I’ve just read a very articulate article on Thumbsticks about the obsession with “realistic” graphics in certain gaming circles – mostly FPS and male-dominated genres. There’s a link to that article at the bottom of this page.
I’m putting the word “realistic” in inverted commas because the whole point of that article is that no games can, in the realest sense, be realistic. They’re simply pixels playing tricks on our minds. More importantly, it asks, “Why do we strive to make games realistic when we play games to escape reality?” This question is more pertinent when the reality you’re being reminded of is one of war, suffering and death. Would it not be better to spend some quality time with Banjo Kazooie and the world famous plumbers, Super Mario Bros?
It’s this second issue that has piqued my interest.
Let’s get semantical – “life-like” rather than “realistic”
Notice that I’ve made up a hyphenated version of “lifelike” – which is a synonym for “realistic” – instead of using the word itself. By “life-like”, I mean something with the affectations or artificial qualities of real life (rather than something that tries to genuinely resemble or match real life).
In my mind, this distinction between convincing artificiality and flawed authenticity, explains why we play and enjoy games that remind us of the gruesomeness of the real world.
Real enough to be believable – phony enough to be meaningless
For many gamers, I think being emotionally invested in a game is necessary for enjoyment. The emotions may vary – nostalgia, rage, romance, frustration, happiness and so on – but at least one must be present, to a high degree, for you to remain engaged.
And I think that’s why we like realistic games – they tap into emotions we have in real life.
We hate war and terrorism, so we get amped when gunning down insurgents on Call of Duty. I love the rivalry in football, so when it’s my Arsenal against an opponent’s Spurs team on Fifa, things will probably get emotional. The game isn’t real but the emotions are – and the game creators want them to be. They want you hooked, so they create an environment that draws from the vast reservoirs of emotion you already possess.
This is also why realistic graphics tend to matter more in games like Call of Duty and others based on real life – we have a frame of reference. As a result, we’re always more likely to compare. When barrel-riding donkeys that have a habit of hoarding bananas start roaming the streets of London, I’ll bet you Donkey Kong will become a lot more life-like.
This distinction between “realistic” and “life-like” also explains why we enjoy playing these games.
Because of the inherent artificiality of games, we know they’re not real. Sure, I just launched a drone strike on a village of pixel people but I know (or would like to think) that I wouldn’t actually do it in real life. It’s only a game, right?
So, we’re sufficiently emotionally attached to enjoy playing the game but detached from reality enough not to care about events in it.
It’s the perfect recipe for satisfying a very unrealistic and narcissistic human desire – eating your cake and having it.