A while ago I read an article by our very own Brad Simons discussing how 80% of gamers who played Mass Effect 2 chose to be the male Commander Shepard instead of the female. He shared his disapproval for this statistic and wrote, “80% of you made the wrong choice, because the female Shepard is by far the better character. Why? Because Jenifer Hale did a much better job with the voice acting.” Personally, I couldn’t agree more. If you watch the videos he uses to compare the voice actors, Hale is more invested in her character’s line delivery compared to Mark Meer whose stiff tone is forced and awkward.
What caught my attention however was the comments posted in response to his post. Many agreed that while Hale’s voice acting is better suited for the Commander, they still chose mShep because, as some posted, there was a connection to simply being male. For others, being mShep meant the ability to have a romantic relationship with female NPC’s and they preferred a heteronormative approach. I was intrigued by these responses because it suggests that as gamers we have an urge to mirror ourselves with the characters we play. We shift from watching cinematic cutscenes to actively participating as the protagonist and immerse ourselves in a digital world and the choices we make in it.
The relationship between a game and its player can be likened to the relationship between a film and its spectator. Spectatorship theory is thoroughly studied in Film Studies to address a psychoanalytical relationship between a spectator and the objects on a screen, also known as the spectator’s “gaze.” When speaking about the gaze, we delve into the psychology of Sigmud Freud and Jacques Lacan, and a femininized reading from theorist Laura Mulvey. I would just like to add here that I’m providing a very brief definition of spectatorship theory and the gaze to simply give a basis for the rest of my post.
There is indeed a scopophilic aspect to video games. Gamers enjoy watching cutscenes, respect well done graphics, and are amazed by the realistic art with increasing technological improvements. What’s important is venturing beyond the look – or the gaze – of gamers and fleshing out what this means to them as they are playing. I would argue that a psychological relationship is created with every game we play. In some games, we become voyeurs and the gaze is then eroticized. We are given opportunities to watch dancers sway suggestively and have sexual affairs in the Mass Effect franchise to name one example.
One of the most prominent games that examines voyeurism is Silent Hill 4: The Room. We follow Henry Townsend as he attempts to escape his imprisoned apartment through a portal that leads to a supernatural “Otherworld”, a common nightmarish place in the Silent Hill franchise. He discovers there is a serial killer on the loose and that his next victim is Henry’s neighbour Eileen Gavin. Concerned for her safety and unable to leave his apartment, he is able to watch Eileen through a hole in his wall. Henry, and the player controlling him, becomes a Peeping Tom. We watch Eileen sleep, clean, and talk to her friends on the phone. Throughout each scene we see the always adorable and not at all creepy Robbie the Rabbit plush toy sitting on her bed. In the final peek, Eileen is gone from her bedroom but Robbie is now turned toward you. He is staring at you - and pointing at you.
Not only did this moment horrify me, but it took me by surprise when Robbie knew I was looking. I was caught. I truly felt like a Peeping Tom in that moment and the game wanted me to acknowledge my voyeurism. It reminds you again that you’re a perverted fuck later when Henry enters a room in the Otherworld greeted by heavy sexual breathing and, oh yes, a giant scary Eileen face with twitchy eyeballs staring at you.
This is all a direct reaction to me, the player controlling Henry, gazing at Eileen. What is memorable in this moment is the connection that I had developed with Henry by that point in the game. Even though it was him looking through the hole to watch Eileen’s every move, I was the one who felt uncomfortable when Robbie caught me. The fourth wall broke and Robbie identified me as the spying camera. Film theorist Christian Metz wrote in The Imaginary Signifier that the spectator’s identification with the camera creates the all-powerful position of a God. We as gamers have an undeniable God complex because we hold the power when we are playing games. We become the camera directing our own vision to guide our protagonist through narratives and combat scenarios. This authority creates a deep connection with the character we control, and is most apparent in RPG’s where we are able to customize almost any aspect of ourselves.
Think about a time you were describing an instant of a game with your friends. “So in Infamous, I had to choose between facing riot police myself, or starting a riot in a crowd which would result in casualties .” It’s unlikely you would say, “So Cole had to choose between facing riot police himself…” because you are Cole. If Infamous was a film, then indeed you would state it the second way. But in games, we are immersed in our characters and we relate to them which I find humorous. How could I possibly relate to Joseph Turok, a giant, manly-man Native American living on a planet and slitting raptors’ throats with a machete? I mean, really. If I wanted to relate to a video game, I would play a game where the protagonist worked 9-5, came home and made dinner followed by drinking a bottle of wine and passing out in bed. But NAY! I am Joseph Turok. I am Lara Croft. I am Bayonetta. The relationship I develop with these characters is similar but not identical to the relationship between a film and its spectator, but I would argue it’s certainly just as complex.
Were there any moments you had when you felt that deep connection with a protagonist? Do you think you reflect yourself upon a video game?