Back in my undergraduate days, I lived in a cozy 3 bedroom apartment with 3 other girls few minutes away from the Staten Island campus of my school. Unfortunately for all four of us, we ended up having to commute to the Queens campus of our school which meant getting up early in the morning to catch a bus at 5 AM. More often than not, all four of us were able to make the trek together, but there were times when others chose not to go or our schedules weren’t in sync to go together. On those early mornings, there were two choices when getting to the bus; a long walk around the neighborhood that often led to missing the bus or a short 5 minute route that took you up a long staircase and through two alleys. Those early mornings could be a little frightening on the right days. During our last two years of undergrad, there was a person going around to different apartments and looking into the bathrooms while women were showering, even trying to grab some women as they tried to run out. Couple that with the fact that reports had been going around of a man grabbing women’s private areas and a strange clown that would show up random places on the Island (as local Staten Islanders used to call it) and more often than not my roommates and I left early to take the long way to the bus. But that often didn’t work out when late night papers and much needed talks had you running around the apartment to get where you needed to go. The alley route was not fun at night. There were only two lights that gave you any idea of what was ahead of you and lots of places and corners where anyone could jump out at you. The only real comfort were the feral cats that would pop out to check who was approaching before meowing and walking away.
My roommates and I would often talk with our male friends about how scary the alley route could be. That you were always looking behind your back, and if any other girls were walking behind you they would announce their presence as not to scare you. They often retorted that we were just being paranoid. Nothing ever happened in those back alleys and nothing ever would. We were just inventing stories to scare each other and get attention. While we ended up going unharmed through graduation, is common among many women who need to get where they’re going. I have heard and read and watched countless stories where women held their purses a little closer to themselves or turned their keys into weapons when passing by men that stared at them for too long. And while it’s true that not every man on the planet is a sex-crazed beast ready to attack, the facts prove that women have the right to be concerned. No matter the time of day or year, no matter if the place is familiar to them, women will become the victims of murder, harassment and sexual abuse simply because of their gender identity.
But often when women tell people of their concerns, they are often dismissed. The list of excuses is endless; “That could never happen to you,” “You’re just talking crazy,” “Well maybe if you didn’t dress like that there wouldn’t be a problem,” “Not all men are like that.” The list goes on and on, and only allows for the voices of women that do get harmed to get silenced when they so desperately need to get heard. But there may be a way to change all that. Videogames as of late are growing into a powerful platform. Numerous developers have entered this space in order to shed light on issues that both the world and they themselves face in order to shed light and bring justice to the matter. However, the industry still has a lot to learn; it is in a constant struggle to find equilibrium on the issues of race, sex, and gender with large and vocal opposition on each side. Those who realize that some of the content can be insensitive say that if the genre wants to be taken seriously, it needs to stop playing up old stereotypes and reinvent its old ways. Those who cherish the genre as it is think that these ideas are all a part of the art form, and to get rid of them is to stifle the artist. Regardless of both opinions, if the medium is to be taken seriously as it so desires, the video game industry and community have to start looking at games with a critical eye, and just like most other forms of entertainment, the medium suffers from a perspective that is slanted by men. This causes the stories of women as the basis for video games to be unfathomable and perpetuate the sexist tropes that already flood the media.
In this essay, I will be analyze the male gaze and how it dominates the media, while trying to prove that the female gaze is also something that exists and can be used to tell the stories of women. I will do this through a critical analysis of the game Outlast’s (Red Barrels, 2013) downloadable content (hereto after referred to as DLC) Whistleblower (Red Barrels, 2014) and how it can be interpreted as using the female gaze to give men a perspective on the fears of women.
Violence and Harassment against Women:
Violence against women and girls is a grave violation of human rights. Its impact ranges from immediate to long-term multiple physical, sexual and mental consequences for women and girls, including death. It negatively affects women’s general well-being and prevents women from fully participating in society. Violence not only has negative consequences for women but also their families, the community and the country at large. It has tremendous costs, from greater health care and legal expenses and losses in productivity, impacting national budgets and overall development.
