This post has not been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.
Editor’s note: James artfully analyzes how video games have taken the same path as film when it comes to presenting material from a male viewpoint. Do you agree? -Jason
A Primer on Movies and Videogames
Laura Mulvey’s famous 1975 essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, describes an old Hollywood sexual style and how both women and men had become entrenched in the hegemonic continuation of the male dominant viewpoint of the time — a viewpoint that has largely, and unfortunately, is still there today.
Within the purview of the old Hollywood classics, she attributed the general perception that the female form is graceful and erotic and the converse perception that the exposed male form is often times awkward or humorous to this sentiment.
In her essay she uses strong Freudian psychoanalytical correlation to make her argument that male-dominated viewpoints are deeply entangled with the visual and anthropomorphic components of film storytelling and with the capitalist necessity of high production values.
She also moves to praise the advent of early independent filmmaking through the increased use of the newer, cheaper 16mm film stock as an opportunity to rectify this problem.
With video games, we’re at a similar crossroads.
At the time Mulvey created the article, many of the world’s most vaunted auteurs, from Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme to George Lucas and Martin Scorcese, got their start with independents filmed on 16mm.
In addition, most 1970s grindhouse flicks were filmed in the 16mm format; these were films that would go on to inspire more modern, independent filmmakers who also filmed 16mm movies. Filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith all got their start filming on cheap budgets thanks to the 16mm format.
Regardless of the overall quality of any of these films and their certain lack of androgynous or feminist viewpoints, Mulvey argued at the beginning that film had finally transcended its economic shackles and that it could finally carry its artistic considerations foremost.
Currently, costs to develop games are dropping across the board. Independently, through either small production companies or even smaller home brews, the wave of independent concepts and voices in videogames continues to rise to staggering heights.
“Cinema has changed over the last few decades. It is no longer the monolithic system based on large capital investment exemplified at its best by Hollywood in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Technological advances — 16mm, etc. — have changed the economic conditions of cinematic production, which can now be artisanal as well as capitalist.
“Thus it has been possible for an alternative cinema to develop. However self-conscious and ironic Hollywood managed to be, it always restricted itself to a formal mise-en-scene reflecting the dominant ideological concept of the cinema.”
Essentially, Mulvey argued that the fate of an early film’s destiny was deeply decided by the intertwining considerations of cost and mass-consumer palpability, and thusly its concepts took a back seat to its marketability, whereas independents filmed on small budgets could cater to smaller market interests and still be profitable.
So what does this have to do with games? This article’s intended to be a cursory look at Mulvey’s criticisms of classic Hollywood, about the prevalence of the male perspective in film at the time, and about her hopes that cheaper, more affordable film stocks would allow new voices to topple the male viewpoint hegemony — and how her points can be applied to the growing affordability of game production; how fully its developmental landscape is currently steeped in heterosexual, male perspectives; and about my same hopes as to what lowered design costs could mean for gamers.
To say, this isn’t meant to be a discussion of which female characters are the strongest heroines — we can leave that to the glut of top-10 lists that pervade the Internet as a whole. Within Mulvey’s perspective, nearly if not all video game stories fail miserably at representing the female viewer.
Also, to note, Freudian psychology has experienced some diminishing returns with regard to its overall reliability and applicability to human consciousness over the interceding decades, and as such, I’m appropriating her arguments for a more semiotical approach that’s probably more en vogue.
Also, this isn’t meant to be some sort of male-perspective feminist manifesto about video games. It’s very hard to be a male feminist. Some feminists would argue that it’s impossible — something akin to an apple being an advocate for an orange’s equal representation in the supermarket.
Being a male feminist is not something that I carry any pretense about or take lightly; I have neither the credentials nor the life experience to aspire to such a title. What I do have is a modicum of expertise in both film and videogames coupled with a disillusionment about how women are portrayed in both.
Ultimately, I hope to provide an analysis that may simply be a surrogate through which (due to her age and somewhat antiquated theories) Mulvey might be able to comment about a related medium that she probably knows very little about.
Pleasure in Looking/Fascination with the Human Form
After her discussion of how she employs Freud to attack the Hollywood institution, Mulvey begins with a discussion about the collective fascination with the human form.
