Friday, December 10, 2010

The psychology of uniforms.

In earlier posts, I discussed combat uniforms, gear, and armor in terms of their usage: camouflage, carrying capacity, and protection, respectively. However, uniforms provide another major benefit, as well: the sense of belonging, or the sense of dehumanization. A uniform turns an individual from "one" to "one out of many", subsuming their identity into the larger unit. This is not only true of military organizations, but any organization that uses a uniform. This can be seen as positive (the sense of belonging and unity between group members) or negative (the loss of the individual). In this update, uniforms will be analyzed in several fields based on how they interact with the psychological sense of in-group loyalty. 

Level 1: Totally Identical
 Best known as "the army of a thousand dystopian futures", the concept of a masked army, whether wearing gas masks, balaclavas, or a fully-concealing helmet, is nothing new. The face is one of the key elements in humanization, if for nothing else but the ability to display emotions (never mind the other factors that would distinguish one person from another). A masked individual may as well be a "non-person". There's always the possibility of a dramatic reveal ("my god, he was a normal human like us all along"), but in general the role of a masked soldier is conformity at its most identical. The individual has ceased to exist, the "group member" is the only thing that remains. Of course, this is probably not what the soldier thinks (since they're still privy to their own thoughts), but it's obviously fairly difficult for them to get this across.

It would be quite a slog to note all the games that use this, but two major ones are Metal Gear Solid (where even "good" soldiers wear balaclavas, despite how uncomfortable they would be, simply to dehumanize them) and Killzone (where it's actually depicted as a positive thing to the masked individuals - that is, their masks serve as a rallying point for solidarity because it is connected to their current status and condition). In general, however, "masked soldier" = "oppression", "control", "dominance". There's nothing recognizable or human about them, ergo they are the enemy.

A different aspect of this found primarily in games: people's faces being literally the same. This includes any game that lacks facial customization: the "individual" stops existing, and is replaced with "model #4". The faces are visibly similar, and any person met will just be a hair-swaped version of one of four or five faces. MGS has tried a few times to not have characters wear balaclavas, and this is usually the result (which also makes the masks a justified decision, albeit a lazy one). This is less distinctive than having faces be either nonexistent, but it's still an issue when it comes to trying to depict individuals because it prevents them from moving up to category #2.

Level 2: Identical Garb, Recognizable Faces
This can be thought of as the standard for real life: a uniform as trappings worn by a human, rather than completely turning an individual into a faceless, soulless cog. That is to say, a soldier's identity is connected with being a soldier, but they are still themselves at the same time: "My name is x, I am a soldier", rather than simply "I am a soldier". Showing a face turns the soldier from a tool to a human being in the most clear possible manner. Of course, they are still a human being that is part of a larger unit, but they are far more "recognizably human" than a masked individual. To get a bit metaphorical, I'd say it's like the difference between a group of identical voices singing a song, and a group of people with different voices singing the same song. In one case, there's one sound multiplied fifty times; in the other, there's fifty sounds all following the same general pattern, but with enough uniqueness to make them distinguishable.

Another aspect of this is the similarity of the individuals themselves. Uniform haircuts have long been used as a way to extend the "uniform" to the individual by reducing the amount of things that distinguish them from their comrades. This can be furthered if it's difficult to tell faces apart in the heat of battle (a common complaint for individuals new to series like Band of Brothers or Generation Kill, one which can be overcome by extended viewing and identifiable characterization). Other aspects of the individual, such as distinguishing facial marks, facial shape, and skin color, can be similar or diverse as the situation warrants. For example, the live action Street Fighter movie (I know, I'm sorry) attempted to depict a multi-national United Nations unit, and reinforced this by depicting soldiers of distinctly different nationalities. It's hard to see in that clip, but the soldiers also have patches on their jackets for their country - another diversifying element.

In fiction, "unmasked soldiers" are usually good or sympathetic, while "masked soldiers" are evil or unsympathetic. One of the clearest examples of this is the opening battle of Star Wars IV and the boarding of the rebel ship. The imperial soldiers are the famously faceless stormtroopers, while the rebel soldiers wear identical uniforms that happen to leave the face revealed. This is supplemented by close-ups on the rebels' faces as they wait for the Imperials to breach the door. While both sides suffer losses, the stormtroopers display no emotion, coldly stepping over fallen comrades and enemies, while the rebels display pain and suffering as they are hit and forced to retreat. This situation could just have easily have been reversed - rebels attacking, empire defending - and the dynamic would be the same: the rebels are sympathetic, because they have faces, and the empire is not because they don't.

