August 22, 2009

Video games' evolutionary aesthetics

Returning to The Art Instinct and the results of Komar and Melamid's survey of what people like to see in paintings (still featured in the Amazon box above), the populist winner was a landscape mostly in blue and green, with some white, that featured a body of water and perhaps a few people and domestic animals. And this was true for just about every country that Komar and Melamid looked at. Here is the landscape based on the Kenyan survey.

The evolutionary story is that we prefer seeing such things because they would have been signals of good times during the long African savanna stage of our species' existence. These hardwired preferences would lead us to seek out places that boded well and turn away from those that portended ruin.

Dutton also mentions a study by Karl Grammer that shows how our environmental aeasthetic preferences change with age: in children, they are strikingly similar and in tune with the above green and blue landscape, although as people age they tend to also prefer features of the landscapes that they've been exposed to while growing up. Based on this idea, we expect that products geared toward children that involve a landscape will have the Komar and Melamid features, while products geared toward full adults may have such features but will also include a wider range of environmental types.

One key product to test this prediction is video games -- what other incredibly popular cultural product is geared toward kids and typically shows landscapes? I'll focus mostly on the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era (roughly 1986 to 1995), before a large fraction of video game players were full adults. Two recent systems -- Nintendo's Wii and DS -- are also fairly child-friendly.

While the superstar video games often include a level or two located in a desert, cave, or snow-covered mountain, the most common setting has a blue sky, sparkling water, verdant low-cut grass, some boulders or cliffs, and changes in elevation rather than a flat expanse of earth. The lighting is always as it would be during a summer afternoon. Moreover, even in video games that offer a variety of landscapes, the one that appears in the first level -- that is, in the beginning when the creators try to get you hooked on the game -- is much more likely to be the blue and green, water and grass type. They wait until after you've already gotten into the game to depress you with darkened, snowy areas (Contra places this landscape in the fifth stage), or make you feel claustrophobic inside of a dim cave (even such darker themed games as Castlevania 2 have you roam a brightly lit towns and blue and green environments before coming to caverns or foreboding castles).

This isn't a quantitative analysis, but anyone who played video games during this period knows what I'm talking about. But just to provide a few examples of what the first levels of some classic video games look like, here are some YouTube clips. You may have to skip through the first 30 to 60 seconds to get to the actual gameplay.

Super Mario 2
Legend of Zelda
Adventure Island
Super Ghouls N Ghosts (starting at 5:00)
Secret of Mana
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Willow arcade game (turn off the geek's voice and just enjoy the feast for the eyes)

One game from that period that might have become even more popular, had it featured more blue and green types, is Bonk's Adventure for the TurboGrafx-16. There are only a couple of levels with water, and they're later on. They should've put some waterfalls in the background of the first stage, and it would've sold better.

Whenever I flip through Game Informer, I can immediately tell which games are for a Nintendo system because they're full of color and light. Nothing wrong with a limited color range or dark lighting, but in video games this just comes off as a third-rate B horror movie. Here are three contemporary examples of the blue and green, grass and water type:

Super Mario Galaxy 2
New Super Mario Bros. Wii
Kirby Squeak Squad

Note that in none of these games does the plot involve our evolutionary past, cave men, etc. So the fact that such a broad range of best-selling games all converge on their preferred landscape type is yet more evidence of its universal and hardwired appeal. (Of course, games that do have cave men characters also have this type of landscape, as with Joe and Mac 2.)

The games oriented toward older video game players -- the average player is now 35 -- rarely use lush colors or estival lighting, and almost never take place in the green outdoors. They're in some dungeon, dark alleyway, abandoned space lab, war-blown urban rubble heap, or whatever. That kind of environment is tougher to make more visually moving. Typically, it ends up as the video game equivalent of a death metal album, and it caters to the same audience -- fat 30-something male losers. Drop by your local GameStop sometime and see for yourself.

And this isn't just due to the darker plot that such games have. As I mentioned before, the Castlevania games for the Nintendo and Super Nintendo all have, in addition to dark and claustrophobic areas, those that are outdoors with green grass and falling water. Even beat 'em up games whose theme is urban crime and decay often have an evolutionarily friendly stage (for example, the woods stage in Double Dragon 2 or the beach stage in Streets of Rage 2). So did Guerrilla War, Metal Slug, and Contra (whose entire third stage is a waterfall), all popular body count run 'n' gun games.

Back when video games were aimed at normal people, and even today with systems for people who have a life, the environments were designed (consciously or not) to appeal to our innate and common preference for landscapes that are mostly blue and green, and somewhat white, always including some body of water. We didn't need depressing visuals because the unforgiving difficulty of the games gave us enough of a headache already. They may not have been at the level of a Hudson River School painting, but at least they did the job well enough for what is basically a toy. The darker current style also falls far short of its high art counterparts, but it doesn't really move you even a little -- it's just one more thing that makes them so boring.


  1. Really interesting observation.

    I remember Donkey Kong Country on SNES being the most lush, vivid gameplay environment I'd ever seen. Full of greens, blues, and bright, glistening fruity colors. Naturally, as a twelve year-old, it knocked my socks off.

    As an aside: consider the differences between the stages of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, games that were substantively identical. The latter's were dark and utterly morbid, whereas in Street Fighter the sun was ALWAYS shining.

    In my experience, "normal" kids preferred Street Fighter. Kids who became the hard-core gamers - or were otherwise socially inept - seemed to prefer the darker, visually depressing environs of MK. Even as youngsters.

    Some people just like being indoors, I guess. I wonder what they're - as a distinct group - ideal painting would look like.

  2. I tried my darndest to think of exceptions from the period you specify and the best examples I could come up with (among commercially successful games geared at kids) were A Link to the Past and Super Metroid, both of which start out with a high-adrenaline prologue in a dark setting.

  3. many current games aimed at hardcore players still use lush backgrounds in the opening areas.

    every fantasy mmo has one or more beginner areas that's set in the blue/green environment mentioned, wow included. often they have many different areas which have such environments w/ different vegetation and wildlife.

    first person shooters still use the opening setting, e.g. far cry, crysis, halo, and serious sam. given enough playing time, the half-life games also get in to the blue/green setting.

    rts games like the command & conquer series, starcraft, warcraft 3, age of empires and the like also have the setting.

    there are plenty of very popular games around that still have bright colors and the picturesque natural background.

  4. Lately I've been playing Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii. Most of the 40+ galaxies in which action takes place are fantasy worlds, but a few of them are in part recognizable Earth landscapes (for instance, the main part of Honeyhive Galaxy). There's definitely something calming about playing these familiar landscapes vs. the fantasy worlds.



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