I’m not sure where I first noticed Bayonetta, Sega’s crazy action game starring a witch of the same name (“Bayonetta,” not “Sega”). But I can tell you that I immediately wrote it off as something I wasn’t interested in based on very little actual information. Why? Well, on the 12/25/09 edition of the 4 Guys 1 Up podcast, GamePro’s John Davison gave a pretty amusing assessment:
There’s a guy in our office that you could put a picture of him up on the wall and the guys at Bayonetta would be like “We are making this game for THIS guy. It’s got boobs and hair and guns, and crotch shots, and she sucks on a lollipop, and her hair is her PANTS, and and it’s just AWESOME and things explode and and and and …she’s wearing librarian glasses just in case that does it for you as well!”
My first glance at the game gave me pretty much the same impression and I felt that it was all I needed to know. Hey, I appreciate sexy ladies, but Bayonetta’s appearance immediately made me think it was nothing but fan service for 14 year old boys. 1 From that, I inferred that the rest of the game would be childish, shallow, and cliche so I drop kicked it off my radar.
So imagine my surprise when Bayonetta was recently released and actually started getting good word of mouth and reviews, scoring in the very impressive high 80s to low 90s on Metacritic. While my snap judgment of the “sexy witch fan service” was dead on (and then some), apparently the mechanics are both deep and fun, not to mention the ridiculously awesome presentation of it all.
So why did I assume the whole game shared traits with its protagonist’s character design?
Psychologists call this “the halo effect” 2 or sometimes the “affect heuristic.” 3 It’s a cognitive bias that happens when your evaluation of one trait unjustifiably bleeds over into your perceptions of others. It’s basically the same reason that interviewers tend to think that if you’re a sharp dresser or have a firm handshake, you’ll be a good employee. 4 Perhaps more infuriatingly, it’s also the reason that beautiful people often get preferential treatment, even by members of the same sex, when people subconsciously assume that because someone is physically attractive, he/she must also be smart, competent, and likable. Research has shown that this even happens in courts, with uglier defendants receiving less lenient sentences. 5
Two researchers named Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson used a clever experiment to reveal how powerful the halo can be. 6 They twice filmed a professor ostensibly answering students’ questions. In the first film, the proff acted kindly. In the second film, he was a jerk. Two groups of subjects were then shown one film or the other and then asked to describe how appealing they found his appearance, mannerisms, and even accent. I bet you can guess which version of the professor people thought was better dressed, more suave, and possessed of a more charming accent.
As another example, crack open a history textbook (books are like if Wikipedia were made of trees) and consider the first Presidential campaign debates that were broadcast simultaneously on radio and television in 1960. Richard Nixon looked like crap for the cameras while John F. Kennedy looked well rested and snappy. Later polls showed that radio listeners (who obviously couldn’t form impressions of the candidates’ appearances) thought Nixon had won the debates while those who had watched the EXACT SAME exchange on the television thought Kennedy had nailed it.
So when I first saw Bayonetta, her lascivious appearance formed a halo in my mind (or horns, if you prefer 7 which led me to believe that every other aspect of the game would be so shallow, base, and uninteresting. In a market with SO many games and so little time, this may actually be an adaptive strategy since first impressions can often be right. But in this case I was surprised to find out that I’m wrong, at least according to Metacritic.
Of course, one man’s horns are another boy’s halos, and maybe I’m just not in the target demographic after all.