As Kline describes in Digital Play, video games originated as “the play of an overwhelmingly masculine world, centered around themes of abstract puzzle solving, exploration, sport, and centrally, war” (107). He lists activities that society generally associates with men, and thus, makes the playing of video games a masculine activity. Portal subverts the notion of a gaming community meant for men by manipulating first-person identification.
In film, the viewer identifies with the camera and the perspective it shows, as though the camera itself acts as a character, that character being ourselves. Similarly, in video games that use a first-person perspective, the player identifies with the character they play. Since society takes video games as a male-dominated space, men generally assume companies make games for them, thus, in most first-person games, the player plays as a man. For examples, think Call of Duty and Bioshock. (I literally Googled “first person shooter male protagonist” and got a list of games that have female protagonists, which tells you how much male protagonists dominate the field.) Now, Portal complicates that identification by making the player-character, Chell, a woman. However, the player does not even see Chell throughout the game unless they go looking for her. Since the game lacks mirrors, the player must take advantage of the portals and fire them in such a way that they can look through one and see Chell. Otherwise, one could play through the entire game and not realize her identity, since there is no other indication of her gender. I think it likely came as quite a shock to male and female gamers alike that the character they were playing was, in fact, a woman.
The first-person perspective also prevents player’s from turning Chell, as a female character, into a sexual object. In third-person perspective games, while the player identifies with the player-character, there is a separation between them, as the player watches them, rather than seeing through their eyes. Hence, female characters from those types of games, like Lara Croft, often get objectified and sexualized. Objectifying or sexualizing Chell is incredibly difficult though, because the player is constantly seeing through her eyes. In order to sexualize her, the player must also, in a sense, sexualize themself. Additionally, Chell’s outfit prevents this sexualization because it covers most of her body, and makes her chest flat. It’s through the first-person viewpoint that Portal manages to subvert the first-person shooter genre, by removing the typical male protagonists.