Watching and Gender in Braid

I was really interested by Taylor’s identification on Tuesday of a mode of relating to videogames as a “watcher,” and I wanted to think more about what that might mean, particularly in Braid. The secondary position of the watcher speaks a bit to the modes of engagement that get implicitly created through the category of “game,” which casts people as either players or non-players along a gradation of intensity (gamers vs. casual players). But the watcher is (maybe) a mode of relating to games that is outside of this logic. A watcher (as I am defining it) isn’t just a non-player who happens to be in the room or a player who is waiting for a turn. It is its own category, a specific position in the social space that forms around the game. And watchers don’t necessarily become players just by entering into gameplay. They are gone easy on (or taught, brushed off, etc) in a way that changes the normal relation between participants.

Obviously this isn’t a strict category, but I did find it a useful one in thinking about my own relationship to videogames in general, and maybe in the specific mode of engagement that Braid provokes. It hadn’t even occurred to me to categorize myself as a watcher, but as soon as Taylor brought it up I realized that it describes a ton of my engagement with games. Once I started thinking about it, I immediately began to realize the depth of my own familiarity with games that are outside of my own experience as a player. It opened up a whole category of knowledge about games that I hadn’t even considered.

Thinking about the watcher in terms of my own experience immediately lead me to thinking about gender — my experiences of watching games are all pretty fundamentally tied up in being ‘the girlfriend’ in an otherwise male space. When Patrick asked us about our engagement with videogames at the beginning of class, I saw my relationship to them as a basically decreasing one. I played a lot of videogames through early adolescence, and then gradually learned to put them aside in favor of more “grown-up” entertainments (a view that I’ve had to un-learn in the past few years, and which I don’t mean to endorse at all). But with this new category, I saw my engagement with games not as an “age-appropriate” diminishment in interest, but rather as a “gender-appropriate” change in mode of interacting.

But that is just me. I doubt that it is an uncommon experience, but there are countless other ways to experience yourself as a watcher and I absolutely don’t want to code the category as inherently female. I also don’t want to imply that the watcher/player dynamic is always a gendered one. But I say all of this about my own reaction because I do think that the category of the watcher could be a helpful guide for thinking about gender in Braid, specifically in the way that it might unit) the game’s treatment of masculinity, memory, and the cultural archive of platform games.

Braid plays on those qualities of platform games that are so familiar that they feel inevitable, and that are thus hard to even notice. It makes those qualities just strange enough that we have to pay attention to them, hopefully in a way that makes us think about them more critically.  But this simultaneously shows us our deep knowledge of and visceral familiarity with games in this format. To do this it highlights the specific role of the habituated player: someone who knows the objectives and rules implied by the space so well that they can operate through them without needing to think about their underlying logic. By starting from one of the most ubiquitous forms of childhood games, Braid is able to emphasize the expertise of its player as a player and to evoke nostalgia for this mode of playing.

But I’m interested in how Braid specifically uses watching as a central means of re-educating its audience’s internalized familiarity with platform games. The player has to learn to use time, and this requires watching actions that have already been performed. This is especially true as the duration of time reversal gets longer, like the second level of world three, or in cases when you realize that you made a mistake a long time ago, and have to go back to correct it. Even if you speed up these reversals, they require some watching, which thus becomes a central component of playing.

This is maybe a good example of how playing and watching are not so separable. But still, the kind of knowledge that you get from playing and the kind that you get from watching are really different (I know this is true because the professor said so!: “But if you choose to play with another person, do not just be a spectator. Be sure to play for at least some portion of the experience to feel what it is like.”). I think that this is true even when the watching happens within the space of the game.

It seems to me that the final world is really hinging on the crucial difference between these two kinds of interaction (though I’ve only watched it, so maybe I’m wrong….). Playing shows the avatar working to save the Princess, watching reveals her attempt to get away from him (obviously this is dependent on temporality and lots of other things, too). By forcing the player (whose avatar is importantly always male) to become a watcher, the game forces a new kind of knowledge. Re-evaluating masculinity centrally requires watching, not just playing. And, I would argue, the nostalgia that is central to both Braid’s content and its form causes this knowledge to get cast back across the player’s personal gaming archive. The knowledge that we get from the watching in the last world teaches us something about the Mario/Princess relationship, but also maybe something about our own personal (and gendered?) pattens of interacting with games.

4 thoughts on “Watching and Gender in Braid

  1. Ellen, really interesting stuff here. I wonder about two different kinds of watchers as well. Say for instance that you’ve been playing a game for a little while, and someone comes along and sits beside you, and says one of two things at the next crucial moment (death for instance): either “Why did that man on the screen die?” or “Why did you die?” (sorry for the contrived speech). The first would be more appropriate for a film, but the second recognizes the identification thats going on between the person playing and the avatar. Watching a game in this sense seems like its own activity, and a weird one at that, where there is a kind of vicarious pleasure through the player/s. Any thoughts on how this might fit with Braid?

    • So is what you’re saying that watching implies some kind of understanding of the game’s logic that isn’t necessarily a participation in it?

      As for thinking about this in Braid specifically, it seems interesting to consider in light of Jennifer’s post above. What does the watching that Braid requires you to do as a player do to your identification with the character? It seems like it could create a kind of doubling effect — playing forces you to inhabit him (even if you aren’t identifying with him) but then watching distances you from him.

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