The start is with Freud’s concept of scopophilia — to be clear this isn’t a reference to the “blank-o-philias” that we think of in common usage, but rather derives from the Greek scopo, meaning look or sight, and philos, meaning love or appreciation. In later writings Freud began to revise himself as some human behaviors he observed became a bit incongruent with his original premises about the three human erogenous zones (oral cavity, genitalia, and anus).
Without stimulation, humans often experience erogenous pleasure through sight. The most common category of “sight” in film and media theory is what has come to be called The Male Gaze. Mulvey paraphrases,
“Although the instinct is modified by other factors, in particular the constitution of the ego, it continues to exist as the erotic basis for pleasure in looking at another person as an object.”
We get the colloquialism “women as objects” from Freud. However, it’s important to note Mulvey’s point about a film’s cultural palpability here and how it applies to film as a medium. While Mulvey describes film as a fundamentally passive experience, she states that Freud’s concept of scopophilia is an active process.
To Freud scopophilia becomes the infantile process of visual data collection. As humans, we want to see what’s unknown or forbidden from a very young age. It’s how we learn. Eventually all of these learning keys are wrapped up in the basic function of reproduction and, by extension, eroticism. They can often become conflated.
This is why Mulvey believes that film transitions from a passive, intellectual exercise to an active, scopophilic enterprise. Even if we don’t buy the austere sex slant of psychoanalytics, a more current developmental analogue called Domain Specificity exists.
Cognitive philosophers and psychologists like Jerry Fodor and Jean Piaget argue that what separates pure Pavlovian conditioning in dogs from human sensory learning is the ability to learn by watching, without reward or punishment; more specifically, and less scientifically, empathy is a key genetic capability of humanity.
Piaget even went so far as to have his ideas eventually called genetic epistemology. Other animals learn through personal experience, whereas humans can learn through empathic experience as well.
So in a sense, maybe Freud and Mulvey have it right. If we assume we’re genetically coded to learn empathetically through our senses, most specifically sight, then it stands to reason that this impulse could be conflated with our sexuality.
Our developmental sexual roles can not only produce our sexual identities as a culture, they can also be further reinforced at a later age and in later generations by the same semiotic signs of the culture that we interact with and create at any time, especially when we are young and our cognitive capabilities and responses are at their highest. Not only do we create media, we learn signs and associatives from publicly accepted media.
Extrapolate that a few decades and with Mulvey and you arrive here:
“Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order.”
That is to say, the mainstream inseminates the culture with its original sexual precepts. So it is with games. One of the most famous and earliest examples is Metroid. If the player beats the game within 3 hours, they get a secret revelation that the main character’s a woman. This is a very revealing design decision.
Rather than empowering the woman character from the beginning, the male creators of the series decided androgynous discretion of character would net them a blunt force narrative twist in the end. This is why Samus, though she may be an empowered female protagonist, is diminished through the lens of the male point of view that produced her and isn’t empowering to the female viewpoint.
She doesn’t exist as an enabled woman; on the contrary, she exists as a useful plot device to titillate a predominately male audience. This early example shows that given the resources to make a game, and sometimes even the best intentions, the concepts and viewpoints still come from a male impetus. Even still, more recent examples fail to pass muster and are more disheartening considering their contemporary circumstances.
Final Fantasy 10’s Yuna, who seemed promising at first, jumped into hot pants and played dress-up for her sexy-ass sequel. Jade of Beyond Good and Evil fame was a seemingly inerrant heroine, but still, her the design of sexy, midriff-baring and raver-harlot makeup smacks of dollars and dudes.
The Longest Journey’s April Ryan springs to mind as another likely candidate save that the opening scene takes place with her barely clad in sleepwear. It seems impossible to dig up a woman in videogames whose design choices and personality choices don’t have some consideration for how men think in mind. The pervasiveness of The Male Gaze abides.
Woman as Image; Man as Bearer of the Look
“At this point [Freed] associated scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze.”
This is where video games become even more damned. With Freud’s theories about childhood development, we can discount a lot based upon further survey. But I think a lot of what Freud was onto is important, and what Mulvey said even moreso with regard to media; they were just observing the obvious without the revisionist help of current heuristic practices. As philosophers they viewed human basics as best they could.
So if viewing a film becomes an active experience of intent to see and expectancy, the medium, taken on account of itself, still remains inactive. Through modern pragmatic semiotics, we can understand that in the video game the viewer and the creator both have more active roles and can make more sign linkages than in any other medium. The creator actively makes the experience, much the same as a filmmaker, but in-game, through whatever eyes are his or her own, the participant actively recreates the creator’s vision.
