The Potential of Second-Person Perspective Games: The Aesthetics of Shooting Yourself
As the media prepares itself for the next generation of consoles and the opposition between them, perhaps we should search for a new and more innovative generation of video games to accompany these developments?
Screen-watching is factually one of the most hated violations of gamer etiquette. Yet there still remain many who practice it in order to gain a tactical advantage over their opponents. I imagine that even the most overzealous and pious gamers must have attempted screen-watching once or at least understand the motives behind it. Importantly, for those who do screen-watch there exists the potential for that strange moment when you end up seeing and controlling your character while watching your opponent’s own screen. This is, to an extent, a primitive example of second-person perspective gaming. Basically, second-person perspective is perceiving the game world through a character that is not controlled by you, but is often looking at your personal player-character. This camera would presumably be controlled by either a NPC (non-player character) or a fellow gamer. I used screen-watching as an example because there is only a very limited and basic selection of second-person experiences throughout the entire game industry. As a result, my essay shall attempt to suggest some of the philosophical, moral and aesthetic potentials of this yet undeveloped genre.
Initially, both gamers and academics would assume that the constant visual disorder of the second-person perspective would create frustration and alienation in the player. To be sure, the few online discussion boards that have focused on the concept generally predict that a ‘moving but uncontrollable camera is disaster for dynamic gameplay’ (Broadhrst). Subsequently, this perspective would seem to delimit a player’s immersion in the virtual environment, disrupting the enjoyment and aesthetics of the experience. However, this assessment mistakenly equates a player’s sense of involvement with the simple representation of vision. Indeed, it could be proposed that third-person perspective games ‘allow for the representation of other-than-visual perception, like […] the ability to sense when another presence moves right behind or next to a person’ (Taylor, 29). Hence, this genre can be said to produce a more sensual, realistic and playable recreation of human experience that any first-person perspective game. Consequently, then, we can see the second-person perspective directly represent even more non-visual aspects of existence than third-person games, such as our ability to understand, predict and empathise with other sentient beings. Besides, not being in total control of the world around us is a basic fact of life itself. As a result, this concept that second-person perspective gaming would be annoyingly disorientating is not necessarily true and hides the engaging potential of the genre.
Yet the desire for immersion and flow does not merely impact on the aesthetic experience of the player, but their psychology also. This can often lead to negative and potentially dangerous consequences. It has often been reported that when playing ‘violent games children become immersed in violent actions. This immersion may sometimes provoke a real-life aggressive response from the player’ (Ravitch and Viteritti, 182). Therefore, we have a social responsibility to balance enjoyable, experiential gameplay with assessment and detachment. This is what I think the second-person perspective can continuously offer. As already observed, manipulating your character through uncontrolled eyes is not dissimilar to the act of screen-watching in multiplayer games. Wolf argues that ‘watching the other player’s actions is an important part of the strategy, creating an interesting tension between passive watching and active playing […] that can make the player more aware of the difference’ (Wolf, 65). Therefore, it could be stated that the second-person perspective creates a double consciousness. On one hand, the player is overtly aware of their dependent and reactionary position towards game mechanics, because they rely on the NPC-controlled camera. On the other hand, the gamer is simultaneously an active agent within the game itself. Hence, they do not simply accept the presented environment as reality, with its potential for violence, propaganda and aggression. Instead, players may act questioningly and distantly toward it without feeling powerless or totally alienated. Overall, the gameplay may create an awareness of one’s limitations, dependencies and interconnectedness, while at the same time providing an immersive and representational environment to play within.
Developing this virtual intermingling of violence, ethics and experience, one could argue that the second-person perspective offers a more realistic portrayal of combat, conflict and crisis. This is not in a literal manner but in a sensory one, because the second person perspective creates a hectic urgency or panic. Firstly, there is the practical need to be seen in order to assert direct control over the character’s movements. Indeed, in order to successfully ‘execute the combinatorial movements of block, hit, crouch, or jump accurately, it is necessary to see the character […] in context with the other elements’ (Taylor, 26-27). Therefore, the player would feel less empowered and panic when outside of the camera’s sight, feeling the need to return under it quickly. However, as this sight would be under the eyes of a potentially aggressive character, it would be tempered with a sense of danger and timidity.
