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Universal expressions of emotion
The six universal expressions: joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise.

Nonverbal expression

Another lesson we can take from human nature concerns our universal behaviours, in the form of nonverbal communication.

While many of the ways we communicate nonverbally are culture-dependent, we can identify some actions that are broadly used by all peoples. There may be some slight cultural and learned variations, but for the most part these actions can be read and understood around the world.

These actions are used to communicate basic emotional or affective states. Because they are used in most cultures, it is useful for character designers to understand and recognise them. I’ve broken this down into two categories: body posture, and facial expression.

Body Posture

By posture, I mean the way we position and orient our body in social situations. Our posture can indicate our emotional state or mood to others. We can break posture down as follows:

  1. Open posture: Opened arms and legs, with a straight back. This posture can show that a character is friendly, positive, or confident.
  2. Closed posture: Folded arms or crossed legs, with less expansive use of space. This posture can suggest a character is defensive or closed to social interaction.
  3. High energy: Faster and bouncier movements, which can suggest a character is alert and ready for action.
  4. Low energy: Slow and sluggish movements, which suggests lack of engagement and low arousal.
  5. Similarity: When a character mimics another character by imitating their pose. This can imply agreement, respect, a bond, or feelings of empathy.
  6. Opposition: When a character is posed in a reverse of another character. This can suggest a lack of connection, dislike, or even disdain.

Facial Expression

Just like posture, there are a series of universal facial expressions that betray our emotional states. Because these expressions are universal, they can be an excellent technique for conveying emotional state subtly through a character performance. Facial expressions can even be used as the basis for a whole character design that kids will understand instantly. Think of the difference between Toad and Goomba in the Super Mario series!

The universal expressions of emotion are:

  1. Joy: Clearly recognisable by the smile, but also by the raising of the cheeks and squinting of the eyes. Without the upper face movement, what is shown is often called a fake smile. When we think someone is pretending to be happy, this is usually the cue that we pick up on.
  2. Sadness: In its extreme form it is recognised by a furrowed and raised brow, lowered eyes, and downturned mouth. But we are generally good at picking up on subtle cues for sadness, and we can tell if someone is upset without them crying.
  3. Anger: Wide eyes and a lowered brow are cues for anger, with rage often involving more tensing of the lower face and even exposing the teeth. In nature, anger is meant to be expressed in a manner that makes us appear threatening.
  4. Fear: Wide eyed like anger, but with a raised and furrowed brow, and often a dropped jaw and open and stretched mouth. Fear is a flight response, and so the wide eyes allow us to observe the environment.
  5. Disgust: Typified by the raised upper lip and crinkling of the nose, and perhaps also the squishing of the eyes. Disgust is a response to something noxious. An interesting combination of disgust and anger is an expression of contempt, which is like disgust and disdain towards a person rather than a substance. Some studies have argued that contempt is also a universal expression.
  6. Surprise: The fastest and most fleeting of emotions, which is typified by wide eyes, a high brow raise, and dropped jaw. A very mild form of surprise can be considered curiosity or interest.

Try viewing a cut-scene or narrative sequence in a recent video game. How are the characters’ postures and facial expressions used to communicate emotion or feeling between characters?

This can be particularly interesting within gameplay sections, when the player may have some ability to move the camera around the characters. Bigger and more expressive movements may be used within the characters to make sure that the player doesn’t miss them. Or maybe the designer has exercised more control over the camera at key points of the animation, to ensure that the posture or expression is appropriately staged and not missed by the player.

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This article is from the free online course:

Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

Abertay University

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