Biophilia and Darwinian Action Adventures

Feb 11th 2004

From The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

by Steven Pinker

In this chapter Pinker is searching for evidence that man’s appreciation of art is innate, and therefore universal across cultures and grounded in the human brain’s prehistoric evolution.

‘A wry demonstration of the universality of basic visual tastes came from a 1993 stunt by two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who used marketing research polls to asses Americans’ taste in art. They asked respondents about their preferences in color, subject matter, composition and style, and found considerable uniformity. People said they liked realistic smoothly painted landscapes in green and blue containing animals, women, children, and heroic figures. To satisfy this consumer demand, Komar and Melamid painted a composite of the responses: a lakeside landscape in a nineteenth-century realist style featuring children, deer, and George Washington. That’s mildly amusing, but no one was prepared for what came next. When the painters replicated the polling in nine other countries, including Ukraine, Turkey, China and Kenya, they found pretty much the same preferences: an idealized landscape, like the ones on calendars, and only minor substitutions from the American standard (hippos instead of deer, for example). What is even more interesting is that these McPaintings exemplify the kind of landscape that had been characterized as optimal for our species by researchers in evolutionary aesthetics’

(More about this experiment can be found at Komar and Melamid’s website)

When I read this passage in The Blank State something immediately grabbed me. The description;

‘landscapes in green and blue containing animals, women, children, and heroic figures.’

Immediately sounded to me like a description of the opening levels of an action adventure or RPG game. Could it be that the kind of settings and narratives in these games reverberate in human culture for the same reasons the McPainting images do?

Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is the highest ranked game of all time at Game Rankings. It’s opening levels contain landscapes of green and blue, populated by animals, women, children and the heroic figure of the player. Look at an image of Hyrule Field next to one of Komar and Melamid’s Mcpaintings

I could have deliberately picked an image from Ocarina of Time that was even more similar to the McPainting, but I think this image of Hyrule field has enough striking similarities for the sake of this examination. Both are predominantly blue and green. Green and blue were in the favourite top three colours chosen by each country polled in Komar and Melamid’s experiment. Both images contain relatively flat undulating landscapes, with distant features (if we were able to move the camera in the Zelda shot to the right we’d be able to see a nice picturesque mountain). Both have a heroic figure in the centre foreground, and if the Zelda image had one of the Hyrule Field monsters in it, we’d have our prerequisite hunt-worthy animal. The early levels in Ocarina of Time also contain women and children (as do most starting environments in RPG’s).

I’m not one to easily jump to conclusions, but it seems to me that the findings of Komar and Melamid can be applied to the creation of landscapes in videogames. If you want to create an idyllic environment to destroy and have the player seek to save, you could do a whole lot worse than examining the detail of their findings. If you are worried about making landscapes that appeal to a cross-section of international games players, then don’t because it seems we all have the same taste in natural beauty. Could it be that the relative lack of impact made by The Wind Waker and Beyond Good and Evil be related to their much less welcoming drowned worlds?

This innate human appreciation for a certain, very specific type of landscape is part of the biologist E O Wilson’s ‘Biophilia’ hypothesis. He argues that the human mind evolved to appreciate landscapes and environments that gave our ancestors an advantage in the prehistoric plains of Africa. Archetypal biophilic scenes typically contain a wide view of the landscape (to keep an eye out for approaching predators and enemies), a body of water (for drinking and washing), trees (for fruit collection), animals (to hunt), and distant pathways and mountains (for the promise of exploration and further riches).