuous comment that comes from a female perspective. I don't think I am unique in this.

    So, as K. Cox said, there's an unfortunate feedback loop where woman gamers are less visible, so we're treated as insignificant at best (and faced with outright hostility at worst), which turns us off of the mainstream fan culture, which makes us less visible, etc.

  14. It just feels like the wrong attitude. The people driving women away should be the long run losers. They are, after all, the ones walling themselves in from the rest of the world that isn't willing to deal with their stupid. Instead of ceding ground, take ground. Stop letting the better, invisible gamer culture stay invisible. Speak out more and louder, both about what's offensive that you see, and what is good that's there, and what you want to see that you don't. Raise the flag higher and wave it harder, and more people will be drawn to the better place, some who are still there will peel away because it's a nicer place. Companies are listening, even if most of them are bad at responding. If those enamored with the current state of affairs don't want to join the party, their loss. If they try to shut you down, shut them out. Two can play at that game.

  15. That's a really privileged way of looking at it, though.  The burden is then on the woman gamer to put herself into a hostile and threatening unsafe (sometimes, in a literal physical way) space, routinely, in what is nominally supposed to be her fun or hobby time.  I'm sure you can see how that would become a negative cycle?

    That said, you might have noticed that this blog, er, exists?  As well as sites like The Border House?  And that broader-focused sites are publishing the occasional relevant piece along these lines?  (Bitmob has frontpaged two for two of mine so far, for example, and they're both fairly feminist-leaning pieces in a wide open site.)

    We're out there.  But signal : noise is still off the charts and it's a slog.  I don't condemn players who don't have the energy to face the fire.

  16. I'm not at all suggesting that anyone put themselves in the line of fire. I'm saying they should be encouraged to get the hell away from it. Abandon the mainstream ship, let the rats sink with it. Blogs like this, and the rest of the reasonable, thoughtful places to comment I've found through this are the only reason I ever comment in public, and that's just because the normal places are an open sewer, not because I feel unsafe there. I can only guess at how those that are unsafe there feel about finding a place like this.
    It was intended to be cheerleading, not rose-tinting. Go team, Ra ra rass, other knee, etc. 

  17. Enh. I work in a male-dominated profession, and I do enough for Team Feminism in that context. Gaming is my hobby--something I do for *fun*--and arguing with dumbasses on Kotaku or wherever is the opposite of fun. In fact, I find it downright tedious. For some people, that *is* their idea of fun--more power to them. I prefer to spend my game-discussion energy on venues that elevate the level of discourse (like this here blog) or that are lowbrow-but-female-dominated.

  18. That's exactly what I meant. Do all the speaking out, but do it at places like here. Raise the flag by saying "hey, there's this cool place here where people aren't idiots" and don't bother draining the swamp. Ignore it.

  19. I didn't really agree with the idea (I think) you expressed about Miranda posing provocatively for Shepard; I don't think Miranda consciously employs her looks (although obviously she knows that's what they were designed for) and I don't think she was trying to seduce Shepard to get him/her to help rescue her sister. So I think in the Miranda's Ass scene it was strictly the gamer's gaze and the programmers' gaze that the camera glues to her tush, not Shep's. For me that makes it a big more egregious.

    In a similar vein, the new Catwoman trailer for Batman: Arkham City (which I am super excited for!) subverts the typical "Over The Shoulder" camera position to "To The Left Of And Slightly Behind The Tush" in a scene where Batman doesn't even seem to be present. In that scene the player will either be an observer *or else playing as Catwoman herself*. Therefore, the camera can't claim to be in the head of someone who's checking Catwoman out. I find this very annoying, although Arkham Asylum was great, Arkham City should be great, and the opportunity to play part of the game as Catwoman is really exciting.