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Communicating character using physical cues

Discussion of the physical cues that can enhance character design
In this final video slide show, we’re going to discuss how manipulation of character anatomy and features can trigger our natural capacity to make judgments about a person’s attractiveness, age, or health. Firstly, one of the most widely discussed factors for physical attraction is symmetry. Studies have shown that symmetry is a fairly strong indicator for general attractiveness, with the most symmetrical forms being regarded as the most attractive. Given that humans are fundamentally symmetrical anyway, it is somewhat understandable that the differences must be quite subtle. And they are. Even very slight alterations in the symmetry or asymmetry of the human form, particularly within the face, can be picked up by observers, and in turn, these observations subconsciously affect the perception of an individual.
Clearly this is a very basic way of consider physical attractiveness. And of course, people with evidently asymmetrical features can be widely regarded as attractive. Nevertheless, symmetry is a useful consideration in game character design, as it can help to heighten appeal, generate a sense of apathy, or even create a feeling of revulsion towards a character. As a significant element of heterosexual attraction concerns sexual reproduction, it would be a fair bet that the perceived genetic and biological qualities of the opposite sex are a factor for attractiveness. And this appears to be largely true. Physical traits associated with highly feminine and masculine bodies and faces, as discussed in the previous video, can be correlated with ratings for attractiveness.
Highly feminine faces and body shapes can therefore be seen as a standard concept for feminine beauty. But it is possible to exaggerate these traits to the point of caricature, which many games are guilty of. When pushed too far, these traits actually create less attractive face and body shapes, shapes that we find odd. In nature, highly masculine features, as a result of higher levels of testosterone, indicate improved immunity and physical ability. These features are perceived as positive qualities when it comes to reproduction and so highly masculine forms do create sex appeal. However, the same features also trigger preconceptions such as aggression, dominance, and the potential for infidelity.
As such, men with less masculine and more feminine features are typically regarded as more attractive as long term partners. All this is of course, subject to individual preference and does not account for same-sex attraction, but the fact remains that the biological factors that impact on body and face shape had a subsequent impact on general perception of physical attractiveness. Being able to detect the health of another individual is vital to survival. As such, there are certain cues to health and illness that we as a species are particularly adept at picking up on. This ensures not only that we can avoid potential infection, but also that we can pick a suitable mate.
As this would suggest, there are some problems separating perceived attractiveness from perceived health, as the two factors are clearly related in terms of our natural ability to conduct a physical assessment of another individual. Perhaps the easiest aspect of physical appearance to align with a perception of healthiness is weight. Studies have shown that weight clearly impacts on how healthy we perceive someone to be. A healthy individual is typically perceived to be someone with low to moderate levels of body fat, what we might consider to be a typical body weight. As levels of body fat increase, we perceive individuals to be increasingly unhealthy. But it also works the other way around.
People with low levels of body fat are also perceived to be unhealthy. This makes a lot of sense when considered in biological terms, as extreme thinness can indicate starvation or disease, whilst extreme obesity can suggest risk of heart disease and a lack of physical fitness. As individuals move away from normal body weight towards these two extremes, our interpretation is prone to be that these individuals are unhealthy. Most video game characters typically fit within low to normal body weight ranges, particularly player characters. You can read from this that part of the appeal of a character relates to how healthy they appear to be.
A character that looks unhealthy automatically loses some of its appeal, and thus most characters will appear to have fairly healthy weight levels. On the other hand, manipulation of character weight can be used effectively with characters that we are meant to regard negatively. This may seem somewhat politically incorrect, but from a purely evolutionary perspective, our species has every reason to avoid individuals that are overly thin or obese. An extremely thin game character can trigger our natural ability to detect potential signs of ill health. This is a character that we want to avoid as there is a potential threat of disease.
Similarly, an extremely obese character can suggest potential genetic flaws, and as such, you might find this type of character both unhealthy and also unattractive. The texture and colour of the skin might seem a more subtle consideration than body shape, but this also has an effect on health perception. A lack of consistency of skin pigmentation can be a signal for poor immunity, and therefore, susceptibility to disease. As the appearance of spots, blotches, and variation of skin pigment increases, we perceive a reduced capacity to fight off disease, whereas smoother skin with little variation in pigment indicates strong genes.
In the case of skin colour, studies have shown that an individual is perceived as more healthy if the level of redness and their skin is increased slightly. This actually has a lot to do with the type and amount of blood under the skin. When the blood is oxygenated, it turns a brighter red. If the amount of blood drops, the skin becomes paler, which makes a person appear unhealthy. As such, shifting skin colour towards red, can improve the player’s perception of a character’s health, whereas skin that is closer to blue-purple or pale tones will make a character look unhealthy. And this is true regardless of the ethnicity of the character.
The G-man character from the Half-Life series is a great example of this, a character whose appearance subtly suggests ill health, which supports his presentation as an unsettling character.
Finally, let’s discuss age perception. In the previous video, we already identified body proportions as a cue to age, but there are other factors that we can consider. One of the cues to age that is discussed frequently in relation to character design, is the appearance of baby-like faces. The facial proportions of babies have been shown to be effective at grabbing our attention, with a normal response being one of affection and warmth. In other words, we find babies to be much cuter than older children and adults. This feature is well understood by character designers and you will notice that characters in games in the younger audiences take full advantage of this natural reaction by including more baby-faced characters.
More specifically, it’s been suggested that we find the facial features of infants aged approximately nine to eleven months old to be the most appealing. With an approximate age for maximum age identified, the facial proportions that we are inclined to find the cutest can be examined more closely. The notable features that trigger a feeling of cuteness, and that can therefore be associated with cute character design, are a larger forehead, larger eyes, small nose, small mouth, small chin, and a narrower face below the eyes. It should be noted that these features, while generally observed most often in babies approaching their first birthday, are not explicitly a sign of age. Instead, they are best identified as the features we find most cute.
And they are often used and exaggerated for effect to make characters that you find exceptionally cute. At the other end of the scale, the most prominent aspect of appearance that provides an indication of advancing age is the texture of the skin. What makes this more complex is the fact that the appearance of the skin isn’t dictated by biological age alone. The texture of our skin changes over time due to both genetic and environmental factors. From a biological perspective, skin elasticity is a major contributor to skin texture appearance and indicative of approximate age. With a high level of skin elasticity in youth, skin appears smooth and tight with little or no wrinkles.
Appearance of incredibly smooth skin can therefore enhance the youthfulness of a character, as can be seen in many examples of characters aimed at younger audiences. As elasticity reduces with age, skin becomes looser and wrinkles become more pronounced. It therefore, seems fairly straight forward to align skin elasticity with the intended age of a character in order to produce a believable design. In summary, an appreciation of the need to observe life clearly is important to the visual design of game characters. A lot of what we have discussed may have seemed like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often anatomical or other physical mistakes can be made by beginning character artists.
Slight errors in selection and exaggeration of particular features can dramatically alter how gamers will perceive and interpret a character, with the most common judgements relating to attraction, health, and age. Consider these factors, but also try to spend more time closely analysing characters in games to see how attraction, health, or age, maybe inferred by design, and what this might say about how appealing we are meant to find the character.

In this final slideshow, we will discuss how the human body contains visual cues that can inform character design, including cues for attractiveness, health, and age.

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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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