First-Person Perspective and the Untroubled Gaze

I hadn't thought about it before, but the cursor is as good a visual representation of the gaze as anything.

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?

This is actually what reading Film Theory feels like...

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)

Milking Cows: Female Subjectivity in Harvest Moon: Boy and Girl (Medium Difficulty)

Girls, Games, and The Products They Create (Medium Difficulty)

About Kaitlin Tremblay

Kaitlin Tremblay is a Master's graduate in English and Film, Specialization in Gender and Genre and has a BA in Creative Writing. She is a writer, a painter, a gamer, with a love for all things horror. Read more from Kaitlin at ThatMonster or follow her on Twitter. Kaitlin's work has also appeared on The Border House, Gamasutra, NerdSpan, and Comics Should Be Good.
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  • Dan Solberg

    How do you feel about games that have a more abstract perspective, like 2D side-scrollers? Or in a game like Mirror’s Edge where you can look down and see your gendered “self.”

    It’s funny when the “mirror stage” literally shows up in some first-person games, almost always just awkward, despite being cool graphical tech. Your character will be in the bathroom or something (usually the men’s room btw) and you’ll look in the mirror to see the character holding guns with outstretched arms. It’s just silly and does the same thing as seeing 3rd person perspective to the player.

    • Kaitlin Tremblay

      It’s funny, for me 2D side-scrollers doesn’t entail the same character-identification as shooters. I think I was focusing mostly on shooters here because that’s the majority of what I’ve been playing lately, but side-scrollers are definitely worth looking at! Being able to look down and see your gendered self doesn’t have the same weight as 3rd-person for me, because looking down is entirely optional and not forced on you as you play.
      I was thinking about instances in first-person shooters, like Borderlands and Fallout, where when you die, you see your character’s body flop lifelessly, and I think this is a really interesting mental trick, because it’s the one moment in the game you want to create a rift in your identification with the character (who wants to feel themselves die?)
      You’re absolutely right about the “mirror stage!” Admittedly, I’ve never read much more from Lacan, aside from the bare bones and when he’s showed up in other theorist’s work, so I would love to see what someone who knows Lacan better would make the literal “mirror stage” in games.

      • Karl Parakenings

        I (ineptly) wrote my MA paper on Lacan and Games, basically, and I’m working on something that is basically Lacan and Shin Megami Tensei Persona 4 Golden. Watch this space/site.

        • Karl Parakenings

          Of course, Kyle is way, way better at Lacan than I am. I’m just the one that uses it for evil.

          • Kaitlin Tremblay

            Sounds great, I look forward to it! I strongly support using Lacan for evil, all the time.