Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Rethinking Dinosaurs

Robert Rath | 24 Jan 2013 12:00
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Dinosaurs fascinate us because they're real-life monsters. Massive reptiles with long horns and rows of hooked teeth, they resemble creatures of myth. The fact that they were real is difficult for us to conceive. It's unlikely you've heard them described as such, but dinosaurs were animals. While it's true they were enormous, and in many cases ferocious, they engaged in natural animal behaviors just like modern day lions and elephants. Media likes to portray dinosaurs as movie monsters like Godzilla or the Predator. They're shown smashing up buildings and pursuing humans across great distances like Mesozoic revenge-seekers. According to movies and games, they're hunter-killers that long for human meat, completely defined by eating - which is neither fair nor wholly accurate. While there's nothing wrong with portraying the vaunted thunder lizards as fierce predators, by emphasizing their brutality and playing up their frightening aspects for the sake of horror, we close ourselves off to many of the lessons dinosaurs can teach us about the natural world.

Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., a senior lecturer at the University of Maryland's Department of Geology and an expert on tyrannosaurids, points out that this skewed portrait isn't new: "A lot of 19th and early 20th Century images of dinosaurs are just fighting and feeding. Part of it is because of people perceiving dinosaurs as 'dragons who were real.' They see the 'monstrous' anatomy, and assume they are monsters." Their unfair reputation, he says, is comparable to sharks - an animal the public perceives as nothing more than a killing machine.

According to Carl Mehling, the Fossil Collections Manager at the American Museum of Natural History, the misunderstanding stems from projection. Mehling sees our vision of dinosaurs not only as tied to our images of dragons, but as symbols of human nature. "We clothe them in our fears, angers, joys ... our expectations, and thus they represent not only our current mode of thinking, but ourselves. Sad as it may be to me, most people aren't as interested in the day to day of animals. But they (we?) find the war, killing, power, etc. incredibly magnetic."

Both Dr. Holtz and Mr. Mehling have a point - from Ray Harryhausen stop-motion to the CGI wonders of Jurassic Park, our images of dinosaurs aren't defined by how they lived, but how they killed. This is especially true in games. Dinosaurs are visually striking and come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, making them easy for designers to adapt into enemies. As a result, in games like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and its successors we fight off swarms of raptors. Lara Croft pirouettes around an enraged T. rex. In the ludicrous but fun dinos-vs.-soldiers multiplayer of Primal Carnage , several species of dinosaurs work together as a unit to attack teams of humans. While real raptors were sophisticated pack hunters, videogame raptors run straight at the player like a Soviet human wave attack. Carnivorous dinosaurs are always stalking or savaging something, we rarely see them living their lives, raising offspring, scavenging, struggling for territory or mating. In the rare instance that we do see a herbivore, they're usually there for set dressing. Meat-eaters are the stars of the game industry.

Our visual image of dinosaurs is out of date as well, mired in the early 1990s. For that you can thank a single film: Jurassic Park. Spielberg's adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel was notable both for its attention to scientific detail - the attention paid to dinosaurs as bird ancestors for example - as well as its propensity to invent details out of whole cloth. Believing that the roughly peacock-sized Velociraptor was too small to be frightening, Spielberg beefed them up to six feet tall and redesigned their snout, forelimbs, and tail to be more like the Deinonychus, which still only stood just above waist height (the man-sized Utahraptor was discovered and described during filming). In contrast, Spielberg and Crichton shrunk the Dilophosaurus from 20 feet long to down to 5 feet, then added a neck frill and the ability to spit poison, neither of which have any basis in the fossil record. While none of these sins are particularly egregious by Hollywood standards, Jurassic Park's vision of dinosaurs became so iconic that it still defines the look and behavior of the animals in our popular imagination. (Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan did much the same for war films, as we've discussed previously.)

Most videogame depictions of Dilophosaurus still retain the erroneous neck frill and smaller size - see the Jurassic Park games and Jurassic: The Hunted - and others like Primal Carnage still retain the ability to spit venom. The raptor is even more problematic. While many games such as 2008's Turok have finally come to call the public's familiar vision of a raptor a Utahraptor or Deinonychus rather than a Velociraptor, there's still a mental block against showing them covered with feathers - a discovery that scientists confirmed in 1995. "Feathered animals have never been as successfully scary as scaly animals, at least in western cultures," explains Mehling. "Feathering them not only lessens their dragon status but links them to living animals we rarely find terrifying." He does point out, however, that Jurassic Park III incorporated crests on the heads of male raptors as a nod to the discovery - a look that Turok copied in 2008. It's inaccurate, says Mehling, but may be good business. "If the public thinks dinosaurs are the way they've been shown and they appear to love this, why would a videogame company do anything to change that? It would cost them money to find out how dinosaurs really were, and very likely disappoint their target audience."

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