Killing What You Can't See

Eric Lis

It’s one of the most ridiculed moments in movie history: as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are getting crushed in a Death Star trash compactor, Imperial stormtroopers burst into the control room where the heroes’ droids are hiding. The stormtroopers are menacing, professional, frightening, right up until the moment one of them smacks his head on the door on the way into the room. Some 40 years later, in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, our first view of the “future” stormtroopers shows that nobody has learned from experience and the stormtroopers continue to wear helmets that restrict their field of vision to an astonishing degree, as indeed does the apparent lead villain, Kylo Ren. Balancing, as we must, the eternally conflicting pulls of practicality and coolness, it begs the question: why do evil overlords continue putting their troops in vision-obscuring armour, even though they ought to know better? It turns out that there are some practical reasons why covering your soldiers’ faces might work to your benefit, if you’re an evil mastermind, although whether those advantages make up for the fact that they won’t be able to shoot your enemies is a matter of opinion.

One of the biggest challenges as evil overlord faces is undoubtedly getting your soldiers to kill people. The fact is, the average person, in most circumstances, is not an efficient murderer. People tend to shy away from killing each other, and even hurting each other unnecessarily. Sure, the average person might steal your wallet if it’s left lying around, but most people won’t kill you for it, or even beat you up. Even among the roughly ten percent of the population which is made up of genuinely unempathic jerks, only small a minority – nobody knows exactly what percent – would truly hurt you without a second thought. If you’re an evil mastermind, you have to either find minions who have no aversion to violence – the Sauron approach, you might say – or else you have to find ways to help ordinary people get over their scruples, which is not only what we might call the “Palpatine solution” but is, historically, what almost every conqueror and dictator has had to do. Hitler taught us that you can do it with marketing, and Stalin taught us that you can do it with desperation, but what Palpatine knew, and what psychologists have slowly but repeatedly demonstrated over the last few decades, is that one of the cheapest and most reliable ways to do it is to have your soldier wear a mask.

Anything that makes people feel like they’re not identifiable increases the likelihood that they’ll be willing to perform monstrous acts. Phillip Zimbardo, one of the most famous and influential psychologists to ever live, conducted several experiments involving giving people long coats and face-covering hoods, and under such circumstances, the ordinary people he brought into his laboratory were more likely to give electric shocks to both likeable and unlikeable victims. Subsequent researchers have shown the same effects with masks and sunglasses.

This doesn’t happen only in the laboratory. In the 70’s, anthropologists studied 24 cultures with strong warrior traditions, and clearly showed that societies that applied face and body paint were more likely to torture and kill their enemies, although it’s hard to demonstrate whether covering themselves in paint makes them more violent or whether violent people like covering themselves in paint. In modern times, law enforcement data suggests that masked assailants are more likely to inflict grievous injury than unmasked assailants, but again, it’s hard to speak to causality there. The most modern research has been preoccupied with why people become internet bullies and trolls, and it seems to be that the anonymity and safety of knowing that your victim is on the other side of the world and can’t see you makes people feel that they can get away with being more vicious. If you sit someone down at a computer, but put them in a position to make eye contact with other human beings while they type, their online viciousness drops sharply.

The same effect can be seen every day on the road; nice, empathic people can become total jerks as soon as they’re in their cars. Part of this seems to be due to the fact that a car is one huge mask, giving anonymity. Drivers of convertibles are more likely to honk their horns and drive aggressively when their tops are up than when they’re down, and drivers behind opaque windows drive more aggressively than when they’re behind transparent windows.

Masks and lenses aren’t the only way to make someone violent, obviously. If people are part of a large group, for example, and the group is being violent, then normally peaceful people can become just one part of the mob. In the 80’s, there was work suggesting that being part of a mob changes, not only your sense of self, but also your sense of time and the brain’s capacity to contemplate future consequences. You can increase someone’s sense of being part of a group, not just by packing them into larger and more agitated crowds, but by putting them into a uniform, which serves to further anonymize them. The uniform colour makes a difference, too; a number of studies of athletes have shown that athletes in several sports play more viciously (not necessarily better, just more violently) when wearing black jerseys.

Not all of this applies to stormtroopers, naturally. Most obviously, stormtroopers have traditionally worn white, not black, although their evil masterminds and overlords seem to have a preference for darker colours. The most important part that does apply is the power of masks, which goes a long way to explaining why they still wear vision-obscuring helmets despite a long and seemingly proud tradition of being some of the worst shots in the galaxy far, far away. It’s logic that holds just as true in our games. Although it’s a rare player who will challenge a storyteller to explain how an overlord was able to persuade all these henchmen to serve, masks and uniforms (or some other form of anonymity) probably play a part of it. 

More than four years ago, Dr. Eris Lis, M.D., began writing a series of brilliant and informative posts on RPGs through the eyes of a medical professional, and this is the one that appeared here on April 18, 2015. Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC OGL sourcebook Insults & Injuries, which is also available for the Pathfinder RPG system