(Ending violence against women, 2015)
Violent acts against women are various and, unfortunately, common. It can be something as minor as cat-calling on the street to something as devastating as murder based on gender. No matter what the circumstance all can have a negative impact on how women choose to act when they go out or interact with others. According to a commentary by Sarah Venis and Richard Horton,
“At least one in five women have been physically or sexually abused by a man at some time in their lives. According to the World Bank, gender-based violence accounts for as much death and ill-health in women aged 15-44 years as cancer, and is a greater cause of ill-health than malaria and traffic accidents combined”
This is a disturbing thought, especially when you take into account the fact that many women who try to tell the stories of their attack are often times dismissed or even blamed for what was done to them. This act of finding excuses to make the actions against the person assaulted their fault is called “Victim Blaming” and is something that is all too common even as we progress as a society. In an article for psychology today, Juliana Breines discusses why this may be the case, saying that “these victim blaming tendencies are rooted in the belief in a just world, a world where actions have predictable consequences and people can control what happens to them” (Breines Ph.D.). This makes the fact that women’s fears are dismissed all the more terrifying. Women are dismissed when they show concern walking past a group of rowdy men and in turn told they were the ones to blame if those same men try to touch or court a woman without her permission. This in part, has to do with how the media portrays women and comes from the idea of the male gaze.
The Male Gaze and the Female Gaze:
Ask any film student in undergrad or someone who studies entertainment and media for a living and the male gaze will always come up. TV Tropes, a website that archives overused themes and devices in the media, defines the male gaze as
“a term from gaze theory that describes the tendency of works to assume a (straight) male point of view, and in particular the tendency of works to present female characters as subjects of implicitly male visual appreciation.”
It is every slow pan up a woman’s body as she gets out of a pool. It is when a woman bends over to pick something up and the viewer is given a look down a woman’s shirt. It is in several scary movies when half naked girls who have just gotten out of the shower or were just about to have sex need to run from their attacker. It is a problem that is everywhere and common place for those who witness it. This trope, which has become a means of cinematography and design, reduces the characters of women into bland sexual beings. A girl shaking her hips and making out with another woman does not make for an artistic piece of work and only propels the sexist paradigms in our society. Which then allow for women to become victims of the crimes against them. The perpetuation of the male gaze is kept up in part by the fact that most media is still a male dominated sector; According to an article from Indiewire in the film industry alone “23.9% of films were directed by women” (Silverstein, 2013). And the top 100 box office films, only 4.4% were made by women between the years of 2002 and 2012. Part of the problem of fixing the male gaze dilemma is to start excepting more women into these mediums in order to give a feminine perspective. But we have a long way to go in the regard and the video game industry is no different.
Video games have been a male-dominated space for a long time, and it shows through its depiction of women. There are numerous examples of women being abused, meant for the sexual gratification of the player, or nothing but assets to make the environment seem more rich and authentic. One of the more obvious uses from this trope come from the game Mass Effect 2 (Electronic Arts, 2010), where often times entering dialogue with the character of Miranda, who is said to be perfect in every way, has the player looking at her butt for long periods of time (See figure 1). Games in the fighter category like Mortal Kombat (Warner Bros Games, 2013) often have women loosing parts of clothing the longer they fight an opponent. Several other games use brothels filled with female prostitutes to make the setting feel more realistic to a time period or place, and often these women can be killed at will by the player without repercussion. Women in games an objects to be conquered and tormented, and even when the player assumes the role of a woman in gameplay, the character is often still victim to harassment. When in combat during the game Remember Me (Capcom U.S.A., 2013), the character Nilin will often be called a little girl and told to stop lest she “break a nail.”
|[ Figure 1 Male Gaze in Mass Effect 2]|
So how does the female gaze come into play? TV Tropes defines the female gaze as
“A gaze trope about the way a work is presented as from a female perspective of reflects female attitudes, either because of the creator’s gender or because it is deliberately aimed at a female audience. While it can contribute to it, female gaze is not restricted to looking at sexy men but id more importantly about the expectations of how the (presumptive) audience relates to that work”
(Female Gaze, 2015)
This is how media and the video game industry in particular can combat the prevalence of male gaze and give perspective on the plights of women. To be clear, more often than not, when this trope is present it is mainly used to sexualize male characters. This is something that the Metal Gear series (Konami Digital Entertainment) does surprisingly often. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2003), there is a section of the game in which the character Raiden runs around naked and the player can have him do flips in this state (See Figure 2). There is also another moment in the game where the president of the United States grabs his crotch in order to “identify him.” Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015) also has some elements of the female gaze in that the player often gets an intimate view of Venom Snake’s butt when he has to crawl around on his hands and knees to avoid enemies.
