International Hobo on Tour – July 2011
Retro as Genre, Retro as Art

Toy-view and Doll-view in Videogames

BatmanArkhamAsylumvideogameimage(1)Some children prefer to play with dolls and others with toys they hold in their hands. Does this choice in childhood play carry on into preferences for first and third person perspective in videogames? Did players preferring third person perspective in games play with dolls and action figures when they were children?

First person perspective places something in your virtual hands: this is what I shall call toy-view, since whatever you see in your hands is the equivalent to a child's toy e.g. a gun for most shooters. (Sometimes, your virtual hands are the toy!) Alternatively, third person perspective allows you to look at what the doll your avatar is animating is up to, offering a more imaginative doll-view, as in the example of Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, 2009), depicted above. There is at least one other view available, which we could call tabletop-view or table-view, found in the case of game menus, board-games, puzzle games and the like. It seems whatever game you’re playing, the fictional world is either built around a toy, a doll or a table, which is unsurprising since these are what we play with as children.

The first person shooter (or gun game) puts the toy into the hands of the avatar, and there is no doll beyond the hands. Moved into third person, the player is given a doll to look at, but the fundamentals of the play remain the same as with the toy. The only difference between the two is the access to the make-believe: via a toy (held in fictional hands) or via a doll. I propose to call these views toy-view and doll-view in reference to what the perspective focusses upon. Thus, first person is always toy-view, and third person is always doll-view, and shooters that are focussed on guns can just be gun games with no question about which perspective was chosen. (The idea that the “first person” in ‘first person shooter’ has any relevance beyond the historical at this point is almost farcical).

Since the renderers for videogames now routinely handle both views, it has ceased to be a technical issue to support both (provided the game design co-operates with this goal). It’s more work to provide a doll for the player’s avatar to animate, but these days this consideration is negligible for most blockbuster game projects, given the astronomical resources required to make the gigantic toy cities, islands, space stations and the like at the heart of the major videogame titles. Supplying both toy- and doll-view has become simple, allowing players to choose which perspective they prefer to play from.

Did players preferring first or third person perspective in virtual worlds also prefer playing with toys and figures respectively when they were younger? Whatever the answer, there are clear preferences between players as to which way to view a particular videogame. Some insist on playing a car game in third person (where the model car serves as a mechanical “doll”), while others prefer the immediacy of first person, and similar preferences exist for gun games and the like. However, many potential players couldn’t handle either perspective in the way it was being presented to them in videogames, largely because the controls were too complex. Table-view was much more accessible, as “casual games” like Bejewelled (PopCap, 2001) attests.

The barrier created by complexity of interface blocked mass market interest in videogames substantially for some time, and allowed the Wii and DS to carve out new markets for more accessible interfaces. In the case of the Wii, Nintendo were able to offer a toy in actual hands, rather than just virtual. The popularity of this move speaks for itself at this point, but of course what proportion of this success can be attributed to the kinaesthetic mimicry of using the Wii-remote as a toy is difficult to ascertain. The familiar design of the controller, in terms of other multimedia devices already in the home, certainly played a key role in establishing mass appeal. Nonetheless, a toy in the hand is worth two on the screen for the mass market players.

It’s small wonder that gamer hobbyists aren’t as enthusiastic about the Wii as the mass market players. Toys in the hand aren’t anywhere near as important as fidelity of control to gamers. As more imaginative players, the gamers generally want the deeper, more immersive make-believe experience that comes from interacting with animated dolls. They might still prefer to play in toy-view, but even from this perspective they want the dolls they are hunting down to have entertaining animations. Dolls are very important to gamers, and perhaps this also explains why stories in games are so much more important to gamers than they are to mass market players, since dolls and stories inevitably go together.

Sony and Microsoft, having been heavily focussed on their private fight over the lucrative gamer hobbyist cashflow, have neglected the importance of these issues until quite recently and took a deserved spanking from Nintendo. Now, the toys are back in town, with Sony’s Move being a blatant and predictable response to Nintendo’s “toy for all seasons”. Microsoft’s “controller-free” interface concept is particular interesting in this respect as it seems to fall between the desirable cracks: not high enough fidelity of control to appeal to hobbyists, and nothing to serve as a toy for the mass market. The “I’m on TV'” worked for a while with Sony’s EyeToy, but then became old hat quite rapidly. It remains to be seen if Kinect falls prey of the same problem. I won’t be remotely surprised if we see some Kinect games shipping with a peripheral – especially a gun peripheral – which would comprehensively reveal the concept of controller-free play as a gimmick.

The refusal to think about videogames in terms of play – as continuous, that is, with childhood play – is profoundly unhelpful. The resistance comes from not wanting to devalue the richly creative medium of games as being “just toys”. But almost all contemporary media is continuous with childhood play: films and television offer dolls as much as any videogame does, and dolls of such incredible detail and emotional response, why, you’d think they were real people! Toy-view and doll-view may just be terms synonymous with first and third person perspective, but they also reveal the different psychology behind the different views – they show what the player is playing with, what their avatar animates. Does it control a toy gun, a toy steering wheel, a toy sword? Or does it control a soldier doll, a model car or a knight doll? Toys or dolls. The player chooses what they want to play with – and that is the heart of what it means to play a game.

Interested in the relationship between imagination and games? The book Imaginary Games might be for you.


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This seems like a really useful framing. But I think the distinction is a bit fuzzier than you're making it out to be. What about make-believe? When I was a kid, a lot of the playing we did was essentially using ourselves as dolls. We'd each pick a character and play out stories. There weren't necessarily any props involved - just a bunch of girls running around yelling "Now we're married! Now you're dead!" and such. They were very environment-based, though. Usually they took place out in the woods or some other vaguely mysterious location. Unquestionably first-person, but more doll-like than toy-like.

Like you suggest, it's interesting to compare this to the kind of games I enjoy playing now. The only games I can think of that scratch this particular itch are RP MUDs and, in a different way, Bethesda RPGs. I don't really think of the latter as playing with swords or guns; I think of them as playing with an environment. Like the way we used to explore the woods in character.

Linehollis: yes, I thought about this after writing this piece. When you play make-believe like this *you are the doll*, which on my reading makes this toy-view, because of the first person element. Doll-view, I am claiming, inherently involves imagining dolls are people; toy-view need not.

You suggest this kind of make-believe is more doll than toy-like, but it's very similar to the way boys play at toy gun fights (even using their fingers as the guns!) so I think I can make a claim that this can be considered toy-view, and not just because of the first person. The essence of toy-view is that you yourself are in the game (or imagined in the game), there is no surrogate doll doing the activities in question.

On the same lines, I've been thinking about the role of costumes in both views - in the child's make-believe, the costume is a toy, when playing with dolls the costumes are used to clothe the dolls. So toy-view costumes change who you are, while doll-view costumes change who the dolls are (although you may also identify with one of the dolls, of course).

RP MUDS, and tabletop role-playing in general, are the only perfect successors to childhood make-believe, since they are the only forms that come even remotely close to offering unlimited imagination.

And I know what you mean about Bethesda's RPGs! Since the move to open world, it does feel like the world-is-the-toy, and this is equally true of other open world games like GTA. But - and it's a big but - the actual interactions are still dominated by the toys. In GTA, its cars and guns. In Oblivion, it's swords, spells and dolls (NPCs). If you imagined these games as coming in a cardboard box, you would find that after you'd taken the giant board out of the box, there would be an awful lot of counters for medieval weaponry and armour! :)

All the best!

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