When we think about the human body, there is usually a standard image that comes to mind: two eyes side by side, a nose between, two arms and legs, hands and feet with five fingers. What if we changed the order of things and had a hand with five fingers where our right eye is and had our right eye curled inside the palm of our left hand. Would we still be human or alien, or other? In a world where lip injections are a sweet sixteen gift and we can move body fat around to create curves, how is this remodelling of the human body any different from having our mouths be on the side of our heads?

Inspired by Julio Cortazar’s short story Axolotl, I would like to create a video game for my final project where players get to choose what they look like and then must live accordingly under different circumstances. In Cortazar’s work, a man staring into an aquarium filled with Mexican salamanders slowly morphs into the amphibian that has him so entranced. The story ends ambiguously as he finds himself trapped in the tank, no longer feeling as a human would in this confined environment, but rather feeling the sensation of being in that position as an Axolotl. When we think of science fiction, these sorts of transformations are where the lines between reality and fiction blur. One of the most interesting moments in Cortazar’s story is how fluidly the narrator transforms into this other being. Humans are continuously modifying their bodies to adhere to society’s ever-changing fashion and visual trends, but what if there no longer existed such a standard? No matter where you are in the world, there are socially acceptable ways to style oneself –from hair colour, to clothing, to as far as surgically altering our external appearance (ex; a current trend in Korea where women undergo extensive surgery so that their eyes may appear larger and more prominent, like the American supermodels on the cover of popular fashion magazines). As such, we would not undergo these painful, often risky procedures if it weren’t universally accepted that the way we present ourselves to others has a tremendous impact on how we are perceived. Indeed, stereotypes and social categories provide a framework through which others can process our existence. How we interpret what we see when we look at someone for the first time and how this interpretation influences our subsequent behaviour is very telling of how our society operates and has been operating throughout the years. On the one hand, these physical cues (i.e. large, intimidatingly muscular individuals as a sign of dominance) warn us of danger or guide us towards those who seem trustworthy. On the other, this value judgment based solely on one’s appearance can be exceptionally misleading.

So why is it that entertainment media consistently portrays conventionally attractive people as the kind heroes, whilst the villains must look unattractive to emphasize their cruel intentions? In the video game that I propose to create, your hero can look as attractive or unconventional as you’d like: a red haired young man with deep chocolate skin and blue eyes? Sure. A transgender individual with soft Korean features and a strong Sentinelese body? No problem. Then, whatever form you choose is the one you must stay in for the remainder of the game. You are then placed in different parts of the world and your goals will vary accordingly. For example, if you are dropped in New York City, your goal could be to become CEO of a multi-million dollar company. If you end up off the coast of Panama on a fish farm, your goal is to catch and sell as many fish as possible in order to survive. As your location changes, so does your goal. How then is this science-fiction? As you progress in the game, your body will change accordingly to either aid or deter you from your goal. For instance, if you manage to catch the largest number of fish and sell them at the local market, you then have the option to ‘enhance’ your appearance in order to facilitate your task (i.e. larger hands to better hold a squirming cobia fish). However, if you fail at a task, then suddenly your body parts are relocated on your body. If you are trying to be taken seriously in your powerful New York Company and your nose has suddenly been moved to your bellybutton then your task gets a whole lot harder –notably because of how differently the people in your office will treat you. As David Amodio, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University, states: “stereotypes are seen as a necessary mechanism for making sense of information.” How will others perceive someone without a visible nose if they cannot categorize them and reduce them to a comprehensible, familiar stereotype?

This project will be created with the help of different online sources, notably articles on perception and the influence of our appearance on the people around us. I would start by creating the different ways in which people can alter their physical appearance. Then, I will look into a handful of diverse environments in the world where appearance plays a large role in one’s success. Lastly, I would focus on the look of the actual video game by researching like-minded videos and discussions with some industry professionals.

 

References

Aronson, E. 2011. The social animal. 11th ed. New York: Worth.

Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology

Cortazar, Julio. Axolotl

Dove Commercial on transforming women for billboards: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYhCn0jf46U

Hewstone, M., W. Stroebe, and K. Jonas. 2012. An introduction to social psychology. 5th ed. Chichester, UK: BPS Blackwell.