Lesbian Uncanny Valley of video gaming or LUV for short
Buzz words of the moment are the “uncanny valley”. You may have seen this spoken about with regards to various robotics issues, or perhaps with regards to video game design and photo realism. What is the “uncanny valley”? Well it’s a hypothesis put forth in the 70′s by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori. He suggested the more lifelike a robot, the more uncomfortable with it we become, unless it is completely indistinguishable from us, which would make us more comfortable with it once more. In simple terminology whereas we might find say Number Six in Battlestar Galactica comfortable (ie humanoid robot indistinguishable from humans – assuming you put aside the whole genocide thing), we probably all find something like a Repliee model uncomfortable. See image:
In gaming though this affects our psyche when playing, dependent on the playing field. If we are playing a photo-realistic title, like say GR:AW or one of the Call of Duty titles we get annoyed when we see an arm go through a wall, bump into a tree branch as though it were a wall, or spot a ghoulish looking facial map. This will throw you out of the experience on a psychological level – our brains are smart like that. If on the other hand you are playing Ratchet and Clank, with bipedal characters with human like qualities that are clearly not photo-realistic, you won’t be as annoyed on a psychological level if the same thing occurs… the brain is a funny squishy thing.
Now, with all of this in mind, what does that mean for us gay ladies, well you might argue “nothing” and you’d be right, but you might also argue “a whole lot” and again you’d still be right – it’s sort of a contradiction, but one that’s right.
With regards to gaming, we probably all feel more lesbians in games would be a good thing, mainly because it gives us an in game persona we can more completely identify with. It’s why female gamers (for the most part) complain about the lack of female playable characters. This isn’t a new phenomenon, psychologically we all like to see positive representations of ourselves onscreen. There’s a whole quagmire there and one we won’t get into right now, other than to say, seeing yourself or a representative of what you feel you are “out there” is a good thing (when a positive representation). It sort of tickles our ego and lets us know we’re not alone and adds to some nice gooey positive reinforcement.
Lesbians in an uncanny valley…
Firstly let’s look at the lesbian uncanny valley from the lesbian perspective and the straight perspective, because they’re both totally different things….
Okay so we’re making a joke, but it’s just to sort of highlight the overall more serious issue of the lesbian uncanny valley in gaming and outwith it. It’s not enough to have fake lesbians in anything, gaming included. If they come across to the viewer / player as something less than real, we dip down into the uncanny valley and it makes us feel uncomfortable. This also bleeds into the issue of the straight male creator of lesbian content. If a straight man is creating a lesbian, it won’t be the same as if a lesbian creates it and thus would probably (but not always*) fall into the uncanny valley.
Sometimes trying too hard to appeal to the masses of a minority community can also lead you into uncanny valley areas even when said lesbians have a lesbian creator. The L Word is a good example of this as lesbians cried afoul about creator Illene Chaiken for making the ‘glamorous lesbian’ to seemingly appeal to the male gaze. The L Word for many viewers also fell into the “no other choice = fan” category, wherein it was the only show with lesbians in it, so we all tuned in. The same would probably happen in gaming if a game was released with a cool lesbian main character even if she dipped her toe into the valley of the uncanny.
Speaking of which….
*Mass Effect allowed the player to choose between John and Jane Shepherd. Jane could look a variety of ways and races though a lot of lesbians liked Jane because she dinged a ten on the gaydar and Mass Effect was mostly designed by… men. Whether this was accidental on their part, who knows. What wasn’t accidental was the ability for Ms Shepherd to canoodle with a female alien (okay mono-gendered! Whatever). Commander Shepherd is one of the few female characters to ding the gaydar and come in at both the low point of the uncanny valley bell curve and the high point (low because of the paused speaking!).
Screenshots of games throw the uncanny valley graph into disarray, because it is misleading. As we sort of touched upon, photo realism needs to be done fairly flawlessly to not fall into the uncanny valley chasm. This can easily be done with a screenshot because there is no movement, add in movement however and things can swiftly nosedive (ie Ms Shepherd and her stunted speech – we still love her though).
Think of the times you’ve been playing a beautiful photo realistic title and your character has done something uncanny… perhaps its clunked into a wall, unable to leap a 1 foot high wall, slid along the ground instead of walking, looked ghoulish (we’re looking at you GTA!) or something else unbelievable. It removes you from the reality and adds mental discomfort or annoyance. The same thing might be a little annoying in non photo realistic worlds, but it will be less so based purely on your perception of the realism at hand.
This same rule applies to gays in games. If a gay character in a game does something uncanny and you as the player are gay, it will throw you out of that moment. Take the newly released “Fable II” as an example. In “Fable II” there are lesbians, it is clearly stated in their profile. A female player character can flirt, marry and bed the lesbian characters, a great addition to the game, but when your lesbian wife calls you “handsome” as opposed to beautiful during sex, or says “Ooh you’re so strong” you topple into the valley. Now granted some lesbian ladies might be both, but it just seems as though the character is talking to a male character which tumbles you into uncanny territory.
Avoiding the Big Gay Uncanny Valley (Big Guv for short)…
There are ways to avoid the Big Gay Uncanny Valley and we’ll bullet point them for all of those game developers that are sure to be reading this article….
1. Don’t go for photo realism if you can’t pull it off, butch dykes won’t feel the femme dyke look is self representative, femme dykes won’t be enthralled at the butch dyke look. All the other many labels lesbians pin on each other won’t be happy either.. well.. because for photo realism to work the character has to move flawlessly and we’re yet to see a flawless game.. though there is hope.. “Heavy Rain” looks good and the character dings the gaydar.
Of course there’s always the FPS view route, so we don’t see the lesbian hero, but we know she’s lesbian because of her interactions.. a sort of.. Queer Freeman shall we say. There’s also the ‘create a character’, which is generally about as representative as play dough is to bread, but at least you get to mess around with what you might look like in bad light on a planet with around 0.8 the gravity of Earth.
2. Hire a lesbian and get her to look at what you’re developing. Sure we all have different tastes, but you wouldn’t ask Liberace what motorbike you should buy would you… well no.. because he’s dead.. but if he wasn’t and you were buying a motorbike.. would you? Piano maybe.. motorbike not so much.
3.Don’t confuse “gay” with “sex” (like MS do when it comes to the Xbox Live rules). You don’t have to sex up something because it’s gay, it can just be a well rounded character with sex being PART of that character and not the whole.
4. Look at characters lesbians think are cool and use bits and pieces. Think Frankendyke… a little bit of Dana Scully, some Bette Porter, a sprinkle of Buffy Summers, some Xena and bam… make sure you put a marker in she’s a lady lover and you’re away.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the gay uncanny valley of video gaming! What are your thoughts on the valley?