Whether we’re talking Boom Tubes or retcons, there’s plenty of jargon in our geekcentric little world. The PoP! Stars are here to ensure you’re not left scratching your head, saying “It’s All Geek to Me.”
“The Uncanny Valley” (n) – a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation which holds that people’s empathy with and tolerance of a human replica dwindles the more the replica starts to resemble actual human beings.
In the second season of the beloved NBC sitcom 30 Rock, the character of Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) gets an idea to combine the two greatest loves of his life by creating a pornographic video game, featuring the most lifelike characters ever seen. When his coworker Frank (Judah Friedlander) hears about Tracy’s plans, he tries to convince him to abandon the project, stating that he’ll never overcome what’s known as “The Uncanny Valley,” which basically states that the more lifelike a computer-generated character becomes, the more likely it will creep people out. This was the first time I had ever heard the name of this concept, but ever since that episode first aired, I’ve seen this concept come up numerous times in articles and conversations revolving around the creation of video games and computer-animated features.
The term “Uncanny Valley” was first coined back in the 1970s by robotics professor Masahiro Mori to explain the revulsion and lack of empathy most people tend to have toward robots that are made up to look, move, and behave like human beings. The cause of this reaction may have something to do with our own paranoia of one day being replaced by machines, as shown in the Terminator film series. This may be the reason why so many humanoid-looking robotic characters in films such as Westworld and Alien are mostly seen as villainous and not to be trusted, while robots who are less human in appearance but have humanistic characteristics such as Star Wars‘ C-3PO and R2-D2 are considered more friendly and trustworthy.
In this modern age of computer-generated effects, the term has been used to gauge audience reactions to CGI in movies, television shows, and video games. Recent computer-animated films such as Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express have been criticized for their style of animation that veered dangerously close to the “Uncanny Valley” to the point that many viewers found them off-putting. Many other computer-animated films that feature human characters such as Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and Steven Spielberg’s upcoming The Adventures of Tintin have steered clear of this problem by giving their human characters more cartoonish features, therefore emphasizing their “otherness.”
The only field of entertainment that seems to have effectively conquered “The Uncanny Valley” on a consistent basis is the video game industry. Much like Tracy Jordan did for his fictional porn game in 30 Rock, recent video game titles such as Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire have effectively figured out how to bring realistic human characters to life without making them overly creepy or revolting to the player. Perhaps this is because video games are interactive, making it easier for the player to empathize with the characters because they are basically playing as or alongside these characters. Regardless of the reason, human characters in video games are getting more and more lifelike each year, which does not seem to affect the players’ enjoyment in a negative way.
While the debate still rages on whether video games should be considered a legitimate art form, one thing that sets it apart from other visually-based forms of entertainment is that it has for the most part conquered the “Uncanny Valley.” It remains to be seen whether the film industry will ever catch up and give us convincing animated human replicas that don’t skeeve us out. With CGI technology constantly evolving and improving, there’s a good chance that we may see that gap close in the years to come.