The Uncanny Valley


It’s been a while. I do apologize, but conference season has me rushing to complete a multitude of papers. I hope to start back on my regular posting schedule shortly. Now then, on to the valley.

I want to talk about the Uncanny Valley. First let’s address what these two terms – “uncanny” and “valley” mean. The “uncanny” is something that causes a strange sense of familiarity, but that it’s foreign at the same time. The emotions evoked in an individual by what is uncanny are a mixture of two distinctly different emotions: discomfort, and familiarity – thus creating a sense of “uncomfortable familiarity”. A valley is a segment of land located between mountains.

So where does the term “uncanny valley” come from? What does it mean? What are some examples of it? The uncanny valley is a theoretical construct originally proposed by a Japanese roboticist, Mashiro Mori, that explains how, in robotics, as technology progresses products will become more lifelike. The more human traits that these robotic products have, the more humans will get to “like” them. Consider the three robots below.

That first robotic arm looks interesting. It can change your flat tire. It’s useful. That second robot is such an adorable thing that you can’t keep your eyes away from it. But that ninja robot looks too cool. That is a toy that you would unquestionably buy your kid. So far we haven’t gotten to the uncanny valley – we have simply climbed up the side of the hill to find that the next step we take will find us in freefall towards a creepy sense of uncomfortable familiarity. Consider the following robot.

This cybernetic human catwalk Japanese robot is an example of something created that has fallen into the uncanny valley. We can readily recognize the human anatomy and features, but at the same time the cold, empty eyes and the unnatural way in which her features move (as evidenced by the discomforting feeling one might get when looking at the not-quite human mouth), and her cold, metallic non-skin remind us that she is not a person, but a robot. “She” is “it”. Crawling out of the uncanny valley is a difficult task, as when we get to this point we are no longer dealing purely with robotics as much as we are dealing with human emulation.

In a nutshell, the uncanny valley theory states that if you present something that is clearly non-human (think a trash compactor), the public will respond with mild indifference. If you take that nonhuman object and give it human features, the human features will make that object more endearing, cute, appealing, or cool-looking (think Wall-E). However, if you add human characteristics beyond a certain point, the only things that one will focus on are the non-human qualities, which gives the sense of discomfort (think the robot in the picture above). Once technology allows designers to push past this stage and a fully working near-human-like robot is created, we find it once again acceptable / charming / cool (think Terminator).

This concept, although originally meant as a theoretical framework for robotics design, can also be applied to videogames and other digital media. Take videogame characters as an example. One of the earliest videogame characters – and one of the most well-known – is Pac Man (Arcade, 1980). This round circle with a mouth is known worldwide for its simplicity, but not for its appeal. What makes players go back to Pac Man are simple game mechanics, not character appeal. Mario (NES, 1983), on the other hand, is a character whose main marketing point is appeal. He is clearly non-human, but we never hesitate to identify with Mario. His short, round anatomy and his oversized, cartoony mustache make him appear as a cute little parody of a human. As technology advanced in videogames designers were able to make more detailed characters. Take Sonic the Hedgehog for example – he is clearly non-human, but his human characteristics make him a cool, lovable character. Technology pushes further and we get Cloud from Final Fantasy 7 (1998). Cloud is clearly “human”, but because of the graphical limitations he still looks like a cartoon-like parody of a human. His big, spiky hair and disproportionate limbs do nothing to make us feel uncomfortable; on the contrary – these obvious defects make us think of Cloud as a lovable character. Now think of any random sports game made after 2008. The attempt at photorealistic graphics are certainly impressive, but the most minor flaw in the character’s acting, movement, behavior, or voice will throw us off. These not-quite-human-almost-photorealistic characters make us feel torn between feelings of amazement and familiarity (the “dude, that looks awesome” moments) and feelings of discomfort and unfamiliarity (the “dude wtf” moments).

So, how can we avoid the uncanny valley in videogames? On one side of the valley we have what Daniel Floyd, Pixar graphic designer, calls “stylization” (and yes, I know all of Daniel’s lectures by heart). When we perfect stylization we are able to create “parodies” of reality that imitate the real world up to a certain extent but that allow for enough non-human qualities for the viewer to focus on how amazing the human elements are, rather than how creepy the non-human elements are. Think of the latest versions of the Super Mario games, Mario Galaxies, or of titles like Valkyria Chronicles, for excellent examples of stylization. Although there are no examples of what a completely realistic simulation game would look like (except maybe if you take a second to step outside and look around), there are some games that are pushing the boundaries of photorealism. Take a look at these videos below to see what excellent stylization and climbing out of the uncanny valley into the realm of photorealism looks like:

Valkyria Chronicles – a war simulation title with stylization graphics that uses an event very loosely based on the invasion of Poland during the Second World War as a catalyst for its narrative.

NBA 2k6 – A perfect example of the long drop towards the uncanny valley.

Heavy Rain – The bottom of the valley. A detective thriller that marks the start of what will prove to be a long climb out of the uncanny valley. Despite the visuals here being more advanced than NBA 2k6, this is likely the most uncomfortable you will get when watching a game character because of its realism and lack thereof.

L.A. Noir – A detective thriller set in the 1940s. Certainly a step in the right direction out of the uncanny valley.

So there you have it. Based on what you have seen and read so far you will likely have come to a conclusion about whether we should focus on stylization of characters or on photorealism. I’ll end this post by mimicking Daniel’s words: “there is no correct answer”.

Informal References:

Daniel Floyd – Videogames and the Uncanny Valley

Informal Further Reading:

Freud, Sigmung. The Uncanny.
Mashiro, Mori. The Uncanny Valley (Bukimi no Tani)
Ernst Jentch . The Psychology of the Uncanny Valley.

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About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on February 25, 2011, in Video Game Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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