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.