Clive Thompson’s latest column on gaming for Wired News discusses a topic that I find persistently interesting, the uncanny valley, which he defines as well as anyone:
This paradoxical effect has a name: the “Uncanny Valley.” The concept comes from the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who argued that simulacra of humans seem lively and convincing so long as they’re relatively low-resolution. Think of history’s best comic strips: With only a few quick sketches on a page, Bill Watterson can create vivid emotions for the characters in Calvin and Hobbes. When an avatar is cartoonish, our brains fill in the gaps in the presentation to help them seem real.
I think that Blizzard, the creators of World of Warcraft, understand this effect very well. They took a lot of flack for the cartoonish avatars (like these or this guy), but doing so enabled them to avoid the uncanny valley effect almost completely. Compare those screen shots to this one EverQuest II, which was released at about the same time. The EverQuest II avatar is downright creepy — she looks sort of like a virtual Joan Rivers. I think that more and more game companies are going to choose to create characters that are lifelike rather than realistic. That approach has certainly served Pixar well.