The real Mickey Mouse

If you were to discover that the person inside the Mickey Mouse costume at Disney World was actually a robot, would that make a difference to you? Would you feel less comfortable with such a non-human “actor” posing for a photo with your child?

I imagine many people would start out by saying “Yes, of course it would make a difference!” When we think we are faced with a real human being, but then find we are dealing with a simulacrum, we tend to feel betrayed, at the very least.

Yet there is a subtlety here. That real live human inside the Mickey Suit is also a simulacrum. He or she has simply been hired to play a gig.

The actor in question does not necessary feel any actual emotional bond with your child. It’s all really a business transaction: A suit is worn, photos are taken, and at the end of the week an actor is paid.

So in this sense, might it not be more honest to have a robot portray Mickey? That would spare everybody involved the oddness of a situation whereby a total stranger goes through the pretense of caring about your child, only for the sake of a paycheck.

I realize this sounds cynical, but I’m not trying to be cynical. I’m genuinely trying to understand a difficult question about human nature:

Do we still prefer interaction with real humans rather than fake humans, even when that interaction is based on deception? And if so, why?

3 Responses to “The real Mickey Mouse”

  1. Adrian says:

    I once knew a couple Disneyland character actors. One told me that, after a shift, they would be surprised that their facial muscles were sore because they’d been smiling the entire time. The job doesn’t demand smiling, of course, because the costume head completely hides the actor’s face. They’re smiling because, despite the drudgery of wearing a hot, heavy costume and getting jostled and kicked by zillions of screaming kids (and adults), the experience of playing such a beloved character is truly joyful.

    So, yeah, it’s not really Mickey or Tigger, but that doesn’t mean the emotional interaction isn’t real. From that point of view, the question in my mind is whether you need an emotional being inside the suit. Would a kid respond to an animatronic Mickey simply because it’s Mickey? Or does the kid’s energy affect a live performer (and vice versa) in a way that creates a unique emotional experience?

    I think it’s a matter of degree. Meeting an animatronic Mickey could be cool simply because the character is loved. But the degree of emotional engagement in the experience would probably be limited by the automaton’s ability to react as a human actor would. It’s more a Turing test than a question of being deceived. If the automaton is authentic enough that the guest can’t distinguish it from an actor in a suit, then I don’t think the deception is relevant.

  2. admin says:

    Ah, thanks for that story and analysis. Yes, I can see how the “intersubjectivity” of the child recognizing the human actor’s response to the child would create a quality that we might never reproduce via AI — and arguably never should!

  3. J. Peterson says:

    It’s funny you use Disneyland characters as an example, since Disney has actually perfected using robots to entertain people (e.g., Pirates of the Caribbean).

    This also reminds me of my favorite NYC snapshots (late at night, Times Square):

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