The Gamer’s Gaze

Monday, April 7th, 2014 by dparker90

Despite my lack of video gaming prowess during most of youth, I’m extremely proud to say that I singlehandedly brought down quite a few Klingon birds-of-prey last time I was in the MAL. Playing the Star Trek: Motion Picture game on the Vectrex game console, I relieved a lot of post-Monday stress while shooting those little ships. Unfortunately the Enterprise suffered a few cracks to the bridge, and I definitely jumped every time the screen “fractured” from being hit.

My experience with the game got me thinking about the different ways in which gamers are positioned as participants in gaming experiences, especially when it comes to visual perspective. I hope to relate this line of thought to Crary’s argument about how the nineteenth-century saw a new science of vision that focused on the human as a viewing technology. Is it possible to map changes in visual perspective in video games? I haven’t played enough games to answer this thoroughly, but I’ll share some of my thoughts based on my experience. Those of you with significant gaming experience, please tell me if you agree. 

In Star Trek on the Vectrex, the screen literally becomes the window of the ship, while you, the gamer, are positioned as the captain. The gamer’s gaze comes from the physical human body, and is of course mediated by the screen. I felt aware of my visual perspective every time the ship took a hit and my view was obscured by cracks in the screen. By affecting my vision, the shot to the ship felt intensely personal. My gaze was directly impacted by my participation (in other words, my failure to shoot the Klingons) in the game.

I wonder, then, how the gaming experience changes when the gamer’s visual perspective is altered. I’d posit that we build less of an emotional connection to a game when we’re our gaze is mediated through a character on the screen. The only other video game I’ve really played is Tomb Raider, which just released a version for the iPad. I downloaded it to test out my hypothesis (and also because I used to love making Lara do backflips and stuff).

Unlike the Vectrex’s Star Trek game, Tomb Raider for iPad set me at a distance from the action in the game’s plot. Because you play as Lara, I’d argue that it removes you one step further from the game. You’re positioned behind her, so you’re mostly watching her while she watches the action. While I think this perspective might also have something to do marketing the game to teenage boys, I think it significantly impacts the gamer’s affective response to the game. I can’t say that I feel particularly jarred when Lara gets eaten by wolves, or falls on spikes, or whatever other calamities my poor hand-eye coordination causes. I’m convinced that my apathy – in contrast to the Star Trek game – comes from the distant visual perspective.

Am I wrong? Does seeing the body of the character build a stronger emotional connection to the game for you? I think you could argue that a lack of body makes the game more impersonal, although this wasn’t my experience. 

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2 comments on “The Gamer’s Gaze

  1. Deven, I don’t have an answer, but I do have some thoughts.

    I’ve been thinking about visuals in gaming, since another student and I chatted with Nicholas O’Brien (artist in residence at CU) a few weeks ago. We talked about gaming with Atari-type visuals vs. some of the hyper-sensationalized games that have been developed in recent years. O’Brien said that, as a kid, he would often be attracted to the narrative booklets that came with the old school games over the game itself. The other guy in the conversation (I’m really bad at names… so I’ll call him Guy…) said that he became increasingly repulsed by overly gory and bloody graphics. He gave an example of a character in a close-up. The character “talks” to the gamer at length. At the end of his spiel, he takes out a knife, slits his own throat, and blood spurts all over the screen. Guy said that, because of this hyper-reality, he started to enjoy those games less and returned to games less graphic. As for me, I’m not a gamer, but I love good, old-fashioned, arcade *Time Crisis 3* – not 1, 2, or 4. 1 and 2 irritate me with their inaccurate shooting and fuzzy graphics. 4 irritates me because there are a thousand exploding aliens. But 3 is juuuuust right. I have often quoted Zielinski and I’ll quote him yet again: “The current state of the art does not necessarily represent the best possible state” (7). I wonder if there is a visual “sweet spot” for gaming, which allows the gamer to engage his or her creative imagination, but not be “hindered” by the technology (or not have attention drawn to the technology- fuzziness, overactive aliens- just the game). I would posit that engaging the gamer’s creativity would foster stronger bonds between the gamer and the game. I would also argue that incessantly WOWing the audience with visual techniques actually numbs the gamer and works against the addictive relationships we build with delightfully simple characters, as we help them solve their problems (Angry Birds, Tetris, Mario Brothers…).

    -Renée

  2. kylebickoff says:

    On face, I think the difference between these is how these games are defined as either first person or third person. But what do these terms really mean in the context of the game?

    I’m thinking most about this “emotional connection” you mention. I think that within the context of the two games you propose, this becomes particularly evident.

    You say the emotional attachment with Star Trek is stronger–that is on the Vectrex, which has a small, empty screen, uses vector graphics, and is a harsher screen on the eyes. Then you mention you feel less attached to Lara in tomb raider, but this is on the bright, color screen of the apple iPad. I think this comparison really emphasizes how much the attachment to the ‘first person’ can truly become realized in a video game.

    I also wonder about the ‘controller’ in these games. I read that handheld game companies are finding the touchscreen is not really the best system of controlling the access to the game–the touchscreen usually allows just one or two points of contact in this interface. Through a controller shaped to the human body (hand), a user has far more ‘buttons’ of control right ‘at the fingertips.’ The new push now in gaming to to bring back handheld controllers–this comes at a time when Amazon TV is trying to reintegrate the control into their media hub (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/07/technology/personaltech/the-amazon-fire-tv-streaming-media-set-top-box.html?_r=0).

    I think of the handheld control as an extension of the problem. The handheld controller tends to force users into the more hidden interface of the first person; the touchscreen forces users into the ‘hands on’ interface of the third person.

    Does this make our games now more or less personal? And do they have a stronger or weaker ’emotional connection’ with us because of it?

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