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.

The very notion that an antagonistic or competitive gaze may utilise our own screen makes gamers self-conscious, reflexive and detached.
The very notion that an antagonistic or competitive gaze may utilise our own screen makes gamers self-conscious, reflexive and detached.

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.

Snake Eyes: The perspective produces conflict between offense and defense, the exposed and the uncontrollable.
Snake Eyes: The perspective produces conflict between offense and defense, the exposed and the uncontrollable.

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.

Dependency: A game such as Siren: Blood Curse forces the player to temporarily take on an enemy’s perspective in order to solve puzzles.
Dependency: A game such as Siren: Blood Curse forces the player to temporarily take on an enemy’s perspective in order to solve puzzles.

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.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Video games often represent death through the ending of visual and tangible contact, such as falling off the screen or fading away.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Video games often represent death through the ending of visual and tangible contact, such as falling off the screen or fading away.

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.

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An English and Drama student who watches too many films, plays too many games and reads too many books. Has a genuine interest in most things, often with an opinion to match!

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  1. Easily the best article that I have read on this subject. I have to recommend a vastly underrated horror game titled Siren. You avoid your enemies by hiding and then “tuning in” to the eyes of your enemies. You watch their patterns basically. There’s a special blue crosshair that shows where you are hiding even if you are out of view, so that you can plan. It’s also not an all second-person game, but you spend half of the time in the game watching through the eyes of your enemies.

    • Thanks for commenting! I hope you didn’t find the article overly sterile in tone. Out of the Siren series I’ve only played Siren: Blood Curse, but I found the game quite innovative and tense. I think the series is underrated, probably due to those certain elements that make it valuable, such as the non-linear storytelling and heavy symbolism that can put some players off. I thought the way you had to “sight jack” the vision of both allies and enemies in order to progress both different and ethically intriguing. Personally, the level when you play the defenceless little girl trying to sneak out of a house filled with undead is a favourite survival-horror moment of mine!

  2. I think the second person perspective shouldn’t be used for the sake of usability.

    In a game your character is going to be moving almost all of the time, thus the camera needs to move with you. The second person perspective would mean that the separate entity viewing what is happening must always see the protagonist while they move about as well. I think it would only really work with a fixed camera, or in a very controlled space like a cutscene. The cinematography of a movie and the camera in a video game serve very different purposes and the artistic use of it is very limited in the latter.

    • Indeed, the issue of practical usability is probably why most developers have stayed away from producing second-person games. While I can see it being a potentially frustrating experience for players, I hope my essay suggests that it may not be as irritating as most people presume. I don’t necessarily think that we need to always see the player-character myself. However, I agree that interactivity can change the power and status of the camera as opposed to cinema, but I don’t necessarily see this as a limiting or corruptive thing. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Malaska

    I will reference this in my university thesis, thank you for the insightful article.

  4. It’s interesting that most games feature a 1st or 3rd person perspective, because almost all single player story based games are told in 2nd person. “You” are the protagonist, around whom all the action depends, and so from a narrative standpoint you have a more direct connection with this constructed world because you’re not getting information second hand from a narrator. This is especially true in RPGs since you are playing a role. For example, in Pokemon you can name your character, and all other characters refer directly to you. You are not able to talk back, though, so I guess in that sense it would second-person limited. But really any game in which you play as a character is “told” through the 2nd person, as it would not exist without you. I think having a 2nd person perspective wouldn’t be too different from a third person perspective, except that like you said, you’d be attacking yourself. I wonder how the developers would explain that perspective in the story, or if they would even attempt to explain it at all.

    • Yeah, I agree that most games, in a narrative manner or in a tutorial section are often second-person. I suppose – like in most songs – the second-person makes sense in a marketing way, it can be both plural and anonymous to refer to any potential buyer, yet individual, direct and specific enough to refer to that one gamer (or listner). Thanks for commenting.

  5. There is a game called Screencheat where this is the main mechanic. All characters are invisible, and the player must determine where others are by looking through their perspectives. I haven’t played it so I can’t speak to how good or effective it is, but it is still interesting that a game is using the second-person in such a way. I hadn’t even thought of it in quite this way before.

