Anthropomorphism has always been a difficult thing to pull off. When animals, robots, and even inanimate objects are given human characteristics to make them seem more relatable, such characters risk falling into the uncanny valley – and terrifying humans. Ironically, one of the best examples of this in fiction is human, namely, the zombie.
As a quick definition, the uncanny valley describes something that looks like a human but is very obviously not true-to-life. Often, the smaller the difference, the more intense the reaction, hence why sci-fi androids and humanoid aliens can be frightening. So great was this problem in the recent movie Cats (2019) that it spawned scientific research on the subject of creating non-human characters.
One study, by Cantrell and Hawkes (2021), referred to an older blog post that insisted anthropomorphism is one of the best ways to represent humans in CGI entertainment. Why? Talking objects are much less likely to cause a negative reaction in viewers than a human that doesn’t quite look right.
Of course, in gaming, developers haven’t always had much choice over whether to depict humans realistically. The graphical engine on the original PlayStation, for example, simply wouldn’t allow it. However, in hindsight, anthropomorphic characters such as Crash Bandicoot or Spyro the Dragon never generated anywhere near as much of a reaction to their appearance as the like of Lara Croft or Solid Snake from Metal Gear Solid, who looked more like a pencil eraser than a super spy.
The Monkey King
As the ongoing saga of Sonic the Hedgehog proves, anthropomorphism still represents a large part of developers’ ideation. Franchises like Animal Crossing, Mario, Fallout, Tekken, and Untitled Goose Game have all put human traits where they don’t belong – in the latter case, creating a criminal. This reliance on familiar emotions and desires to build non-human characters makes sense as a way to encourage creativity, to the extent that it’s used even outside video gaming.
While less dependent on having a personality, anthropomorphic characters also appear in casino gaming. Casino Tops Online, a site that lists the most popular slots on the web, mentions Monkey Warrior, a game that’s based on Sun Wukong or the Monkey King from Chinese literature. The King is humanoid in many of his depictions, but he sometimes has distinctly simian features, such as a hairy face and sharp teeth. In the case of the Monkey Warrior slot, he also has large ears.
The Human Face
Despite all the above, there’s some evidence that anthropomorphism seems to be falling out of fashion – except in long-established franchises. In 2021, many of the top games featured humans in realistic settings. These include Deathloop, Halo Infinite, Hitman 3, Resident Evil Village, and Returnal. One reason for this newfound fondness for the human face is hardware power, which now permits almost photorealistic people with much less of the lifelessness that haunted games released in the 90s and 00s.
Anthropomorphism is definitely here to stay, but giving a personality to a bear or a toaster is no longer the best way to create something convincingly human, oddly enough.