Attention, Internet: I have a new article on the psychology of the uncanny valley up on gamesindustry.biz. You know what the uncanny valley is, right? It’s that theory originally from the field of robotics that says if you stick a couple arms and googly eyes on a trash can it looks cute, but if you don’t get facial animations or movement right on an otherwise realistic looking android it looks creepy as hell.
This has implications for the design of characters in video games, and the uncanny valley is sometimes cited as the reason why opting for more stylized character designs is a better choice –especially if you don’t have the budget and expertise to do tons of motion capturing and super high resolution textures. In the last few years some psychologists have done research on the underlying causes of the uncanny valley, and in my article I look at some of them and see what implications they have to say about character design in games.
I gave our friend Bobo the Quote Monkey a map of the uncanny valley and sent him off for a quote from the article. He came back looking a little freaked out and clutching this:
It shouldn’t be surprising that faces are one of the most important things determining whether or not a video game character will live in the uncanny valley.
One study by Karl MacDorman, Robert Green, Chin-Chang Ho, and Clinton Koch published in the journal of Computers in Human Behavior suggests this is true and provides some specific guidelines for those character creation tools we love to see in RPGs. In one of their studies, the researchers took a realistic 3D image of a human face based on an actual person. They then created eighteen versions of that face by adjusting texture photorealism (ranging from “photorealistic” to “line drawing”) and level of detail (think number of polygons). Study participants were then shown the 18 faces and asked to adjust sliders for eye separation and face height until the face looked “the best.”
The result? For more realistic faces with photorealistic textures and more polygons, participants pursued the “best” face by tweaking the eye separation and face height until they were pretty darn close to the actual, real face the images were based on. But for less realistic faces with lower polygons and less detailed textures, the ranges of acceptable eye separations and face heights were much larger. In a follow-up experiment the researchers did the same thing, except they asked the participants to adjust the sliders to produce “the most eerie” face instead of the best one. Again, when faces were more realistic looking, it didn’t take much tweaking to make them look creepy, but when the faces were more stylized and less detailed, a wider amount of facial distortion was acceptable before things looked eerie.
Read the whole article here. If you like it, please comment or share it on your social media outlet of choice.