Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why the Angry Face?

A post way back at Brainy Gamer about how all game protagonists seem to be getting meaner and darker sparked the question of why this is so appealing to people in the first place. Even as a kid I would always doodle scowling warriors and angry robots without any real motivation for making everyone scowl except that it looked cool.


A few examples of celebrity scowls and why some are appealing and others are not. A breakdown of the psychology of runway models and how their scowls actually help sell clothes. And finally, a brief reminder that looking happy is blissfully pleasant in its own special way.

I think at some point I even remembered that the post was supposed to be about video games.


Geoffrey said...

One thing that stood out for me over at the BrainyGamer was that in several cases (the Ratchet, Jax, and PoP in particular), the increase in badass-itude corresponded to an increase in the detail level for the characters. From Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (which I have never read, but saw referenced in a similar context, which apparently left a lasting impression), things like smiley-faces, because of their low detail, allow a great deal of projection from the observer. The more detailed the depiction of the character, the more explicit everything has to be. Short of modeling the human head in the game to allow depiction of a variety of emotions, anybody making a high-quality render/texture of a face is likely to want something appropriate for all occasions: as you yourself pointed out on the BrainyGamer comment thread, these are characters whose job is to generally kill baddies. If you had to pick one face to do well, do you go with happy-go-lucky, or i'm-going-to-kill-you?

So, from that perspective, maybe they're not just picking scowls for the reasons others have already pointed out, maybe it is also a side-effect of the oft-discussed push for realistic levels of detail (a supporting corollary, if true, being that games choosing a stylized instead of realistic art-direction might opt for fewer scowls?).

L.B. Jeffries said...

Hmmm, I'll definitely say that when people smile in games today it can be downright creepy if the animation isn't done properly. Half-Life 2 pulled it off I suppose.

It's just interesting that we all have some innate attraction to someone scowling at us. An inherently unattractive and offensive action when a stranger does it to us somehow equates to a status symbol. I agree there are a lot of reasons games look the way they do, but since a scowl is manipulating us at so many levels, I decided to write about what exactly that process entails.

Geoffrey said...

In no way did I intend my thought as a counter to your article on PopMatters, and, in fact, found the whole social psychological repercussions of scowling thing kind of bizarre and interesting. I always thought it odd that models never looked happy, but previously would've assumed it had to do with being mannequins, passive purveyors of the art they're wearing, as opposed to purveyors of themselves. And a random stab beyond that would be that smiling causes wrinkles. (The horror!) That it's really more of a variation on the theme of "I'm better than you, look at my shiny stuff, you should buy it so you can be like me" adds an interesting aspect to the whole charade.

I just had the afore-posted thought while reading the BrainyGamer background, and had the choice between posting it here, resurrecting a 3-month-dead thread over there to say my piece, or keeping my mouth shut. You see where that went.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Huh? I'm just chatting man, don't be alarmed. Hell, you formed complete sentences and a rational argument, I'm not complaining.

Scott Juster said...

LittleBigPlanet is one of the only games that comes to mind in which the player can actively control their avatar's facial expression.

Three variations of four different emotions leads to a lot of interesting player interactions. Playing with someone who grins when I mistakenly jump to my death is a lot more welcoming than someone who scowls.

Of course, sometimes I'll find a scowler who will hang around a game of newbies to help them out, thereby betraying a hidden heart of gold. :-)