[Figure 2 Raiden doing flips in MGS 2]
But the important part of the definition of the female gaze is outside the sexual implications. The female gaze can be used in such a way that it allows for people to gain perspective the experiences of women. We have become so complacent about the fact that we are forced to take the male perspective of things that this will probably make several people feel uncomfortable when they first experience it. But this uncomfortable feeling is what teaches us things not only about ourselves but about the things around us and helps us grow into better people. If something makes you uncomfortable you must ask yourself why it does so, and through that you learn. The experiences of women can make people uncomfortable but if we were able to get people to experience them, then they society could move forward to help fix the problems that need to be faced.
This idea of making people uncomfortable in order to reflect can be found in gameplay and is called discomfort design. In Lindsay Grace’s paper for ISEA2011, he discussed that discomfort design comes from messing with the taboo. He states that using the taboo in structured play gives us an opportunity to reflect on social values and is an “opportunity in rhetoric” (Grace, 2011).
“The moment of discomfort is the point at which play no longer feels right. It is like the rhetoric of speech. Players are lead down a path and follow intently when the experience is good. The moment of exceptionally high impact is when the player wants to follow, but fears what follows. It is even more impressive when that moment is of great conflict. Like the rhetoric of a powerful orator seeking to change your mind, the game may lead you in, have you nodding, and ultimately encourage you to agree to things you had not planned. The moment of discomfort is the critical moment. It is the point where all things human meet. Players are at odds with their emotions, their social norms, their identity, and their understanding of what they believe is truth.”
(Discomfort Design: Critical Reflection through Uncomfortable Play, p. 2)
Pushing a male player to question their beliefs and society is exactly what needs to happen in order for them to get the perspective they need to understand women’s worries. The acts against women are already something that is taboo and many people refuse to talk about it or depict it in such a way that it almost seems useful (often women getting attacked will spurn them to find justice by their own hand or a man will take revenge for her). Creating a safe environment where men can experience some of the terror women face would help the cause a great deal. And this is where Outlast and its DLC come in.
Outlast and Whistleblower:
Outlast tells the story of Miles Upshur, a journalist who is always searching for the truth. One day he receives and anonymous email stating that the Murkoff Corporation, an international biosecurity firm, is doing unspeakable things to the patients at Mount Massive Asylum. He follows this tip and enters the institution only to find out that murderous patients have been let loose within the walls and many of them are out for blood. Through several trials, Upshur discovers that Murkoff has created a super weapon called the Morphogenic Engine, which can influence the thoughts of people so that they can bend to your will. The main mechanic of this game is that you are an observer and not a fighter. With only your camera to guide you through the asylum, countless enemies come chasing after you so that you can meet a grizzly fate.
Whistleblower is the prequel to the aforementioned game that tells the story of Mount Massive before Upshur reaches the asylum. In this DLC, you play as Waylon Park, who is an IT contractor who ends up sending the email to Miles so that he may expose all the terrible things that have occurred. After the corporation finds out what Waylon has done, they force him to be institutionalized and make him a test subject for the engine. Things eventually go awry when the facility goes into an emergency state and all the patients of the asylum are let loose to harm and do as they please.
While both games subject the player to that vulnerability of not being able to fight back, Whistleblower forces the player to experience scenes with little to no agency. In some situations the player can only frantically look around as they watch what is being done to Waylon and hope for the best. This is a way that Red Barrels was able to create discomfort design within the game. The player always goes into these uncomfortable situations and then they are forced to face their choices as Waylon gets harmed. This is only one excellent element to the design; how they employ the female gaze is what really puts things into perspective.
