Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

The Uncanniness of Video Games

In Sigmund Freud’s essay, The Uncanny, he proposes a working definition as an insurmountable fear, a situation that defies coincidence and reality, and draws on our repressed animalistic paranoias. Freud suggests that the uncanny “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror; it is equally certain, too, that the word is not always used in a clearly definable sense, so that it tends to coincide with whatever excites dread” (Freud 1). The uncanny is something that is inherently so familiar, yet simultaneously unfamiliar that, more often than not, we create the fear ourselves. But when we stare at the high-definition graphics on our television or computer screens, is dread what we are feeling- as Freud so defines - or something of the contrary? It appears that what we experience is an uncanny feeling of awe and excitement rather than a feeling of helplessness, and in the case of video games, the uncanny of video game graphics almost always tends to coincide with simply what excites. Video games are developed to create uncanny experiences, to generate as close to the real world as possible in the virtual space, and to beg players to question how far the experience can progress until the virtual space transcends our reality.

There are limitations to video games that still need to be molded and perfected to truly capture an uncanny experience. Play any triple-A contemporary game and no matter how impressively life-like the experience, the character model's eyes appear lifeless and inert. And such is the case with Spacey's eyes in Advanced Warfare, despite the remarkably close resemblance.The age-old saying "the eyes are the window to the soul" applies here. Although gamers receive the uncanny sense of wonderment from the powerful voice acting, body movements and facial expression, they can't truly see into the life of a character unless the eyes do the talking for them. It's truly an indicator of what is real and what is not.

Freud contributes this idea from his many examples of the Sand-Man, an entity that enters our bedrooms at night to throw sand in our faces. As children being told this story, we are already conditioned to fear the potential loss of our eyesight. It’s no coincidence that we associate life with the eyes in artwork when the fear of vision loss is instilled in us at such a young age. Freud argues, “A study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that a morbid anxiety connected with the eyes and with going blind is often enough a substitute for the dread of castration” (Freud 7). Despite the fact that some may fear the stories more than others, the sheer idea of losing the ability to envision the rest of our lives is a thought ingrained in the subconscious of our minds, an idea that remains dormant just waiting to be brought to the surface when we judge the graphical artwork on our television screens. 

And this is achieved through motion capture technology. In video game development, actors are strapped into a suit with a headset designed to capture facial movement and translate the information onto a computer screen. Technology of this caliber wasn’t possible in the Nintendo-64/Playstation era as the hardware simply wasn’t powerful enough to process the data. As a result, characters looked blocky and squarish and background textures appeared smudged and grainy. Transport a mere decade later into the transitional Playstation 3 to PS4 generation of video games and motion capture has changed the scope of video games entirely. Motion capture allows for the tiniest specific movements to be digitized, to capture the feeling of interacting and watching real people live out fantastical scenarios. Facial expressions, blemishes, creases in the forehead are all recreated in the gaming experience to create, as close as possible, an uncanny experience between the player and the art. Graphical cinematic experiences transcend the realm of the real to evoke awe and wonderment as to how it is even possible for our video games to ever advance this far, and to question exactly where the industry is headed in the future.

At this current technological stage in developing graphics, we have digitally stripped motion-capture actors of their eyes. Whether we intended to or not, the Kevin Spacey of our virtual world simply cannot be the same version as Hollywood Kevin Spacey. Or, rather, we have castrated Kevin Spacey of his vision in the digital space. By no fault of our own, merely the lack of technological resources, developers have become the very entities that we so feared since childhood. The developers are the Sand-Men of the virtual world, recreating human beings as avatars, weaving geometrical shapes together in digital engines to spit out as close of a representation of our real selves as possible. Developers, the Dr. Frankensteins of gaming have castrated the life out of character models, but the question is whether that will last forever. 

And it most certainly won’t. It is important to keep in mind that the origins of gaming can be traced back to the 1970’s. That’s only a 40 year life-span. Think back to the early days of Hollywood cinema and the phases of silent films, to the talkies, to color films, to HD, and 3D and so forth. Video games are a growing medium, one that is still on the cusp of technological innovation that won’t be retired any time soon. 

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