“…if Brian is watching the movie Babe, we don’t say, ‘Brian is a pig.'”
–Jesper Juul, “Introduction to Game Time”
I am a MechWarrior. I am a soldier on Halo. But I am not Lara Croft, although Tomb Raider is my favourite game.
Since my hand-me-down PS2 died years ago I haven’t been playing games, but recently my friend Jim gave me his Xbox, and a copy of MechAssault and I liked it immediately. Tramping around inside my giant robot made me feel like a kid again. For an unskilled casual gamer like me the learning curve was nice and shallow. I was able to get gratification early by blowing up helicopters and taking out communication towers with generous graphic explosion rewards. In MechAssault, when you knock things down they go “boom.” It’s as satisfying as kicking apart your little brother’s sand castle.
I’m not a big fan of first person shooters, I much prefer the third person point of view. Halo makes me feel like a teenager again, and I hated being a teenager. Instead of an avatar you just see your gun at the bottom of the screen. It’s like a big dick cruising for a reason to go off. The killing is constant, and never seems to be go anywhere. Granted, Halo is immersive. The graphics are great and the swoopy camera gets dizzyingly addictive, but I lose interest. My character apparently has a name like Mike or Noel, but really it’s just me swinging my big weapon around, and the constant kill-fest is not enough to keep me coming back. I realise that Halo is best experienced in online play, but I prefer to stay solitary. I’ve had lots of fun playing strategy games at LAN parties, but I’m too shy to mix it up with strangers. Also, I play games to get a break from real life, and getting killed by aggressive children who are better than me feels too much like parts of the real world I particularly dislike.
The third-person point of view in MechAssault creates an avatar relationship that is more complex. When I was little I used to put myself to sleep by pretending that I had shrunk down to a tiny size. I would imagine navigating my wee self all over the family furniture. The couch became a giant desert, and the kitchen table was like the moon.
MechAssault does similar things with scale. For starters, I am obviously much larger than the Mech on the screen, which, on my big tv, is ususally about two inches high. But the robot is huge compared to the people in its world. So by shrinking myself I get to be big! And being big is fun. There is also an elegant parallel between me as a clumsy human fumbling with the game controller, and me as a MechWarrior fumbling to control my giant clunky machine armour.
My robot self and I started off by destroying little men and tanks. I learned to scroll through the different guns available and found that I liked the missiles that locked on to their targets best. I learned how to demolish vehicles that might be carrying power-ups. I could either shoot them or kick them. Kicking was way more fun, but sometimes the Mech would give it too much moxy and my loot would land up on a rock or in out in the water.
The first challenging opponents were these little rocket pack flying guys that swarmed all around me. Getting onto high ground was helpful, but I also had to learn to be fast on my feet. Once I started battling other Mechs like me, I really had to work on my agility, and dodge as often as I fired. At first I used my jetpacks often, but I soon realised that flying too much made me overheat. It was better to stay on the ground and hide, peeking out around the edges of buildings and attempting not to blow myself up (which happened more than once).
My one complaint was that some of the missions took way too long, and there were no save points along route. In some cases I got frustrated repeating the same campaign over and over just to get to the boss fight. My nerdish desire for task completion was eventually rewarded, however, and when I did finally succeed in crushing my opponents I felt quite mighty.
The avatar/player relationship in Tomb Raider is stranger still. I have often puzzled about Lara Croft. Conventional wisdom has it that she was made as a sexy babe in order to attract young male players, end of story. But there is something more going on. For one thing, I am a 40-year-old female player. I can be a little queer sometimes, but I’m not sexually attracted to Lara. I am, however, completely charmed. Hanging out with Lara is like being with someone really cool who lets you be their friend.
In fact, she even lets you take control. You will often hear the phrase “Oops, sorry Lara” in my living room. I get super anxious during the swimming sequences because the animation for her drowning death is so pathetic it makes me feel like an utter heel for letting her down.
I recently read a book about influential games by Ste Curran who explained that Lara was designed specifically to invoke a sense of duty. There is a feeling that the adventure is a team-effort. Lara provides the acrobatics and the ‘tude. The player provides the initative and solves the puzzles. There is some killing, but it’s pretty perfunctory, a kind of initiation into each new environment where the payoff is exploring the great graphics and navigating an interesting route. Sometimes there is a boss fight, which is usually strategically engaging and marks the end of a level, meaning something cool and new is coming, like an adventure on the rooftops of Tokyo, or a motorcycle to drive.
I like Lara. She’s sort of a bitch, she doesn’t take any shit, and she has amazing upper body strength for a girl. There is already way too much tedious gender essentialism in game theory. I know women who excell at Halo, and men who play tetris-like puzzle games for hours on end. I think the fact that fewer girls play console games comes down to marketing decisions and preconceptions about gender roles rather than to any hard-wired predilections.
Personally, I go for games where I feel some relationship to the character, where there is enough detachment from the avatar that I get to actively collude in the fiction. I like to maintain some agency in my fantasy escapes. On the other hand, of course, it is the deep level immersion that makes games different from movies and other forms of entertainment. As Juul suggests in the quote above, if Brian was playing a game based on the movie Babe, we might just say that “Brian is a pig.” And that’s what makes it interesting.
This month’s guest writer is Sally Mckay, an artist, writer and curator living in Toronto.
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Categories: Guest Star