Much is made of the requirements for games to have “realism”. Realistic backdrops, realistic graphics and sound, with realistic weapons causing deadly realistic reactions in our realistic enemies, but do we really want true realism in games? What’s the point?
Take for example the hugely popular Modern Warfare 2. Many gamers would agree that it was a very realistic shooter. Excellent graphics, modern, accurately rendered weapons and absorbing gameplay, all of which lead to the argument that it is very realistic. But is it? I would argue no.
In the case of the single player game, despite the accurate physics and the detailed aesthetics, regardless of how much I enjoyed the game, not once during my experience of it did I feel in danger. I was not in fear of my life and was willing to take enormous risks regularly to progress the game. That is not realistic. The “Army Of One” concept can only go so far. What are the odds of engaging literally hundreds of armed, well trained enemies and coming out unscathed whilst their corpses lie in piles tens high? It simply isn’t feasible.
If one were to make an entirely realistic war game then players would spend months training in seemingly benign scenarios over and over until they react almost instinctively to expected stimulus and follow orders and procedure unquestioningly. They would then be given an idea of where in the world they would be fighting and then spend several more weeks training for that particular environment. There would be frustrating period of acclimatization in an area of the world similar to the conflict zone and then, finally their boots would hit the ground. Once there, players would have an entirely different outlook on the gaming experience, investigating and absorbing everything in the sure knowledge that one explosion, on roadside bomb, one stray bullet would end the game. There would be no re-spawning, no restarting from last checkpoint.
In multiplayer there would be no mindless running and slashing with combat knives so prevalent in the current online experience. Players pre-disposed to this sort of activity would find their game/lives cut very short. More thought would be had to the use of cover and unnecessary risks wouldn’t be taken. That would be more realistic.
Notably, games that have tried to be more realistic, like the realistic limb controls in Jurassic Park: Trespasser for PC, were not so well received. Trespasser aimed to use very realistic physics and make players control arms and wrists individually with very realistic control of movement, but it was difficult. This made firing your weapon effectively harder and often lead to death by Raptor. The game was considered a failure selling just 50,000 copies and receiving poor reviews, this despite the game’s aim to make the experience more realistic.
So perhaps when we talk of realism in games we are referring to the graphics and the sound and the physics engines, but not necessarily the social realism. If we were to act in games as we do in reality then titles such as GTA wouldn’t have such a large appeal. How many of us would actually steal a car, run down pedestrians or leap from skyscrapers after peppering a street full of innocents with a helicopter’s mini-gun? Surely there can’t be that many sociopath gamers. It is the inconsequential nature of games that allows us to act without moral reprisal that would normally be attached to such behaviour.
The mentality of gamers plays a large part in what makes games so popular and successful in the first place. Recently Sid Meiers, creator of Civilization, gave a keynote speech at the 2010 GDC covering the psychology of game design. When games are being made the developers must consider the way gamers think. Why do they play the games in the first place and why they would stop playing? As Meiers said at the conference, “I never received a letter that said ‘Hey Sid, great game but I win too much.’” What he says is true; gamers wouldn’t play a game that they thought was too hard, or which they constantly fail to progress. When you consider that the majority of games place players in situations and roles in which they would never find themselves in reality, then it calls into question whether gamers actually want games to be realistic. They want games they can beat, regardless of the odds and often feel hard done by or cheated if they lose to AI.
There is suspense of disbelief at work here. For an ordinary gamer to expect to be able to take down a special forces squad single-handed isn’t realistic, so surely realism isn’t actually what players want. That’s not to say that we don’t want to be challenged though; a game too easy to beat would be boring, or at the very least have a short shelf life.
So I would suggest that what gamers want is fantastic, not realistic. Fantastic graphics and sound with realistic physics that allows players to engage the fantasy of the game coupled with intuitive control systems. Actions without consequence in the real world are what draw people to games. You may not be a good footballer, but when playing a football game you can compete against and beat some of the greatest athletes in the world. Now that’s fantastic and that’s what video games provide: an escape from day-to-day reality and the ability to pit yourself against unthinkable odds and, more often than not, win.