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Seeing Science: Why Do Video Game Characters Look Better Now?



Key concepts
Computers
Pictures
Resolution
Technology
Data

Introduction
Have you ever wondered why video games today look better than the ones from the 1980s? Today we have video games with relatively realistic figures, a lot of color and a lot of details—but these were not features of games from three decades ago. One major change between then and now is the number of pixels, or dots on the screen, used to represent video game objects. In this science activity you will put your artistic talent to use and investigate how increasing the number of pixels might make a video game character look better.

Background
Pixels are the smallest unit of data in a digital picture. If you were able to magnify your TV screen or computer monitor many times, you'd see that the entire screen is arranged with thousands of small dots or squares, like a piece of graph paper. Each dot or square is a pixel. To make a picture, each pixel is filled in with a single color and many pixels are placed next to one another to form an image.

The first home video game consoles, like the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), couldn't store or display much data, so not that many pixels could be shown on the screen at a time. Because of this, the video game characters and other video game art used far fewer pixels. But today's video game consoles can store much more data, so the characters are higher resolution. When Nintendo first introduced the Super Mario Bros. game for its NES in 1985, Mario was only 16 by 12 pixels in size. Decades later the Mario character in Super Paper Mario Wii is composed of more than 17 times as many pixels. (He's 67 by 50 pixels!)

Materials

•    Computer with Internet access and a printer
•    Two different pages of custom graph paper (You can print it from a free graph paper Web site, such as Incompetech.com, or you can draw your own graph paper using a ruler, pen or pencil and two sheets of paper.)
•    Pen or pencil
•    Ruler
•    Colored pencils, crayons or markers
 

Preparation

•    If you use Incompetech.com's free graph paper Web site, make and print a sheet of graph paper with "grid spacing" of five lines per inch. Then make and print a second piece of graph paper that is 1.25 lines per inch.
•    Using a ruler and a pen or pencil, draw a box on the first piece of graph paper (the one with more squares) that is 32 by 32 squares. Each square will represent a single pixel, so there will be a total of 1024 pixels within the box.
•    Similarly, draw a box on the second piece of graph paper that is eight by eight squares. There will be a total of 64 pixels within this box, which should be about the same size as the box on the other sheet of paper.
•    If you want to draw your own graph paper (instead of printing it), on one sheet of paper make a grid with lines that are about a quarter inch apart. Make the grid be 33 by 33 lines this way. On a second sheet of paper, make a grid with lines that are about three quarters of an inch apart. Make this grid be nine by nine lines.
 

Procedure

•    With colored pencils, crayons or markers draw a character inside the 32 by 32–pixel box you made. The character can be any character you want. You can draw something from your own imagination or try to copy an existing character. Add as much detail as possible to your character, but each pixel can only contain a single color (and must be completely colored in). The character does not have to take up all 1024 pixels (you can leave some blank), but it should reach just about to each side of the big box you have drawn. How does your character look when you finish?
•    Using the colored pencils or other drawing tools, draw your character again, but this time in the eight by eight–pixel box on the other sheet of graph paper. Draw the same character as you did before, trying to keep as many of the details the same between the two drawings. But again, only one color can be used per square, and each square must be entirely filled in. How does the character look on this sheet of paper? How was it to draw the character in this version?
•    Compare the high-resolution (32 by 32–pixel) drawing of the character with the low-resolution (eight by eight–pixel) drawing of the same character. Which drawing has more detail? Which drawing looks more realistic?
•    Extra: You can repeat this activity a few more times, but draw other characters, monsters or objects. Are your results always the same?
•    Extra: Try this activity again in the finer grid, but this time add additional drawings of the character at resolutions of 64 by 64 pixels and 128 by 128 pixels (but keep the overall drawing size the same). How does adding even more pixels affect the level of detail in your picture?
•    Extra: Compare the minimum number of pixels it takes to make different shapes. Some shapes you can try are triangles, diamonds, stars, circles and hexagons. Are certain shapes easier than others to make using just a few pixels?
 

Observations and results
Did the character in the higher-resolution box (32 by 32 pixels) have more detail and overall look more realistic than the character in the lower-resolution box (eight by eight pixels)?

Resolution refers to how many pixels wide and high an image is. Generally, the higher resolution an image is (the more pixels it contains) the more detail we can see and the more realistic it looks to us. The character you drew in the 32 by 32–pixel box has more pixels (1024) compared with the character in the eight by eight–pixel box (which contained 64), but they should both take up about the same amount of space (because the pixels in the 32 by 32 box were much smaller than the ones in the eight by eight box). Specifically, when trying to draw the same character in the eight by eight–pixel box you may have found it was difficult to maintain many of the details from when you drew it in the 32 by 32–pixel box, and you had to make tough decisions about which details to include and how to show them without completely distorting the image.

More to explore
The Evolution of Mario, from NFG Games
Pixel Art Tutorial, from Derek Yu
Fun, Science Activities for You and Your Family, from Science Buddies
The Pixel Puzzle: Why Video Game Characters Look Better Today, from Science Buddies

This activity brought to you in partnership with Science Buddies

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