A different scene from The Empire Strikes Back shows only officers, who are much more identifiable due to their differing facial features. Even the fear in the crewmen's faces as Vader walks by on the catwalk draws some sympathy for their position - the stormtroopers are specifically designed to prevent that from happening. However, the fact that they're wearing uniforms means that both the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are cast filler who lack the distinctive costumes of the main cast, though main characters will occasionally wear a uniform for utility purposes (Luke wears a pilot suit a few times, Han and Luke both use the cold-weather uniform when going out on patrol, and so on). The purpose of a uniform in this case is to create an immediate visual identification: "these guys are all pilots", "these guys are all soldiers", etc. Despite the fact that they're "humanized", the uniform also serves its previously stated role: they are individual humans who all happen to be soldiers for the same group.

Level 3: Minor Differences, Consistent Theme
A step past "identically garbed" on the customization meter is the concept of individuals who are for the most part similarly garbed. They may have a few changed elements - slightly different vests or headgear, perhaps - but they're still clearly from the same unit. This allows for some choice on the part of the individual based on preference, but still makes them identifiably connected to the larger group.

In real life, combat headgear is required to be the same, as helmets are worn for protective reasons rather than appearance reasons, but when not in combat soldiers generally have a few different choices of hats and headgear based on personal preference. Still, the general theme must be maintained with regards to camouflage and unit. A larger index of these types of uniforms (for military or non-military purposes) can be found here.

In game terms, the utility of such a setup is to reinforce the concept of a "team" while still allowing player choice. If a player feels that they have no choice whatsoever, they may not become "invested" in their character. By giving them some degree of control, the player allows themselves to be differentiated from other players while still clearly being on the same team. One game that offered a mechanic along these lines was Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, where a team in multiplayer would all be given the same camouflage pattern, but individual players could choose different headgear and would have different vests based on their class.

Level 4: Differentiation Of Classes
In many class-based shooters or other games featuring soldiers of different class types, there is an attempt to make a unifying visual theme while making each class distinctly identifiable. This requires more drastic measures than a difference of hats, but also requires a connecting visual scheme - both due to the fact that class and allegiance must be determined at a distance. The way games have handled it differ.
Valkyria Chronicles: While the base uniform was the same, there was a major difference in the amount of armor worn by a scout or sniper, the amount worn by a shocktrooper, and the amount worn by an anti-tank lancer. The uniforms and armor had the same color scheme, which made it very obvious that they were from the same army, but the distinct visual shape of the armor and weapons also made it clear which class they were.
Killzone: Worked primarily with colors; the ISA wore green and orange and had glowing blue instruments, while the Helghast wore black and grey and had glowing orange goggles. One of the (probably unintentional) aspects of the class system was that the most iconic units, the riflemen, were hardly seen at all on higher levels because they had no real advantage. Instead, games consisted of "specialists" running around, with hardly a "normal soldier" to be seen.
Assassin's Creed: While the Assassins themselves can be anything from Level 1 to Level 3, depending on their depiction, the guards are almost entirely Level 4. You've got your weedy little beret-wearing patrol guards, your armored captains, and your specialists ranging from super-heavy armored soldiers to scouts who can run and chase after you. An important measure here is that these individuals may be different, but the similar design both of their colors and their armor makes them identifiably on the same team.
Team Fortress 2 (and any other game consisting of "red team" and "blue team"): Makes the classes as different as possible, in silhouette, sound, and design. However, makes use of a color palette to make their affiliation obvious as well. Still, this is probably the weakest approach in terms of uniform psychology, due to the fact that the "uniform" is a color, and nothing else.

