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Is that Yucky Feeling Really Uncanny?

Question. Have you ever gazed into the emotionally-ravaged visage of your brave, world-saving videogame hero or ogled the rose-red lips and polygon hips of some sexy NPC and thought, with scene-breaking inappropriateness, how gross and weird that character looks?

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Question. Have you ever gazed into the emotionally-ravaged visage of your brave, world-saving video game hero or ogled the rose-red lips and polygon hips of some sexy NPC and thought, with scene-breaking inappropriateness, how gross and weird that character looks? 

Gross and weird because, as the brick-jawed countenance of the war-torn beefcake gazes forlornly upon the crumpled, dead body of their BFF, the hero’s left eye holds no soul and their top lip spasmodically leers back in a bewilderingly rictus display?

Then welcome to the uncanny. Or maybe not.

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Reports of human-looking video game characters evoking the uncanny phenomena have run rife over the last eight or so years; worming their way into reviews, comment sections, academia and the industry itself. And, as with any good meme, we absorb and repeat.

But do these assumptions regarding the uncanny and the video game character hold any real validity? After all, the uncanny valley hypothesis originated within the field of robotics, was proposed by a roboticist and made in reference to robots. Can such a hypothesis be transferred wholesale to the video game medium (replete with all the medium’s unique attributes) without modification? Is it really the uncanny we are feeling?

In his 1970 paper, The Uncanny Valley, Mori posits that a robot with a human-like appearance could arouse a sense of either positive familiarity or negative unfamiliarity through its behaviours and actions. By extension, should a robot be sufficiently realistic to be perceived as a real human, any oddities displayed or enacted may evoke extreme negative unfamiliarity and uncanny feelings.

And it is the requirement for the robot to be considered a real human that makes the application of the uncanny valley hypothesis to the video game character so questionable. When do we ever really, truly consider video game characters to be real and behave as real humans? After all, the press of the ‘on’ switch, the insertion of a disc, the holding of a pad, all these things inform us that we are entering a fictional reality, replete with unreal, fictional characters. Even if these things were not to be part of the process, as long as the player knows that they are about to embark upon an artificial gaming experience, the knowledge of it being something other than real is embedded.

Surely, then, the possibility of the uncanny arising within this context is questionable, as we will not subject the video game character to our established expectations of human behaviour, but instead modulate our expectations in accordance with the fiction. To this extent, if one’s idealised, virtual realisation of a blue-skinned alien suddenly rotates their head 90 degrees and protrudes a tongue from the back of their head whilst whispering loving nothings, the uncanny would not be elicited. Not one jolt.

But something is still going wrong. There is no denying those moments when a character’s visual appearance performing some bizarre tick or otherworldly folding of space and time disconnects you from (and lessens the impact of) a powerful bout of exposition so painstakingly carving out your character’s paper-thin, emotional arch. So, if we are not feeling the uncanny, then what are we feeling?

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The answer may lie in how many reported instances of uncanniness tend to be described by the victim. Whilst the uncanny is generally considered to be a response of fear or disgust, those citing instances within the video game medium often use the descriptive of ‘strange’; a cognitive response borne of logical assessment and in opposition to the uncanny phenomena, which is emotionally-driven and birthed in the quagmire of instinctive survival.

So, maybe we are not feeling, but we are thinking. Whether such a differentiation means anything is debatable, and maybe this entire discussion is just a case of hair-splitting semantics. After all, responding negatively to a character’s actions is a bad state of affairs irrespective of the reasoning behind the response. You still get knocked out of the experience, you still have your suspension of disbelief broken, you still find your muscle-bound saviour of the world harder to connect to.

But it irks, it does, like an irritating itch on the skin, that people are so willing to apply theories and hypothesis originating in entirely different spheres of excellence without respecting and valuing those attributes of the video game that help to differentiate it from other forms of media and art. Almost a mark of disrespect, if you will.

Still, uncanny or not, it will remain a struggle to empathise with the world-weary sadness of my thick-necked hero (burdened with the soul of a bluebird trapped in a machismo prison) whilst his dead, dead eyes continue to roll back into his virtual skull and his bear-like hands clip thoughtlessly through his heaving, herculean torso. I will try, though, because, as we all know, video games have some of the most nuanced and resplendent character portrayals out there. And every bizarre visual oddity can be endured for the sake of art.

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Raised by badgers and feral until the age of 30, Nick is now an avid collector of pencil shavings and bird nests. He is also a Dr. of Videogames, has worked as an independent games designer and drags 25 years of game playing behind him.

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