  6. Hello! I absolutely love this article. I’m currently trying to create a video game play and I’m playing with a lot of commonly used tropes and mechanics. Perspective is one of larger concepts I’m exploring, and it’s an interesting challenge-how exactly does one stage stories in a way that multiple perspectives can be seen when the standard proscenium stage is meant to give the viewer a third person one? In addition to attempting to recreate the first person perspective, I’m also exploring staging that recreates the second person perspective. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have about exploring second person perspective within video games through the lens of theatre! In any case, this piece has given me plenty of food for thought and I will definitely be referring back to it throughout my play crafting process.

    • Theatre is a difficult one for second-person because, unlike film, video games and literature you don’t necessarily have a fixed or singular perspective. And even if you do, like the proscenium arch, the question of who is the first-person is problematic, the actor is an agent as well as the audience member.

      If the first-person perspective is taken to be the viewpoint the audience, then a second-person perspective of ‘you’ would be a recreation of the audience’s current situation – whether through performance, film or even mirrors – being shown back to them.

      If the first-person perspective is that of the actor, then the second-person perspective would be the perception of him acting by another actor. If you had enough smart phones or cameras, with each actor having one to constantly broadcast his perspective and another to show him the current viewpoint of a different actor, then you could get some semblance of second-person perspective.

      If you identify the proscenium as not dissimilar to the camera’s perspective, then it becomes first-person if the actors break the fourth wall and talk to the audience as a character (like a found-footage film where the camera is, for all intents and purposes, a character) and it becomes third-person if they simply interact with each other on stage. It would seem that in either case the second-person is observing the audience watch and the actors act. This seems to be almost like a real-time documentary, showing you how the play is being viewed and performed as it happens.

      If each audience member had access to moveable cameras – on drones, remote control cars or actors, for instance – and could only see the performance and themselves from that perspective, then there’s an element of second-person there as well.

      Hope this helps.

      • This is all really useful, there are definitely many options to explore. I’ve only been thinking in terms of the first-person perspective being that of a specific actor, but I haven’t thought of the ways in which technology can be used to aid in reproducing different perspectives onstage. It gives me a great deal more material to experiment with. Thank you for responding!

  7. Ricky Moore

    Nope. Literally speaking all games are third person. You’re not in a game, you’re not having your experience narrated to you by the computer, you’re not the protagonist. Literary first person and visual aren’t the same thing. All video games that aren’t holodecks are THIRD PERSON. All ‘second person’ games a THIRD PERSON games with shitty camera control.

    • While I think there is merit in your argument, because virtual reality and holographic environment simulators are more likely to recreate the direct agency and smooth engagement commonly associated with a first-person experience in everyday life, I would argue that you seem to ignore or downplay how important agency and engagement are in constituting the particular “personness” of an experience. For example, if an experienced individual is working repetitively on an assembly line – and can do their work automatically without directly even thinking about it – they may also begin to daydream intensely about being a superhero; in such a situation, the engaging fantasy may feel like a first-person experience and yet they may not even recall or experience that they are doing boring and uninteresting assembly work – it may feel to them like somebody else or even nobody is really doing the work. Likewise, if a game is sufficiently engaging, immersive and provides a sense of agency then a player may indeed feel like it is a first-person experience, whereas a game that is boring, glitchy or frustrating may well lose its immersion and the player will feel “narrated to” or distant from the action – even if it is in a hypothetical holodeck. As such, I think it is interesting that you describe the experience of first-, second- or third-person games as being inevitably “narrated to you by the computer,” because scholars such as Brenda Laurel would argue that computers are more equivalent to a theatrical experience: “The willing suspension of disbelief,” she writes, “can be seen to occur almost identically in drama and computer games, where we feel for and with the characters (including ourselves as characters) in very similar ways.” (Computers as Theatre; 2014, p. 139) In fact, the language commonly used by players seems to go against your rather strict hypothesis. When a player gets killed in a first-person game they normally say “I died” or “I lost,” not “Master Chief died” or “he died.” When they kill an enemy player, they may say “you died” or “I killed you,” not “James Bond killed Oddjob.” The reason such “literally-speaking” phrasing seems nonsensical is because it denies the self-evident agency of the “players” and speaks as if nobody (or somebody else) was actually playing the game or even as if that it isn’t really a “playable” game. Often, people use “I” when playing a game but switch to using the name of the playable character precisely when explaining the narrative of a game to others, i.e. when they are not personally engaged with the game or are describing the canonical storyline they couldn’t alter. For example, if they are recounting their own playthrough they will probably say “I did this and then I did this,” but when recalling the storyline will likely say “in the previous game, Master Chief had to do X.”

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