The second season of 30 Rock (a perennial favorite of the Yesterday’s Salad staff) ends with Tracy Morgan’s character creating the ultimate distraction: a seamless meld of video games and pornography.  The creation of the game is depicted in a pitch-perfect homage to the film Amadeus, with Tracy working frenetically into the night, as his co-worker, Frank, looks on in despair a la the jealous Salieri.  When Frank attempts to dissuade Tracy, he explains that it is impossible to create a porn video game because of a phenomenon known as the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is a metaphor for how people’s affinity toward computer-generated characters follows a parabolic curve (much like a valley).  A computer-generated character that looks nothing like a person, such as an animated car, will not make a viewer feel much of anything.  Much as we might be fond of our cars, an animated car is just an object.  However, if the computer generated car had great big eyes and a smile, we would have much less trouble relating to it.  The more the character looks like a real person, the more alive it seems.  Yet, there is a point at which the limitations of the animation start to appear, representing the bottom of the uncanny valley.  After this point, as the animators try to make the character look more human, the character becomes progressively more unreal, and we feel much less sympathy (and perhaps, more than a little creeped out).

What this means for a hypothetical sex video game is that any attempt to make the game’s characters realistic enough to be arousing will instead make them incongruous enough to be repulsive.  Unless your audience has a fetish for cartoon characters (a small audience in the U.S.), or has a fetish for being repulsed (which may violate the principle of entailment in this situation), this is not great a recipe for commercial viability. Within the context of 30 Rock, this explanation is meant humorously, but it is essentially the prevailing theory for why there aren’t more video games about (or even featuring) sex, while there are plenty of games featuring violence, whether cartoonish or quasi-realistic.

A good example of this theory in practice is found in the game Dragon Age: Origins.  Dragon Age is an epic fantasy in the vein of the Lord of the Rings, and tasks the player with defending their kingdom against a horde of demon-like creatures.  As anyone familiar with the general setting might expect, there is a fair amount of fighting (against both demon and human alike), and it is decently violent.  With fast pacing and fairly realistic graphics, the combat is both dramatic and fun.  To the game’s credit, there is a very rich backstory and well-developed characters, and the larger part of the game is spent talking and politicking amongst them.  Thanks to quite a bit of cleverly-written dialogue (leavened with some innuendo), this part of the game is even more fun than the combat, and is often moving.

Read the rest of this entry »