In this way the medium cannot be viewed, even objectively, as non-implicit. One can play a film against a wall, without other people, and it happens; one, however, cannot project a game against a wall in the same way. The user interface of games interferes with the experiential completion. Unlike a film, if a user is not there, nothing happens. Without the player, the art is incomplete and simply does not exist.
So videogames, by virtue of their nature, are distinctly more about response than any other medium. They’re dangerous because the product not only represents the creator and the viewer but also represents a choice of experience spiced with a solipsistic uniqueness.
The dialogue between creator and viewer is truly malleable, and associative signs shared between the two become muddled. Every user enters the world without the creator’s expectation, and in a videogame they interpret not only the message but the material. I’ll be the first to admit that in Grand Theft Auto 3, after I paid a hooker for sex the second or third time, I though about jumping out of the car to see if I could murder her and get my money back. And I did.
This isn’t necessarily indicative of social deviancy. In the game it becomes an explorable curio for proof of fact. Would I do it in real life? The answer is, of course, no. But that’s not the important part. The important part is the semiotics signs thrown out. What are the innate linkages that I make between hookers and guns and crime within the public culture?
How do these concepts provide understanding, and what are the ramifications of my actions? All three have their basis in regimented male design choices. Clearly some of the game developers’ intent has survived the multitude of user options intact. Pragmatically, there is a John, represented onscreen by the 3D model of a man, a common Western sign, and a hooker, also represented by a 3D model, another common Western sign.
These two signs engage in a scene that is both comical and sophomoric. The car rocks a bit, maybe the woman moans, and voilà, the man’s health and vigor is restored. This wasn’t a woman’s game from the start, developer to the end-user the whole way through; it was The Male Gaze.
“The alternative cinema provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film.
This is not to reject the latter moralistically, but to highlight the ways in which its formal preoccupations reflect the psychical obsessions of the society which produced it, and, further, to stress that the alternative cinema must start specifically by reacting against these obsessions and assumptions.
A politically and aesthetically avant-garde cinema is now possible, but it can still only exist as a counterpoint.”
And this is the point. Video games always have been inherently male. While I know it’s asking a lot — considering film hasn’t yet rectified this problem fully — we’re at a crossroads of correction.
As game development costs sink and the amount of female players increases, the onus is on all of us, female and male alike, to create new and interesting voices outside of the only one we have. One could even argue that in the past it made sense. Since the days of the NES, developmental costs and financial risks have only risen.
Times past didn’t set an appropriate climate for experimentation and similarly, modern big budget titles aren’t necessarily places to be risking millions of dollars.
So, leave it to the indies.
I play video games and watch films to experience something. For me, it’s not necessarily about the reinforcement of my own worldview; it’s about experiencing something outside myself. Something without my capabilities of perception. Ultimately, that’s probably why I killed the hooker.
When I view a piece of art, it’s not about experiencing something I know about; it’s about experiencing something I don’t know about, and in many cases, can’t know about. If any piece of art I can consume can gives me even a basic, scanty understanding of what it is to be female or what it is like to live in a black person’s shoes, then bravo.
It’s doing what art should do: increasing communication and generating empathy. Fuck all the rest.
The Choice Is Yours
“She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure. Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organization of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father.”
While I couldn’t wholly disagree with this more, Mulvey was a product of her higher learning. For me the distaste for female viewpoints in games isn’t as entirely erotic as psychoanalysts might have it. Fear of the woman beating the man in contest isn’t about castration fantasies or penis envy.
The fear comes from and is deeply intertwined with the hegemony of maleness that is endemic in nearly every mammal species. The signs of The Male Gaze were assigned long ago and are repeatedly pushed and reinforced.
Within and outside of videogames, it’s very probably our natural imperative to obey this idea of male dominance. It isn’t, however, a genetic sentence; we have been given greater mental faculties than simple impulse.
We have the ability to disabuse ourselves of these outdated, vestigial instinctual tendencies. All that it takes is a choice.
We aren’t without hope. This article was inspired by Amy Henning’s work with Elena Fisher in Uncharted and by Valve’s work with Alyx Vance in the Half-Life series. If you haven’t already, check them out.