The Fresh Hell of Outlast Whistleblower:
The very first thing you experience as the visuals fade from black, is a man in a hazmat suit licking your ear (See figure 3). An unnamed scientist straps you to a chair as you start to lose consciousness, and after slapping you he tells you he can make it all better and proceeds to lick you. Thereafter the only thing you can do is look around and listen as a woman’s voice says that there is something wrong with the Morphogenic engine and that Billy Hope is on the loose. The scientist walks out and while you are subjected to a visual that affects the character’s senses, all hell seems to break lose around you. The game then takes you back to 2 hours prior, where you see Waylon typing the letter that will get Miles Upshur to come to the Asylum in an unused storage room. A guard then calls for Waylon, and the player learns how to walk, look, and interact with the environment as he goes to a lab setting where there a several machines and scientists. He is told by the same scientist that licked your ear tells you that they have a patient incoming and the engine needs to be up and running before they get put in. The player then interacts with the computer and a cut scene plays as they bring in a patient, Eddie Gluskin, kicking and screaming to be put into the engine. As Waylon types, Gluskin breaks free from his captors and bangs on the glass in front of you. He yells for help accusing his captors of Rape and begs you to not “let them do this! Don’t let them! You! I know you can stop this! You have to help me! You have to…” Before getting strapped to the engine. The player gets a view of Gluskin on the computer they are working on; his face slowly begins to scar as tubes are shoved down his throat. You are then told that your work there is done and that you can leave. An objective pops up on screen stating that you need to get back to the laptop you were working on in the storage room, but when the player finally arrives a Murkoff executive, Jeremy Blaire, is there to greet you. He has discovered that you’ve sent an email about what was happening at the Asylum despite covering your tracks, and proceeds to make a guard knock Waylon to the ground. Through dialogue that you are again helpless to interact through, Blaire forces you to commit yourself and signs you up to be a part of the Morphogenic engine tests. He then tells a guard to “administer a sedative” and you are knocked out. The tile screen pops up before taking you back to present time.
|[Figure 3 an unnamed scientist licking the protagonist’s ear]|
The game opens with blatant sexual harassment. After slapping you there is no need for this character to do what he did to the character except to make the player feel uncomfortable. But it also sets the tone for how the themes of this game are going to play out. The player is going to lose agency several times during play, and when that happens they will be put into situations they don’t want to be in. It also does something that can harken back to old struggles that women faced. By the plot and Jeremy forcing Waylon to be committed to Mount Massive, they in a way draw parallels to the fact that often times in the early 1900s if someone decided that they weren’t getting their way with a woman or if she was an obstacle to a goal, they would often put her in a mental facility and pay off the doctors there to have her lobotomized so she became a non-threat and pliable. Waylon is made a patient because he is a threat, and being forced to test the engine was meant to be his lobotomy, but of course things don’t go as planned.
Once back in the present, the cuffs holding down Waylon unhinge and he watches as the patient next to him bangs on the glass asking for help as a figure grabs him and blood splatters all over the glass as the room gets dark. This is when the player is allowed to pick up the camcorder, which allows them to see in the dark and look at things off in the distance. This is when the steady barrage of harassment for Waylon begins. The person to get you out of the room you’re locked in is another patient who calls Waylon a “pretty flower” that he’ll open up so that he can play. This non-player character (NPC) will slowly follow you and attack you if you don’t get out of the room fast enough and close the door behind you. You then walk around as chaos surrounds you; patients locking themselves into rooms, guards killing escapees and a room with a group of men who are stabbing a guard to death. One of them walks up to you and tells you that “there are no observers” and that you need to come into the room. Once in there the man tells you that this is therapy and that stabbing the now dead guard will act as a way to express yourself. When the player is unable to do anything with the knife the man gets insulted saying that Waylon thinks he’s better than the rest of them. He again tells you that there are no observers and tells you to leave before he changes his mind. Immediately after leaving the room, you meet your first attacker and running mechanic is introduced. The player will quickly run away from enemies while automatically vaulting over any obstacle or being able to move through small spaces. This chase lead the player to climb into the vents and overhear a conversation of a guard and an employee. The dialogue gives the information that there is a short wave radio in a different section of the hospital that would allow them to call for help. Waylon then continues through the vents and into the recreation ward where he walks through the kitchen. A far off buzz-saw echoes as you walk through what looks like a human butcher shop as bodies hand from hooks on the ceiling. The player then enters a cafeteria where they meet Frank Manera; he is eating the corpse of a guard. When you approach him, you see that the guard’s head is in a microwave before it explodes and covers frank in blood. Manera then looks at you saying “don’t look at us. I love him” before pulling out the body’s entrails and slurping them down. Frank will then be your main opponent as you try and find a key to leave the recreation ward and get to the short wave radio. All the while he shouts things at you like “You are mine. Forever.” And “Look how you bleed for me. Wet. Ready. Red. Wanting.” Along the way you meet other NPCs that harass you, including a man whose face is covered in bandages telling you that you look silky and to come closer because he has an itch as he follows you around the area.
