Play Stuff Blog

Video Games and the Cute Factor  

In the 2006 New York Times article “The Cute Factor,” Natalie Angier investigated how cuteness affects society. She wrote “scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute.” Cute cues include roundness, floppy limbs, a side-to-side gait, vulnerability, and need, among others. After reading Angier’s article, I realized cute factors affect my game selections.

Sackboy from Geek Crafts

Mark Healey and Dave Smith’s Little Big Planet (LBP) features a variety of pre-set platforming scenarios and also allows you to build new levels. However, it was not the whimsical game play that caught my attention in LBP; it was Sackboy.  His head is gigantic, his eyes a shiny black abyss, and his body like a Nelson Knitting Company sock monkey. In creating the game, Healey and Smith manipulated “rag doll physics,” which is a term defined by earlier video games when technology provided characters with zero-to-little joint/skeletal stiffness. Healey and Smith determined that the obvious choice of character must resemble and act like a rag doll. In the beginning of the game, I had to to teach Sackboy to walk. I found his movements jerky, clumsy, and even skittish. Like Healey and Smith intended, he resembled a rag doll, or even a toddler. After the game, I felt overwhelmed by a parental concern for my Sackboy. After all, human beings are prewired to find babies or baby-like creatures cute, because grown-ups are their only means of survival.

Peter Vesterbacka from Venture Beat

According to scientific research, the human ability to sense this cuteness is set at an extremely low bar. Humans deem anything resembling a human head cute—monkeys, ladybugs, a balloon, and birds from the causal game Angry Birds. These circular birds with Count Dracula-thick eyebrows gather in a group of five. Upon close examination, the birds' facial features slightly resemble one of their creators, Peter Vesterbacka. The game depicts the group protecting their eggs from several chop-licking pigs nearby. The plump birds peep and bop as they take turns flinging themselves at the devious pigs. Once a bird lands, feathers ruffled, like a baby it rolls helplessly around until the next bird shows up. I find these birds cute and the simple game play irresistible, and I bet the vast majority of the more than 6.5 million people who have downloaded the game agree with me. Rovio, the Finnish creator of the game, intends to turn the property into a major franchise—including TV shows, movies, and books. If and when the cartoon airs, marketing departments will use Angry Birds’ cute factor to sell the show—just as they did Cabbage Patch Kids, Pound Puppies, and the Muppets.

From ilomilo blog

Previews marketing ilomilo, a puzzle game forthcoming from Southend Interactive, also have the cute factor. When I first saw the game, I responded with an immediate, “How cute! I just want to reach through the screen and give these little guys a squeeze.” In a Beauty of Games interview, Simon Flesser, art director for ilomilo, said he didn’t start out with a desire to create something cute, he only wanted to represent his style, which just happens to be cute. This cute factor has already led Southend Interactive to talk of a children’s picture-book or a soundtrack. In the preview, ilo and milo (main characters) have a teeter-totter gait, a simple roundness, and a curly antennae. Much of the game design is colorful—pinwheels with wings, blocks with animal features, and trees with whimsical branches. Given Americans’ love of bright colors and cartoony patterns, and Japan’s Kawaii (cute craze), I predict ilomilo as the next Hello Kitty.

As Angier revealed in her article, the cute factor affects many aspects of society. Some people think cute encompasses negative connotations such as gender roles, condescending tones, cheapness, or an inability to express human complexities. But when it comes to video games, I want a character that looks at me with Puss-in-Boot eyes.