This screenshot from a classic episode of The Simpsons delivers a startlingly real depiction of the famous cartoon family. Bart, Lisa and Maggie suddenly have real hair and five fingers. Their eyes have pupils and irises. And the proportion of their faces is much more believable. Heck, they even have hair lines.
For a brief moment in time, the Simpsons children became as close to real, three-dimensional children as a cartoon show from the 90s would permit. But as it turns out, graphical realism in the world of media does not necessarily mean more appealing characters. Many of you are probably familiar with the groundbreaking study done by Masahiro Mori back in 1978, which determined that robots which are too life-like and realistic actually repelled human test subjects. You can read about this phenomenon, called “the uncanny valley,” here.
As video game graphics become more and more realistic, I’ve often wondered whether this study has merit for the world of gaming as well. Are players less likely to choose realistic-looking avatars over non-realistic ones? Many of the gaming world’s most popular franchises incorporate impressively realistic graphics, but there has also been a strong resurgence in recent years of two-dimensional, platform gaming which is decidedly less lifelike.
I’ll use an example from PC gaming to illustrate my point. In spite of a total graphics update with the new expansion, developers of World of Warcraft left the faces of the game’s avatars untouched. For those of you unfamiliar with WoW, the physical appearance of the game’s avatars is quite rudimentary, especially when compared with characters from say, The Sims 3. But the lack of realism is clearly not an issue for WoW’s programmers. They’ll probably never reveal why, but I can’t help but wonder whether Mr. Mori’s words have played a role in their decision.
Consumers will likely continue to demand impressive graphics from video game developers, but is there a point at which graphical realism in games becomes too life-like for comfort?