“[Zombies] seem to encapsulate a perfect storm of repulsion. First off, they have horrible, glazed dead eyes. And eyes appear to be the crucial thing we look out for when assessing how human something is… “
Narrator Cam Robinson gives a good, general overview of uncanny valley theory and raises several other psychological issues related to horror gaming (like desensitization and, essentially “theory of mind”). Not only is the overview good, the very existence of the video itself reveals just how popularized “uncanny valley” theory really has become in gaming culture.
But what struck me most was the discussion of dehumanization in zombie shooters. At one point Robinson discusses that zombies represent “the outgroup,” drawing from an article called “Mind and Morality” by Steven Morella, from the Neurologica blog…an article which claims that “we have a hard-wired ability to dehumanize people — to reduce our emotional assignment of mind and therefore morality to individuals or groups.” In making this claim, Morella references an essay by Tarrant, Dazeley and Cottom on “Social Categorization and Empathy for Outgroup Members” which outlines an empathy-study which essentially drew the conclusion that people will have more empathy for someone in distress who belongs to an “ingroup” — and reduced empathy for those in the social “outgroup.” The point, then, is that zombies in a video game are the “same as us,” but different in that they belong to an “outgroup.”
It stands to reason, I think, that the phenomenon of the uncanny in this case is a psychological signal that recognizes there is no difference. That the borders between “in and out”-group (like “self and Other”) are not so distinct after all. Rather than using uncanny valley theory to justify shooting enemies or zombies, perhaps the uncanny is revelatory that the fight is a defense mechanism (that would protect the rationalizing ego or ingroup). Literally, a defense mechanism, when we’re talking about games. Moreover, my reading of Tarrant, et. al, reveals a telling facet to this experiment that Morella’s thesis seems to neglect: part of the authors’ experiment revealed circumstances in which the ingroup can develop social norming of morality for outgroup members, leading to “the expression of more positive attitudes towards the outgroup.”
Something I’d like to see videogames — even zombie shooters — more often try to explore. (The BioShock series seems to be doing this a bit, in my opinion).
Zombies have saturated our popular fiction, film, games, toys and advertisement culture. There are zombie children’s books and zombie musical comedies and zombie candies. You can see them all over the toy section of Wal-Mart…and there even is a new “Walking Dead” edition of a car (the “Apocalypse-Ready 2014 Hyundai Tuscon”). We are saturated with the image and icon of the zombie. They are already part of the ingroup — they are already normed — as a somewhat contradictory ideologeme — icons of the threat of massive, unthinking conformity — which are themselves now massively popular and domesticated.
In zombie games the affect is not the uncanny so much as a fantasy of resurrection: the aggressive desire to make the now-dead icon feel like a living threat again.
As a side note, I should mention that my interest in horror in video games is widening. I’m now curating a collection of curious horror gaming artifacts on tumblr, called Playful Dead.