Though only a few examples are given, the cases of harassment by NPCs towards Waylon is countless in this game. Any of the characters who comment on Waylon always do it about his appearance and give him pet names before telling him what they want to do to him. This is a very common thing when it comes to street harassment and cat calling; where men will often comment on a woman’s appearance trying to get her attention before possible turning hostile and scaring her. Frequently the player has to listen to the patients comment on what they would do to Waylon and only have the option of walking away or running before things grow unsafe. In the case of Manera, He has both literal and symbolic connotations to his actions. In the literal sense, when Frank says that he loves the guard he is eating, this can be seen as the crimes of passion that many women end up the victim of. In an article in the Huffington Post, it was discovered that a third of female homicide victims were killed by intimate partners (Jeltsen, 2014). Frank implies an intimate relationship with the guard pointing to this parallel. The more symbolic idea is in the act of wanting to consume the people he desires, as often people use the idea of “eating someone” in a sexual way. Frank enjoys eating the guard and can be heard moaning and slurping as he goes face first into the body and then he turns his sights onto Waylon and his “lonely flesh” as he puts it to consume him as well.
Fast-forwarding a bit. After the short-wave radio is destroyed by Blaire and Waylon has to run from several other enemies, he gets corralled into the den of Eddie Gluskin, the patient that had begged for help earlier. An old-timey tune plays on an audio phone as the player turns the corner to a horrific display. Male human bodies are being used to create a sculpture: A dead man stands next to another dressed as a doctor. The other is splayed out on a table with their legs apart and breasts carelessly implanted on his chest. His groin has been cut in half and from it a human head comes out of the opening. Waylon starts to breathe harder as he walks through rooms with sewing machines and wedding dresses to come to a door. Before the player can open it, Eddie comes up to the window smiling and calls you “Darling.” As you hide and avoid him, he goes on about how he thinks you two have met before and how it’s a dream being with you now. He is whimsical and tells you to “let him love you” and that he could fill the emptiness inside of you with his child. Eventually your running gets you to an elevator shaft that you fall down, breaking your leg and making him say that since you’d rather hurt yourself than be with him you should just die. After getting out of the shaft and going to another floor of the asylum, Gluskin finds you and continues the chase. The path the player must take leads you to hide inside a locker, which is just a trap so that Gluskin can take you and administer sleeping gas so that Waylon goes under. Waylon comes in and out of consciousness, watching as other men are killed at the hands of Gluskin as he tries to turn them into brides by splitting their genitals with a table saw. When you wake up a final time, Waylon is strapped down to the saw himself and Eddie stroking his body. He tries to calm Waylon down as he pulls him testicles first towards the buzz saw, telling him to think of the children before he is saved by another patient who tackles Gluskin and knocks Park off the table. The player’s chase with Eddie continues, but instead of him calling you sweet pet names he yells out “bitch” “slut” and “whore.” The chase eventually ends when the tables turn when Eddie tries to hang you from the ceiling, with his last words being “We could have been beautiful.”
Eddie is the penultimate reason why this game works so well towards the female gaze and perspective. In his psychosis he only see women, and in women he only sees their purpose of breeding and becoming caretakers for his children. As soon as he feels that his victim doesn’t fit these ideals he turns and calls them all sorts of derogatory names. This is the sentiment of many men, thinking that if a woman isn’t a good homemaker or ready to submit to their whims, they are considered useless and disgusting. Not only that, but if you find the file about Eddie inside the game, you discover that he was often raped by his father and abused by his mother which led to his mental break. Thinking back on when we first meet him, his fear of being dragged to the engine makes more sense as he is scared of being victimized again with no one believing him. Eddie is a cautionary tale; it is very easy for people to break when they aren’t believed.
The game then moves on, with other enemies coming after the player and Waylon eventually getting out of the Asylum and deciding to tell the world what happened there. But for this essay’s purposes, the game already did an excellent job of painting a picture. There is a direct correlation to many of the problems Waylon faced to what women fear might happen to them on a daily basis. Whistleblower makes excellent work of making players feel scared and uncomfortable while putting on these goggles that women have always had. If men were to play this DLC and directly after have someone tell them “this is what women are scared of when they walk alone at night” there will probably still be some who say that they are overreacting. But there will always be that one person who looks at the horrors of this game, and looks at the facts that are presented to them and say “yeah that makes sense.”
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