I have a friend who won’t play The Sims. She won’t even try it.

This is someone who likes whimsical videogames, who enjoys nonviolent, nontraditional games. So it seemed to me that even if this wasn’t her cup of tea, it would at least be worth trying. I asked her why she was so sure it wasn’t for her.

“It’s like this,” she said. “In Kindergarten, we used to play ‘house.’ Playing ‘house’ is fun, and you and your friends take on different roles and do different things. But inevitably, there would be that one person who took things to a level of detail that turned a fun game into drudgery. So you’d be playing ‘house,’ and you’d pretend to have ‘dinner.’ And then after dinner, if that person was playing, you’d have to wash every dish. And put everything back in the cabinets. And scrub the floor. And take out the trash. And so on. When I look at The Sims, it looks to me like it was made by that same person.”

This isn’t meant to trash The Sims (After all, I have already done that.) It illustrates the point that “realism” in games, like honesty in the face of the question “does this make me look fat?” can be an overrated virtue.

What most game players seek is not realism, but iconic verisimilitude. You want the game’s settings and mechanics to seem realistic, but you don’t usually want them to actually be realistic.

Examples abound. In Electronic Arts’ Formula One racing games, you can turn off all the driver aids and turn on realistic crashes. For most players, this has the effect of making their car impossible to control. The very first time they brush into another player or a barrier, pieces of their car fly off, and their race is over. That’s “realistic” – if you’ve ever seen an F1 car lose a wing because of contact with another car, you know this – but for the average player, it’s not a lot of fun. Compare this with Project Gotham Racing 2, a game that some players call realistic, in which the typical online race may have hundreds of high speed collisions with no injuries and no retirements.

It’s not fair to simply dismiss PGR2 as “not realistic.” Rather, the effort to create realism is concentrated in certain areas and downplayed in others. Immersion in a virtual world is enhanced by realistically modeled environments, noticeable differences in the handling of cars, etc. However, there are plenty of places where realism is blown off: damage is “realistically modeled” visually, but doesn’t make the cars harder to drive. There are no traffic lights. You don’t get parking tickets. You don’t have to send in monthly car payments.

Most people would distinguish Counterstrike from other first-person shooters by describing it as “more realistic.” It has lovingly modeled weapons. Weapons are lethal – getting shot has consequences. Dying means you are out of the mission. You can’t magically grab a first-aid pack and be healed. On the other hand: dying is fast - no sitting in a puddle of your own blood, gut-shot and moaning, à  la Reservoir Dogs, for 2 hours before finally expiring. There’s no real negative consequence to being almost dead – you can lose 99 points of “blood” and still aim just as well as when you started the round. None of the characters faint or vomit at the sight of blood. If the hostages you are rescuing get shot, there’s no corresponding civil suit. Apart from the hostages, there are never any innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. You never have to wonder if your character has adequate life insurance to take care of the wife and three children he left behind.

And that’s OK. Just like its kissing cousin “open-endedness”, “realism” is best used in small doses (by comparison, you’ll never hear someone say “There was a bit too much fun in this game, for my taste.“) In the real world, there are no second chances after death. In nearly every videogame ever made, the character’s death is quickly followed with another opportunity to try again. (There actually are some exceptions to this, but they are rare enough that we can name them: Wizardry 8, The Temple of Elemental Evil, and Angband each have an optional “ironman” mode where the death of a character is permanent. You are not allowed to revert to an earlier save; saves in that mode are for pausing only, not for backup. Steel Battalion for the Xbox will delete your savegame if you die while in a mission. To the best of my knowledge, that’s the full list of current games that try to punish you “permanently” for dying.)

If the elements that the author brings to a videogame are ludology (the game mechanics) and narrative (the story), what the players bring is curiosity and a willingness to suspend disbelief. In this way, game players are like movie audiences. Filmmakers have had decades to develop a vocabulary that is detailed enough to create immersion but not so finely-grained that it annihilates the suspension of disbelief with boredom (“Let’s make dinner,” someone says, and then with just one simple cut, everyone is sitting at a table, eating.) Game developers are still working on their vocabulary; the medium is still in its youth. And unlike in film, where formalism without narrative has been completely, utterly rejected by the viewing public (and has thus become solely the realm of experimental artists), formalist games without narrative are still among the most popular (Tetris, anyone?)


Atari Football

Twenty-five years ago, videogame football was three white blobs and three pink blobs doing “the running play” or “the passing play.” Today, nearly all the rules of the game are implemented, player movement is largely motion-captured, and even the trappings of the TV broadcasts are imitated. But despite all this realism, the game does not have the feel of real football. It is, to twist a phrase of Douglas Adams’, something that is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike football. The John Madden franchise isn’t actually a football simulator; it’s a simulator of being John Madden.

So go ahead, model the ballistics in your game, or the ragdoll physics of one player tackling another. Go ahead and motion capture and render the graphics at a higher resolution. Play the explosions in surround sound. But remember, the moment you forget that realism needs to be subjugated to the game’s fun factor, and not the master of it, you run the risk that half of your audience will go play Tetris or Bejeweled instead.

Say, does this shirt make me look fat?