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Reflecting Reality: I Want to Believe

Realism, much like gameplay, is such a loaded word in gamerdom. It’s the scapegoat of fans for many not-so-great decisions in game design, and yet it’s also the watchword of the gaming industry at large when faced with the question of which aspects in gaming should be further developed. Real, like the many words that convey the same meaning, is good by default. Authentic. Honest. Actual. True-to-life. It’s like being there!

The draw is an attractive one, to be sure. Real means relatable, with wider mass appeal and a bigger potential market. More importantly, realism brings with it the promise -- whether explicit or implied -- that we may be able to apply our knowledge and skills from outside of the game to do better within its clearly defined boundaries.

ArmA II is a big part of our community. Our guidelines and influences alone make it evident that the big appeal of ArmA is the true-to-life soldier fantasy that it lets players live out: gamers using authentic equipment and applying authentic strategies and tactics taken from sources that are also used by real militaries. Hey, it’s escapist entertainment, and we walk away with the bonus that we did learn something new for our trouble.

What’s so bad about that?

It’s still not realistic, for one thing.

Many gamers, especially people like us who come From the Internet, like to look with disdain at the so-called Hollywood portrayal of just about anything technical. Big red self-destruct countdown timers on monitors drive us into fits of rage, as do commandos who can fire machine guns from the hip while standing on a pile of rocks, and computer “hackers” who can do graphic enhancements on blurry photographs without so much as touching a mouse.

We like detail. We like authenticity. We like it when characters from our shows and games can differentiate a clip from a mag, or -- and this is still up for grabs -- when they can comment on the anachronism of a font designed in 1950 showing up in a Victorian setting. Geek stuff, right? Gamers live for that sort of thing.

Well, Hollywood and the mainstream gaming industry have just developed yet another way of tricking us into believing that the convenient and over-the-top situations they keep feeding us are in any way real. People are smart, and contrary to what some might think, the guys creating all this entertainment for us are most likely From the Internet too. They know what we want, and they know exactly the kind of experience that we would call realistic: take a rote scene from the archive, and slather on lots of jargon, lots of technical equipment, a little reference to real-world events, and just a dash of inconvenience on our part to remind us that life isn’t all fun and games.

Realism in gaming is a lie. No game is realistic, and neither should they try to be. Even training aids limit their scope to the skills they are meant to develop. Nothing out there is meant to deliver the entire experience of whatever we want to pretend to be in a single convenient package. It just can’t be done -- not without going out there and actually living that life.

Perhaps, then, we’re just looking at this the wrong way. We approach new and unfamiliar situations in games with certain expectations in mind, and if somehow the delivery falls short, we then have the self-awarded license to bitch and moan about how a game isn’t as “realistic” as it could have been.

Perhaps, then, it doesn’t have to be as real as possible. Perhaps a game should just be crafted smartly enough to make us believe that it could be real. The difference there is that a good development team can make the most absurd and ridiculous situation totally believable. It just takes intelligence, creativity, and a whole lot of open-mindedness.

Many, many years ago, when Computer Gaming World still existed, I read a column that dealt with the whole realism issue as well, and the writer (whose name escapes me at the moment!) held the same beliefs that I do now. He had a good word for what games should strive for in lieu of realism: verisimilitude. Believability. That’s all that a good experience needs. In fact, it’s the kind of thing that games and the people who make them should never, ever forget about.

Games have a huge advantage over the confines of the real world: each game has its own set of rules -- its own laws of physics and matter and energy. Every new game we try is a whole new set of rules to learn to live by. We learned early on that mushrooms slide across the ground while stars bounce off it. Walking on steak dinners and hams can instantly replenish our health. Orange portal entrances lead to blue portal exits, and vice versa. Driving a battlemech into a lake helps prevent overheating. And you may not be able to shoot that Sectoid cowering behind that fence, but you can surely vaporize that fence with a well-placed plasma burst.

We believed all of this, because they made sense in relation to the universes they took place in. In our minds, for as long as these games lasted, they were real. They have the verisimilitude to make them real where it counts. I may not be a game designer, but I am a designer and I know that good design utilizes all of its base elements to form an internal logic that communicates with the receiver. Surely the process of designing games works along similar lines.

The medium has so much more to offer than just interactive versions of our favorite “realistic” daydreams taken straight from our Internet-fueled expectations. Let’s stop accepting the ridiculous on the grounds that it’s supposed to be realistic. Instead, let’s embrace the serious and the ridiculous and everything in between -- but only if they can make us believe.

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