Thaw me out when robot wives are cheap and effective
January 25, 2010
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.
So far, Dragon Age would seem to be navigating the valley without incident. Violence has never really presented much of a problem for animated characters (whether of the Loony Tunes or Doom varieties), and as anyone who has seen a Pixar film can attest, computer-generated graphics are no bar to characters making us laugh or cry. However, in a move that has been widely panned, Dragon Age makes the mistake of letting players go beyond befriending and romancing, and boldly allows them to get busy with other characters. Although the cutscenes that ensue when choosing this option are fairly chaste, courtesy of some beige underpants and Enya-esque background music, they are an animation train-wreck.
Given that these cutscenes are extremely limited and blessedly optional, they don’t end up making Dragon Age any less fun to play, nor the overall story less engaging. Indeed, Dragon Age is Yesterday’s Salad’s official best game of 2009. Yet, if Dragon Age had the level of damn-near-realistic graphics that James Cameron’s Avatar did (and the characters weren’t blue and fondling each others’ hair extensions), one can’t help wonder: would these scenes have worked?
I think that the answer to this question is yes — these cutscenes could have been appropriate (that isn’t to say that they would have been necessary). However, while this may show the limits of the uncanny valley metaphor, it doesn’t mean you can make a worthwhile porn video game. The key element is that the parts of the game in question are cutscenes: points at which the player is not in control of the action onscreen. Essentially, they are bits of movie between the interactive parts, which really constitute the “game” itself. As sex has worked reasonably well in movies since the heyday of Hedy Lamar, this doesn’t do much to improve the prospects of a sex video game.
The real issue at play is interactivity. The primary reason that video games are fun is that it they allow us to do things that we can’t do in real life. Although I’m not a big fan of sports video games, I’ve had some fun playing them, as they allow me to play football (at least virtually) in front of a giant crowd with some of the world’s best players. If a football video game came out that allowed me to play with a super-realistic recreation of the Yesterday’s Salad writers in a perfectly rendered parking lot, I’d rather throw around an actual football. If it allowed me to play against other YS writers without being in the same city, however, that would be letting be do something I can’t do, and although it wouldn’t be as fun as real football, it would be much more fun than no football.
This also helps to explain the appeal of video game violence. Face it, at some point in your life, you’ve entertained an aggressive, or at least, action-packed fantasy. Whether it’s sideswiping the Chevy that cut you off in traffic, jumping out of a helicopter, or just blowing something up, it was probably something that seemed pretty good in theory, but had the unfortunate consequence of hurting you or someone else. Video games allow a catharsis for these desires. Thanks to the magic of computer animation, you can live out those fantasies, without any of the consequences.
Along the lines of the hypothetical football game mentioned earlier, a video game that allows you to have virtual sex of the sort you could be having in real life would not be terribly appealing. Yet, adding distance between two real-life partners changes the equation. Even though video game sex in this case would be a poor facsimile of the real thing, it would be better than nothing. Of course, the only reason that this hasn’t spawned a series of successful video games is that people don’t need new games to do it — they’ve been using the games and programs they already use to have virtual sex since the internet started, from the 1980’s text-based multi-user dungeons to video-chatting and World of Warcraft.
So why not make a video game that allows you to have all kinds of crazy sex that you can’t have in real life? Just as you’ll probably never jump out of an airplane whilst firing two M-16s into a horde of space aliens, you probably won’t find yourself king or queen of a tropical island full of chipper Keira Knightley clones (or Johnny Depp clones), either. Furthermore, video game sex could allow you to escape consequences just as easily as video game violence does, so no worries about syphilis, or for that matter, (real) broken interpersonal relationships!
At the risk of over psychologizing the matter, the reason why this works for virtual violence and not for virtual sex is that violence is generally one-way, while sex has been and remains a two-way street. For instance, a person aiming a rocket launcher at a frozen-banana-stand in real life and a person aiming at a virtual one both pull a trigger. Although something slight is lost in the translation, maybe the video game player doesn’t feel the heft or kickback of the rocket launcher, the essential element remains: pull trigger, blow’d up banana-stand. The giddy thrill of it all is there. A person playing a sex video game presses a button. This manipulates the action onscreen somehow. But the action onscreen never manipulates the player.
And that, friends, is why there has never been a successful porn video game.