Mind Games

Examining the intersection of psychology and digital entertainment

Halos, Hitmen, and Killer Nun Assassins

The new Hitman game's marketing trips up on an old cognitive bias.

The video game world recently went through a drastic bout of mass monocle popping when the trailer for the upcoming Hitman Absolution game was unleashed. For those of you who don't know, the Hitman series lets you play as wayward assassin "Agent 47" who has a rather ...sophisticated morality system. Of course our (anti-)hero has a heart of gold—it's very useful for bludgeoning—but he's often put into situations where he has to navigate through hostile environments in order to stealthily take out bad guys. And by "take out" I mean "take on a nice date" and by "take on a nice date" I mean "murder."

 But that's not what the controversy surrounding the new trailer is about. In the video, we see Agent 47 beset upon by --and I swear I'm not making this up-- a group of latex and leather wearing killer nuns. No, seriously, he trades gunfire and neck snaps with sexy assassin ladies who look like they just sashayed straight out of the "Adult Costumes" aisle of the local Halloween megastore. It's really violent and most of it is directed at women, but you can watch the whole thing here on Youtube. I should note, though, that the clip is clearly not safe for work. Or possibly non-work.

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 For a lot of us, the gross misogyny on display here is by itself sufficient to complete a list of reasons not to be interested in the game. In addition to that, though, I'm exasperated by how LAZY this looks. Sexy nun assassins is such a creatively bankrupt idea that many of us can't imagine that the same people responsible for THAT could pull off any of the other decisions required to make a good, fun game.

 Psychologists call this “the halo effect” (no relation to Master Chief) or sometimes the “affect heuristic.” I like “affect effect” myself, but nobody listens to me. It’s a cognitive bias that happens when your evaluation of one trait 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. (e.g., Mack & Rainey, 1990). 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 (Stewart, 1980).

 

Two researchers named Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson (1977) used a clever experiment to reveal how powerful the halo can be. 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 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 this ridiculous trailer for Hitman Absolution, the sexy nuns formed a halo (or horns, if you prefer) in my mind which led me to believe that every other aspect of the game would be so shallow, base, and crass. 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 who knows? Maybe I'll be wrong and there was a beautiful, understated, and moving character arc to each and every one of those latext wearing, machine gun toting, battle nuns.

 

Citations

 Mack, D., & Rainey, D. (1990). Female applicants’ grooming and personnel selection. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 5, 399-407.

 Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). The halo effect: Evidence for unconscious alteration of judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 250-6

 Stewart, J. E. II. (1980). Defendant’s attractiveness as a factor in the outcome of trials. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10, 348-361.

 

Jamie Madigan, Ph.D. is an industrial-organizational psychologist, writer, and life-long video game enthusiast.

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