In fact, there would be a sense of panic in the feelings of objectification and exposure. Once taken over by alien eyes, the camera is no longer a practicality but a vulnerability. Arguably, it appears to no longer be objective and controllable but antagonistic and demeaning. Evidence for this is apparent in multiplayer video games that employ ‘a split-screen view for each player, [for] some competitors have chosen to prevent the temptation to cheat by taping a barrier down the middle of the television screen’ (Consalvo, 111). Hence, there occurs a feeling of exposure and vulnerability when another competitive agent is looking at the player-character, as they can line-up shots, assess risks and ascertain another player’s position. In fact, the word “temptation” suggests notions of voyeurism and an illicit thrill, which further denotes embarrassment and privacy invasion. Apparently, this occurs to such an extent that several players have engaged in labour external to the game in order to hide their visibility. The urgency to prevent this perception is so great that preventative measures are taken before any gaming actually begins. Consequently, a second-person perspective game may result in the player’s frenzied desire to avoid the camera’s antagonistic gaze and to reduce vulnerability.
Interestingly, this conflicting desire to be both seen and not seen could be used to address ethical questions, such as privacy issues within the stealth genre. Totally, however, this perspective would create a more realistic sense of conflict. This is because movement is restricted depending upon exposure to the enemy and attempting to fire is much more risky or frantic.
In addition, if the perspective was under the control of a hostile NPC, antagonistic actions towards the screen could recreate violence towards the viewer. Such attacks towards the self may problematize any aggression and unleash undertones of empathy. In addition, eliminating the camera-based character would presumably cause a sudden change in camera angle as the game uptakes another NPC’s perspective. Also, there may be a temporary blackout on the condition that all nearby NPCs are destroyed. To avoid such constant disorientation, it would be necessary for the player to retain at least one NPC alive for simple practicality. Arguably, this would cause the user to experience and realise our co-dependency upon others. Altogether, one can postulate how the second-person perspective would challenge the conventional violence present in video games, creating both empathetic indecision and practical hesitancy in the desire to kill.
Death in video games has often had a relationship with visibility and awareness itself. For example, in Super Mario Bros. falling down a gap at the bottom of the screen results in the disappearance of the player-character and a loss of a life. Generally, dead characters often seem to fade and become intangible after a certain period of time. Interestingly, the video game Haze drew attention to this game cliché in its narrative, implying that fading bodies produce a hallucinogenic sense of security and empowerment. Finally, as is the case for many games, after a character’s death the screen will go black with a message of “game over.” This effectively segregates the interactive world behind a meta-contextual screen, rendering it invisible. Hence, perception appears to be a prerequisite for action, perhaps even superior to it.
This suggests that in order to actively exist, both the world and characters of a game must remain under the perception of the player. This seems to be reminiscent of George Berkely’s philosophical maxim that “to be is to be perceived.” As a player, this concept verges on solipsism, suggesting that my perspective is all-powerful and ‘that the only perceiver is myself. Other persons and objects have no independent existence but exist solely to the degree that I am conscious of them’ (Valasquez, 335). Arguably, then, traditional perspectives in video games risk creating an egotistical, selfish and self-aggrandising attitude in its players. The second-person perspective would presumably trouble this concept. This is because the player-character would only have direct and precise control when the uncontrolled camera, and therefore the eyes of another character, are upon them. Additionally, a lack of visualisation need not restrict the player-character’s movements, as they would exist beyond the cameras point of view. Potentially, the second-person perspective corrects the solipsist’s interpretation of Berkeley. In fact, Berkeley argues that the minds of others are not subjective to our own perceptions, as they are perceivers themselves. We perceive how others ‘are circumscribed to particular animate bodies and since their motions evidence a degree of reason and purpose, we may postulate further that they are finite, intelligent spirits, that is, beings “like ourselves.”’ (Falkenstein, 439) Hence, a confirmation of the other’s existence is only accessed through our empathetic and sensual response to their conscious actions. This would be paralleled in the direct manipulation of the controller, allowing the player to be both tangibly aware of and in rational control of a player-character beyond the solipsistic perception of the camera. Hence, the second-person perspective can be seen to recreate Berkeley’s valuation of other’s minds, hopefully producing an awareness of others within the player themselves.
Obviously, these arguments and ideas may seem speculative, but I hope they have showcased certain potentials that the second-person perspective could offer us. I feel that the interactive, moral and ethical possibilities make this underdeveloped genre worth developing. The way it may change our feelings towards conflict and interrelationships appears to be beneficial, improving and satisfying. Demonstrably, with the recent development and popular praise of the experimental Second Person Shooter Zato, we may be already be witnessing the origins of a new era of video games. In the future I may be proved wrong or right, but I cannot wait to sample whatever serious proof the game industry will eventually offer.
What do you think? Leave a comment.