Being Realistic (About Video-Games)

It is common to hear, when listening to a conversation about video-games (or simulation-type games generally, for that matter) an appeal to “realism”. That is, that aspects of the game which are “realistic”, are considered good, and aspects which are somehow not realistic are detrimental to the overall experience. Now, it might be obvious in, for example, a shooter, that such a simple dichotomy is false. Why? Because while it may be unrealistic for an enemy with a high number of hit-points to survive being shot repeatedly in the head, it is equally unrealistic for the player to be shot and yet experience no hampered movement, no impaired aim, no shaking, no pain, and in fact, no significant reduction in combat ability whatsoever, especially considering that in most current shooter games the player’s health regenerates after a short period of time, as if they had never been shot in the first place. Furthermore, usually, only one of these two ‘unrealistic’ game aspects is complained about, and it isn’t the one that’s advantageous to the player. So given that the binary is so simple to oppose, why does it persist, not just in video-games, but in plenty of other situations as well?

Let’s take the video-game to start with then. I think that it is safe to assume that a very small number of the people (if any) who play a shooter like Call of Duty, or a stealth game like Metal Gear Solid, or a slasher like Dynasty Warriors, or a fighter like Street Fighter, or a simulator like Farmville, have ever: fought in a war, undertaken a CIA espionage mission, had a live-blade swordfight to the death, been in an all-comers no-holds barred fighting tournament, or owned and managed farm. Given the above, I believe that it simply makes no sense for anyone to make any claim about this or that in a videogame being “realistic” or otherwise, having had no real-life experience to compare it to. It is therefore the case that when a player talks about the game being “realistic”, they are actually talking about the game being close to an ideal of what the situation would be like in their imagination, or in simpler terms, the game just doing what they want it to do. To be “realistic” in this case, is just to get closer to fulfilling the wishes of the player, not approaching ‘real experience’ at all.

But then, that’s the point of a video-game in the first place in a lot of ways. It is a medium which enacts the fantasy of the player in the first place. Unlike a book or film, which it shares a lot with in terms of narrative and presentation, the video-game requires a slightly different kind of active participation than the other two. In a lot of cases, the player simply plays herself, which is arguably not the usual form of a book or film. Even in the cases where the player takes the role of a set character, the player must still motivate that character to act at all, and thus their identities become entwined through gameplay. In this way, the game itself is player wish-fulfilment. It allows the player to do (even if only vicariously) what he or she perhaps never could otherwise. The game provides the player with the simulatory tools to fight a war, to devastate armies with a swish of the sword, to cast magic, and go on adventures, and earn millions on your farm or zoo or rollercoaster park. The appeal to realism becomes then, how well the game can allow the player to feel that they have accomplished such tasks as if he had performed them with his body and bare hands. This is why when the game produces a situation which seems unfair, such as temporary invulnerablility in opponents, crops failing based on a random number generator, and enemies which are simply programmed to do things that the player can’t (like fly or something) then it is called “unrealistic”. Such moments interrupt the suggestion that the player could be performing these actions in the flesh, 1) by reminding the player that this is, in fact, a game based on code and algorithm, and 2) disrupting the player’s fantasy by illustrating that they cannot simply do what that fantasy would envisage, in other words, by being difficult. It’s like watching a film or reading a book filled with heroes and heroines you want to emulate, who turn around and constantly remind you that you, in fact, cannot at all emulate them because the work itself is fiction. And wouldn’t that be an annoying book to read.

The allure of video-games therefore, is that the player is invited to emulate the champions of the story, or even be that champion herself. The more advanced video-games have become, the more they have progressed towards becoming “more realistic” in order to enhance this simulation. Examples include, but are not limited to, vast improvement in graphics, sharper and ‘more intuitive’ use of controllers, moving away from the screen and controller at all and producing more physical interfaces such as the Wii remote, and the Oculus Rift immersion helmet, and while it is currently impossible to attain the same precision, or simulate the same volume of information in a virtual world as in its physical equivalent, closing this simulation gap, is what I believe the video-game as a medium will pursue in the future. The narrower the simulation gap, the closer the player will be to having ‘real experience’ of doing what the game currently allows vicarious or simulated experience of. At the point when the simulation gap reaches zero, it may be such that video-games become like being Neo in The Matrix and to perform an action becomes as simple as mastering the code and believing in the potential of your own mind. The video-game at that stage will be simultaneously at its most “realistic” and yet also at its most fantastically absurd. Simultaneously embodying a world and a player which are absolutely faithful to their physical counterparts, yet allowing them to behaving in ways which were impossible before. This is the video-game as an engine of fantasy. Its “realism” is all about supporting the impossible and reflecting it as ‘realistic’. Rather than respecting the limits of reality, it allows the player to surpass them and live in the realm of the imaginary.

So much for video-games being “realistic” then.

This has just been a quick ramble, because I wanted to say something about this idea aside from the mostly dull “there’s no point comparing because a videogame can’t approach the volume of information necessary to simulate the everyday sensory world”. Of course, it’s also interesting when you think about how “realistic” other simulations are such as how combat is simulated in martial arts training, and sports matches are simulated in coaching exercises. How rehearsals simulate performance and an exam might simulate a situation which demands random information recall (tenuous? Maybe.). I might talk about such examples another time.

Sorry for leaving the blog blank for a while. Composing that tiny poem took more creative juice than I was prepared for.

Thanks for reading~

Gabriel.

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