Posted by: Sean | June 18, 2009

The Halo Effect: Can It Be Overcome?



I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’ve not actually been doing a lot of Warcraft of late. Certainly not a lot of Warcraft role-play. I’d like to, really, but this pack of miserable time-sucking weasels has been stopping me. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve developed an acute The Sims 3 addiction. (ps. That’s Conner on the left, Saphia in the middle, and little Astra – Hi little Astra! – on the right, kicking her father’s behind at chess.)

So let’s talk a little bit about The Sims. One of the most interesting Sims projects out there right now is Alice and Kev. Go on and read it. All of it. It’s a touching, heartbreaking story of two homeless people, using The Sims 3 to simulate their lives.

No, I’m not kidding. Go read it. I’ll wait for you to come back.

OK, you’re done? Good. Now, if you’re like me, you probably started thinking of Alice as the hero of the story, and Kev as the villain. If that’s the case, it’s understandable. Alice is sweet, good natured and doomed to disappointment. Kev is an insane monster who delights in tormenting Alice and making her life miserable. But he’s homeless and has been for a long time. It’s not fair to dub him a villain; he’s not. Much like Alice, he spends most of his life trying to make friends and (because he lacks Alice’s social skills) failing miserably. His one successful social interaction – His only one to date – has been with a ghost. And he’s not even sure if the ghost was real.

So initial perceptions aren’t always true. Surface analyses are suspect, and I know that. Keep that in mind when I start calling you horrible people.

Some of you, if you’re like me, also found the general story very affecting and resolved to try and do something for real homeless people as a result. You felt grateful for the tiny simple things you had, and wanted to give those without them a better chance.

And if that’s the case, you should be ashamed because you’re a horrible person, like me. Come on! You knew damn well stories like this existed in the real world. Even now, you can probably piece together that homeless life is both worse and better than what Alice and Kev depicts. There are homeless shelters and people trying to give homeless people a bed and a roof. Alice’s only option for food is truthfully not her school dinners. But she does face horrible threats of violence and disease, which Alice and Kev does not depict. You knew all this. I knew all this. So why is it that now, like me, you suddenly felt it all come home? It would be easy to say the narrative did it, but at least in my case, I’ve seen stories of true homelessness before, and never felt this affected.

But, you see, Alice is cute.

Horrible though it is, there’s the little sucker punch. She’s attractive. And because she’s attractive, you begin ascribing other qualities as well. She must be a good person. It’s not her fault. She’s a victim. If Kev had the good trait, you’d never believe it. If Alice had nasty traits, you’d probably not believe those either.

Welcome to the Halo Effect. Human beings have difficulty with seeing the idea that good and bad can exist within the same vessel. Our villains have to be true villains. Our heroes spotless. When we see one good quality, we assume everything behind it is good too. And the first thing we see is appearance: Good looking people we assume to be good. It’s insidious and has real world effects: Good looking people are likely to be better educated, higher class and (here’s the kicker) more intelligent. Why? Because they expect to be.

OK, fine. But this isn’t a Sims blog yet. What’s the World of Warcraft link?

Here’s your damned link.

Most popular races? Blood Elves, Night Elves, Humans and Draenei. The four lean, attractive human-esque races.

And observe the issues we’ve discussed before! One of the most common plagues among Blood Elf role-players before the end of Burning Crusade was the multitiude who ignored the magic addiction or found cures. Look again: We saw an attractive species and couldn’t parse it with addiction and horror.

Also look at the end of the scale. Dwarves. Dwarves are one of the most heroic and honorable species of World of Warcraft. They’ve endured through countless wars, they’ve kept their word and held firm their alleigances. But they’re not attractive.

And we have trouble maintaining them as heroes. But the undead, also hideous, we have no trouble parsing as villains, which is how Blizzard cast them. Unsurprisingly, they’re popular as a result.

I have no answers to this question, and it’s a larger one than just World of Warcraft, hell, perhaps larger than role-playing. Our tendency to equate heroism, goodness and rightness with beauty is a problem inherent in the species. But it is, at least, a problem for World of Warcraft gameplay, too. It ensures that orcs will tend to be played to the more vicious stereotypes more often than their noble shamanistic side. It results in dwarves barely being role-played at all, because there isn’t a comfortable negative side for people to latch onto.

So next time you make a character? Make a heroic orc. Make a bastard of a night elf. Break the beauty.

The Halo Effect may or may not be able to be overcome. But only we can overcome it.


  1. I think that’s one of the things I appreciate more and more about the group of people I’m lucky enough to call friends and guildmates. All of the characters I interact with are flawed, sometimes in tragic ways, sometimes hilarious, but all in ways that make them feel more real than a lot of the “hero stereotypes” that get plastered on the various races.

    I could go on for awhile about examples, but suffice it to say that I think we /can/ overcome it. Whether overcoming the beauty halo with night elves or the “cute and gadgety” one with gnomes or the evil brute one with orcs – it takes being mindful and creating a rounded character. There are few things that are ever truly 100% good or 100% evil – and the interesting part is in the balance.

    (Also – sorry if you’ve been around on Quilia – my house projects have eaten me lately!)

  2. While I agree with you to an extent, we have many archetypes that also defy the Halo Effect.

    There’s the beautiful evil that works its will through seduction, there’s the monster that is gentle and simple underneath the monstrous appearance, there is the “mean girl,” “the jock” and their corollaries the “nerds” where the negative and positive traits are correlated to their attractiveness in the opposite way.

    There are all kinds of surface assumptions to be made based on looks that depend on context. To relate it to WoW, I see a LOT of evil/sadistic/hedonistic blood elf characters. I also see lots of heroic orcs, but maybe it’s just my server.

    As for bastard night elfs, I’m sure you must have encountered Fandral Staghelm at some point. 😉

  3. […] was reading a post yesterday from Blogatelle (if you don’t read that blog, you should) about the Halo Effect and how people often fall into the stereotype that “pretty” is equal to good, and that […]

  4. Mmm… Sims…

  5. I’d have to agree with KT here. If Obi Wan thinks Mos Eisely is a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” he should try visiting Silvermoon on Moonglade (EU).

  6. Yeah, Silvermoon City “House guilds ” are known for Villians on Ravenholdt. There is more backstabbing than a raid of rogues going on there.

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