First-person perspective: a poor solution to gender issues

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A couple weeks ago, Kaitlin Tremblay at Medium Difficulty made an interesting post about her experience with first-person games, arguing that she finds it easier to identify with characters in a first-person perspective as a female gamer because the effects of the male gaze aren’t as readily apparent. While this may be helpful in alleviating the obvious and pervasive effects of the male gaze that can stop someone from playing a game, I don’t see the first-person perspective as a solution to any of the underlying problems of the gaze’s gender issues.

One particular idea of hers caught my eye:

“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”

When it comes to the playable protagonist, this “removing” of the ability to see him or her certainly has an effect on how the gaze works. In the first-person perspective, the player can easily identify with the protagonist regardless of gender and side-step the over-sexualization in the representation of most female heroines. However, this actually does nothing to disestablish the gendered aspect of the gaze because the protagonist is not the only person on screen.

The effects of the male gaze have as much to do with the object as they do the subject (player), and every non-player character one encounters is a potential object. What happens when the female gamer, having easily identified with her character, comes across a non-playable female character in the game? If the key to the male gaze holds true for the game – that it is built with a male audience in mind – then that female character will still be presented as a passive object that does nothing to further the narrative. The player/protagonist is inherently an active participant in a game’s narrative – in almost all cases, the playable character of a game is the one who furthers the story the most. In Hollywood, Mulvey sees the “man’s role as the active one of forwarding the story.” Even if the female player takes on that primary role, the male gaze’s effects are seen in every other character of the game. The majority of other characters will likely be male, and many of them will be active participants in the narrative. The female characters, on the other hand, will continue to be represented as the passive objects, and while camera angles may not be tools easily used in first-person games to objectify them; artistic style and bouncing animations, along with a lack of active participation within the narrative, maintain the female as the passive object of the player’s gaze.

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In most cases, the first-person perspective makes it easier for the player to identify with the subject of the male gaze, but he or she will still see the female characters as passive females if the player’s perspective is all that changes. For a male player, this has absolutely no effect on his perspective of gender roles, as he retains the position of subject that he has in almost any narrative he sees, reads, or plays. For a female player, it only has the effect of allowing her to participate in the male gaze of the passive woman. Instead of troubling the existence of the unequal binary showcased in the male gaze, this just allows her to temporarily shift to the privileged side of the binary. When she walks away from the game, her view of herself may have changed, since her experience as the active subject may fortify feelings that despite the gender roles drilled into us by media, she herself can be active, rather than passive. But her view of other women has no reason to change at all, seeing them as passive, since the women you actually see in a game are still by and large passive objects who don’t contribute to the narrative. Thus, the first-person perspective allows movement across the male/female binary, but it has no revolutionary effect on anyone’s view of either side of the binary.

What can be done to actually disrupt the overwhelming dominance of the male gaze in games? Well, that requires a completely different perspective for the game developers from the very beginning of story and character development. As Tremblay says, “Audiences are changing.” Women make up a huge part of the video game consumer base, and the hyper-masculine games clinging desperately to a male perspective simply don’t appeal women of them for obvious reasons. And for male gamers like me, it’s hard not to find the stereotypical portrayals of men and women more boring and frustrating with each game that gets pumped through the industry. If audiences are changing, they can only do so much to help themselves avoid the negative feelings of the male gaze. A significant portion of the work needs to come from developers.

Helpful Sources:

Kaitlin Tremblay’s “First Person Perspective and the Untroubled Gaze.”

Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

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