A closer look at why so many game avatars are scowling all the time.
From Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, Ubisoft
Easily one of the more prevalent facial expressions in video games today is the scowl. Although their anime and cartoon inspired counter-parts break the trend along with faceless protagonists such as Master Chief, overall the heroes of video games all seem to be having a bad day. Why are angry video game characters so prevalent? The basics of the scowl are explained in a guide on how to surgically alter your face to not scowl. It recommends removing the vertical hatchet lines between your eyebrows and always keeping you lips just slightly parted to avoid pursed lips. The scowl, based on the instructions on how to avoid making one, involves keeping your jaw clenched and your eyebrows arched down. Doing so will make people feel intimidated, cost you potential business clients, and make everyone think you’re unhappy. So why are we so desperate to play as people with this facial expression?
How does one make a scowl appealing? A random Twitter cast for people’s favorite celebrity scowls brought up everything from Harrison Ford, Adam Baldwin to Uma Thurman and Alan Rickman as favorite scowls. Clint Eastwood, whose scowl continues to intimidate people to this day, still manages to bring in the fans. An old article from People Magazine about Eastwood interviews several industry people that have worked with him. One comments that the really impressive thing about him is the fact that he’s genuinely a tough guy. After almost collapsing while filming a scene where his character was climbing a rocky wall, Eastwood clawed his way up when the photographer told him he had no choice. Another relates a story where a boulder almost fell on their mountain guide and maimed another crew member. Eastwood, who was funding the film, nearly broke down into tears. He was ready to cancel the film right there. The crew member states, "Clint seemed so simple I thought he was phony. But after a while, I realized how sharp he was. He isn't verbal, but he is one smart mother…He always comes off very callous and pragmatic, but inside, he's just mush." Eastwood’s scowl thus communicates both a sense of hostility but an underlying belief that there is something genuine about him, that his contempt only comes from the fact that he cares.
A comparison between a good scowl and a bad scowl can be seen at Sports Manifesto that compares the scowls of Dick Cheney and Bill Cowher (retired Steeler’s Coach). The blog notes, “Cowher's scowl seems more genuine than Cheney's, his is a classic scowl which is solely intent on eliciting fear in the victim. Cowher seems capable of unthinkable acts when that scowl is strewn across his face…Dick Cheney's scowl seems contrived, as though he accidentally shoved something up his ass as a child and can't get it out.” The blog concludes that Cheney is scarier because his scowl is something that is simply worn like a mask while Cowher is reflecting his inner turmoil. In the case of both Cowher and Eastwood, we accept the scowl because of its authenticity.
Yet the scowl is not just something used in film or politics, even the fashion industry is dependent on creating a scowl that is genuine to sell their clothes. An excellent article at The New York Times asks why fashion models always look unhappy. The article is about a random survey that showed the unhappier the model looks the more expensive the product they’re selling. One of the first comments to the story explains that models are technically not allowed to smile. They will even be fined money if they do it on the runway. Smiling, as opposed to scowling, is psychologically interpreted as an act of submission while scowling communicates superiority. The article quotes from a Professor Ketelaar, “Lower status individuals appear to smile more than higher status individuals. I suspect that this is due, in part, to the fact that there are several different types of smiles, including a true happiness smile and a true embarrassment smile. The latter smile, the embarrassment display, is often seen as an appeasement display in primates… Thus, the non-smiling faces of the higher status brands are not trying to make the consumer feel bad; they are simply attempting to display the signals that are associated with higher status.” The irony is that the higher the status you want to communicate to a person, the more negative the signal you need to send to show that you don’t care.
From Half-Life 2, Valve
It is hard to conclude this blog post without stopping and appreciating the power of the smile in a game avatar. Even the fashion article above points out that there is a difference between an embarrassment grin and a pure happiness smile. Just as the scowl indicates superiority and indifference, the smile creates a sense of being welcome. You don’t even have to do it with your mouth. A guide on how to smile with your eyes at wikihow explains that a good smile is not just turning the mouth upwards. The essay notes, “Fake smiles involve just the mouth, and people notice something wrong. The next time you are REALLY smiling, take note of the muscles in your cheeks, forehead, and temples.” A real smile should make the eyes glimmer and it has to come from something real. The article goes so far as to suggesting thinking about a happy thought when you try to smile, even if what you’re smiling at doesn’t qualify. For all the excitement that may come from playing as the ultimate scowling badass, it is hard to not appreciate the big goofy grin on Mario’s face when he invites us to come fly around the galaxy with him. Or feel welcome when we see Alyx Vance smile after we just blasted our way through a tough level. If the scowl’s function in video games is to empower the player, it’d be nice if they had enough character to drop their guard as well.