The Scientific Reason The Human Brain Is Obsessed With Pixel Art
Big, chonky pixels. They’re, simply put, the freakin’ best. Gaming has advanced to the point where we can make those pixels so tiny, cram so many little colored boxes in a square centimeter of graphics that we don’t even know they’re there. So why doesn’t every game have hyper realistic animation? Why aren’t new-ish games like Baba Is You and Stardew Valley done in the style of seamless realism? It’s because our brains are scientifically hardwired to love characters who are done in big, old school pixels.
Let’s take a look at Wargroove, a devilishly difficult turn based strategy game that’s trickiness is belied by its adorable, pixelated cast of characters. This game is so good it put me in an MRI once time… but that’s a story for another day. This game and its pixelated pals, trigger a nice nostalgia in those of us who grew up with large pixels as pretty much the only graphical option in games.
There’s also the fact that with larger pixels usually means less detail. Having a vaguer character or protagonist helps the audience’s imagination map themselves onto said character. There’s no breaking immersion because the ray tracing isn’t good enough, we’ve already taken the leap to suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride.
But the real reason we can’t get enough of our little pixely friends goes back to the very earliest days of humanity’s fight for survival. Simply put: our brains are wired to think that things with big eyes are cute. There’s been a lot of research about eye ratio cuteness, with new evidence and data coming out to support the “big eye cutie” theory all the time. The theory is that finding something cute makes you want to protect it. Human babies have big eyes in ratio to the rest of their faces, and a baby being considered cute upped its chances of survival.
Think about the size of a pixelated eye compared to the rest of the body of a pixelated character, that’s just a scientific recipe for a massive amount of cuteness. In games designed with large pixel art, there’s only so many squares that can make up a character, and the eyes are always given a cartoonishly large amount of face space. Partially, this helps animators convey emotion. Partially, it just looks great. It’s an aesthetic sweet spot that our brains can’t help but love. So next time your butt stomping as Mario or even wrangling your sheep in Minecraft, take a moment and appreciate your brain for making pixels so darn cute.