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How video games could be flattening the uncanny valley

The uncanny valley may be eroding, a process aided in part by video games.

A recent BBC article explores the term, which is credited to Dr. Masahiro Mori and refers to robots, animatronics and animations that aim to be lifelike but fall short.

A 2007 study called "Exploring the Uncanny Valley with Japanese Video Game Characters" asked participants to rate "75 different virtual characters from both inside and outside video games to investigate the relationship between human-like appearance and attraction." Characters included Mickey Mouse and Lara Croft. Among the lowest rated characters: a character from World of Warcraft, who seemed to possess an unsettling amount of humanity.

"The lowest average attractive scores were given to human like creatures, with the lowest individual attraction score reserved for an ogre from World of Warcraft, a character with a human-like appearance," the study reads (PDF link). "Around the Ogre were other characters of general human appearance but low attractive scores, such as a character from Shark Tale and Howdy Doody. The characters that received scores positioning them in the dip in correlation are very much the type of characters that Mori describes in his original article. Each possesses a clearly human appearance but each also had features that strongly say not human."

As the author notes, the increasing prevalence of lifelike simulations in movies like Avatar and video games like The Last of Us hint at a "shift in expectations has been going on all along — and might well continue until technology is good enough to fool us" until the fields of robotics and animatronics can reliably fool human observers.

"You can imagine cases, for example, maybe 50 years down the road, someone might be in a relationship with an android and not know it," said Indiana University's Karl MacDorman. "But if there were an accident and some of the mechanical underpinnings are exposed, that would be uncanny. It would be uncanny in a different way."

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