Why is it that appearances play such a large part into a person’s perception of things?

When I was building a ray tracer (see here) a while back, there were a couple of stages. First, I had to get the actual ray tracing working, which was the math-intensive part of the project. However, that only yielded solid-color circles on the screen. Once I called the function a second time to trace from the bounce point to a light (giving the spheres shading), it became impressive to look at. The proportion of work to seeming difficulty seemed to be arbitrary.

A 3D model becomes more admired when color is added. Even if the textures are solid colors, it still “looks better” (to the untrained eye) than a white/gray untextured model, despite the actual model quality. Yet again, so much work can go into detailing a model or perfecting the topography, and it barely takes anytime to cover areas of the model in different hues. Similarly, a model will get as much praise from casual observers if it is solid white as if it is textured with checkerboard. However, checkerboard shows that the model has been UV unwrapped (a huge chunk of work), while pure white does not.

A game mod can be absolutely brilliant in conception and be fueled by a constant stream of original ideas, but if it has a couple of pieces of concept art or a 3D model or two to begin with, people will be much more interested. Perhaps in this case it’s also a sort of promise that work will be done on it, so people have some justification in expecting pictures. Honestly though, I would rather have a mod or scratch-built game with a brilliant design document/manifesto that insures that the developers aren’t the brainless riffraff you see nowadays in the main stream, than a few pieces of art.

An even more common example is websites. A website might be fully functional and the idea might be brilliant, but until it meets some of the unspoken standards set by most commercial websites, people will have limited interest. Conversely, a website might have no features, but if it is sleek with custom buttons and subtle gradients, people become enraptured by it. It’s almost as though superficial, insignificant design flourishes can replace content to a certain degree.

I guess you see that quite a bit in mainstream games these days. There is this industry standard that seems to have grown out of control. Distributors, and therefore designers in practicality, seem to think that for a game to be enjoyable, or rather to sell, it must have top of the line graphics. The only problem is that this standard was set by some megalithic productions that had ridiculous budgets (Crysis, Call of Duty, Halo 3). Now smaller studios are held to it too, though, studios that don’t have the budget to integrate state of the art graphics and environment detailing AND to work on developing an original, fun game. Thus we get the constant, haggard procession of small, rushed games with mediocre graphics, mediocre gameplay, and which are sometimes not even playable at the release date due to show-stopping bugs.

This phenomenon of design enhancing content is not entirely bogus, but in most cases it shouldn’t affect a viewer’s opinion. For instance, if I make a blog post with a picture at the top, people are more likely to read the entire thing. Why is this? I have two theories. I outlined one above a little bit; a user expects a certain layout and a certain level of visual quality. If this superficial standard is fulfilled, the user is subconsciously more acceptant to the content, even if it is of a lower quality than another less refined project. If the design is lacking, the user tends to disregard it as lower quality, and has a bias against the content before they even start consuming it. The other theory is that people are brainless. Most people don’t actually judge by substance quality; their mind tends to wander, and when it doesn’t want to focus on the stuff that makes them think, they look at the design. If something doesn’t have a good design to look at, they move away from the content.

But the question is, why do people value the visuals to begin with? This comes into play in more than just digital media. Everybody remembers sights easier than any of the other four senses. Sure, you might smell a scent and recall a name or memory of an event. But you can’t just recall the smell. It is like hash map. You can get from the smell to the linked memories, but just given the data structure you can’t reconstruct the keys that the hashes came from. Taste and touch become slightly easier. Sounds are almost as easy to remember as sights. So why are the senses given different priorities? I think the answer lies in two odd facts. First, for each level of aforementioned priority, the size of the vocabulary for describing sensations varies directly with the ease of recollection. Second, it is easier to reconstruct visual memories than it is tastes or smells. Humans can easily communicate what something looked like by drawing in the dirt, using hand gestures, or drawing on paper. Tactile sensations can be simulated using the hand, and sounds can be similarly recreated using the mouth. But smells and taste are completely out of our control.

I’m sure there is a whole field based around categorizing scents and tastes and developing a detailed vocabulary. If anybody has experience with this, feel free to comment.


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