The other day I was playing Fallout 3, and in my zeal to kill as many guards as possible before escaping Vault 101, I switched to third person perspective. It was jarring, but I decided to give it a shot: it had been awhile since I’ve played any games in the third-person perspective, and thought I’d give it a try. This is when I realized something about myself as a gamer: I hate playing in third-person now.
Okay, well “hate” is a strong word. I greatly prefer playing in first-person for all my shooter game needs. Third-person feels…wrong, somehow. This is weird, right? I didn’t always feel this way. Perspective was never an issue with me, before. I grew up playing the Resident Evil games and loved the perspective, just as much as I adored games like Quake and Unreal. And it’s not to say I won’t play and enjoy a third-person perspective game (Batman: Arkham City is testament to this), it’s just that I’m aware now that it will absolutely affect the depth of my involvement and enjoyment in the game.
For me, it comes down to character identification. I’ve written before on the importance of character selection for me as a feminist, but perspective is a different situation. In spectator theory and feminism, Laura Mulvey and Mary Anne Doanne both assert that female spectators have a troubled identification process with a character on screen, as they are often forced into either a “passive or masochistic position,” to quote Doanne from her article Film and Masquerade.
The gaze has always belonged to masculine subjects (characters on screen have always been established in relation to a male audience), relegating the female character on screen to an object to be looked at (what Mulvey calls “to-be-looked-at-ness”). Video games are able to side-step this in a way by forcing gamer identification with female heroes, such as Tomb Raider. But also as the Tomb Raider example shows, there is still a masculinisation of the gaze happening: Lara Croft is very much still an object of desire.
In my experience, first-person perspective in shooters bypasses this gendered complication. During actual game play, the character as an object becomes completely subsumed into my experience as the subject. Aside from some occasional grunts and shouts, there is very little that disrupts this experience for me. Take Borderlands 2, for example. I played as Salvador, but never once did I notice a dissonance between his character and my experience while playing. Even when the psychos and marauders hurled insults at my character, they were typically about Salvador’s height, which also resonated with me, as I am quite short myself.
Salvador may be a fraught example, because technically it’s still in line with traditional problems of the spectator’s gaze: if we’re playing by those rules, I am still identifying with the masculine subject. So let’s take Fallout 3. My character, as best as I could, looked a lot like me. She had dark hair and…okay, I guess that’s where the resemblance stops. But it wasn’t until I switched between perspectives that I became aware of her. I kept playing in third-person after that, but felt entirely removed from the story and the situation. I even thought of my answers to questions differently than I had been before. There was a switch, and I started to think of my character as someone I was controlling rather than myself. It was like being aware that someone else was in the room with you the whole time when you thought you were alone.
Hey, I never said this wasn’t a weird thing, okay?
What I’m saying here is that for me first-person shooters eradicate the dissonance that Mulvey and Doanne elucidate as intensely problematic for females. There is no complication of gaze, because the character is not an object on screen, but rather a vehicle I, as a gamer, am fully inhabiting. Non-visual cues, like character grunts and catch-phrases, do not have as profound of an impact on this experience because they’re not visual. Mulvey discusses Lacan’s mirror-stage (where a child looks into a mirror, sees their reflection and acknowledges the reflected image as themselves) as a means of linking “looking” with “self-awareness.” It is the gaze that mobilizes our recognition of “self” versus “others.”
The problem in spectator theory has always been with the gaze: what we see, and how what is shown is influenced by who is watching. In first-person shooters, the experience is no longer gendered because there is no traditional subject/object on screen to mediate our identification/experience. With statistics showing the extreme increase in female gamers (where female gamers my age exist in a larger number than adolescent male gamers), we can’t even posit that video game narratives are exclusively constructed for a male audience, the way Mulvey thought of Hollywood cinema. Audiences are changing, and our relationship with the gaze is changing also.
When I think back to the games I loved growing up, I can recall a marked difference in my attitudes. When I think about Resident Evil, it is very much about Claire Redfield and how she reacted to her enemies and obstacles. But when I think back to my experiences playing Unreal, the memory is of me on that alien planet running through ancient temples. I invest more of myself into games with the first-person perspective. There’s no complication, no distance.
In effect, first-person perspective eliminates the object of the gaze, so there is never a subjective distinguishing moment. Back to Borderlands and Fallout 3: our first game experiences are other characters speaking to the screen, to us directly. There is no gendered gaze happening, because gamer and character become condensed into one subject that isn’t hampered by the gaze or what we can see of ourselves screen. If female characters have typically existed only to be looked at, then removing them visually and collapsing them in gamer/character removes this gendered aspect of the gaze. There is no gendered complication between playing as Salvador or as Maya, but there exists a certain tension when playing in third-person perspective for me.
Further Reading: Why All My Characters are Ladies (Medium Difficulty)