Level 5: Minimal Uniform Correlation
In some cases, games take the "retail job" approach: you can wear whatever you want, but you have to wear one piece of clothing that counts as a uniform. This is best represented by the Warcraft tabard. It's not really a uniform so much as a team t-shirt worn over vastly different sets of armor, and it's basically the bare minimum of "we're on the same team" possible. It serves no purpose in visual identification because everyone's going to be too different and colorful for it to be of any use; in short, its only role is for guild gatherings and events. While this isn't bad, it doesn't really convey a sense of unity or group loyalty. This might be for the best in a lot of real-life situations, but in a game it just emphasizes how unconnected people are. The only thing that identifies people's faction in WoW is their race, while their guild (a far more personal group) is noted only by a name above their head and a tabard. There's no real incentive or motivation to operate as a group when that's the only connecting factor - but apparently a lot of people care about tabards as a status symbol, so maybe I'm wrong about that.

Another approach would be the "colored armband" approach, as found in real-life wargames as well as Metal Gear Solid 3's online mode. However, depending on the situation, there's usually still a uniform being worn. In real wargames, the armbands are necessary because the two sides are usually wearing the same uniform. In MGS3, each side has a different uniform (KGB, GRU, or Ocelot), but also an armband based on whether they're the red or blue team that turn. Armbands are useful in a multiplayer sense, but are also primarily confined to the realm of practice-fights. There's nothing that quite undermines the idea of a camouflage uniform more than a big splotch of color on your upper arm. Still, it's a quick and easy way (in addition to the other parts of the uniform) to show allegiance in a natural way.

Level 6: Differentiation of Units
Within armies, the level of "uniformity" may change depending on the unit. In World War 2, for example, the German forces had different uniforms for different forces, including the infantry, tank crews, paratroopers, and Waffen SS. In addition, there were different uniforms for different circumstances, such as cold or hot climates. Even today, the United States Army and United States Marines use different camouflage patterns (ACUPAT and MARPAT, respectively). This differentiation creates a stark visual divide between two units even if they are from the same country. It is, identifiably, closer to an "allied unit" than "the same unit", comparable to a uniform of an allied nation.

This was more common in earlier eras, when units were more decentralized and the concept of a "national uniform" was less common (or practical). For example, the American Civil War is most commonly associated with the blue and the gray, but in the First Battle of Bull Run a Union unit wearing gray almost joined up with a confederate unit before realizing that they were on opposing sides. Not to mention the fez-wearing, red-trousered Zouaves.

In a game, even if two units are on the same side, the scale of the conflict generally means that giving them different uniforms is a bad idea for consolidating their visual identity. If it were a huge war with lots of units, then it might be acceptable; however, if it's a small scale battle then all that's going to happen is that soldiers will become confused about friend and foe. Company of Heroes generally tried to have one "general" model for each faction (riflemen for Americans, grenadiers for the Wehrmacht, standard infantry for the British, panzer-grenadiers for the Panzer Elite). Each side also had a few special units with distinctly different uniforms, such as MG crews, engineers, and special forces like Rangers or Stormtroopers. While this may have been necessary both for reasons of accuracy and reasons of visual identification, it did partially undermine the uniformity of the factions.

However, on a larger scale, different uniforms can also suggest the scale of a battle. In a game like Battlefield 1942 or Red Orchestra, different "maps" usually represent different "battles". Therefore, changing the uniform of all the classes involved for a given faction - for example, giving the entire American side variations on the paratrooper uniform - can suggest that a different unit is involved in this fighting. However, this can also be done with entirely different forces; it's just as plausible to have British troops fight that battle to achieve the same effect. In this way, a "different uniform" means a "different group", even if they're technically similar. In terms of visual identification and group loyalty, a different uniform might as well be from another country.

Edit: This has been moved down to Level 6 because it's an entirely different uniform. It's a uniform that may still suggest that two groups are on the "same side", but it's still "Side A and Side A's uniform" and "Side B and Side B's uniform", even if they're working together.

Level 7: No Uniforms But There's Like Colored Names Over People's Heads
Here is a fun fact about Metal Gear Online: every publicity screenshot for it uses guys wearing similar clothing on each team, even though this is never going to happen in-game because everybody wears what they want which means that the only way to tell if someone's a teammate or not is to put your cursor over them and see if their name shows up. Another important thing to note is that I hate Metal Gear Online.

1 comment:

  1. I'm very happy to see that there is an article about this. I just know psychology is for making resolution and solving our social life but it can apply to uniform too. psychology degrees


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