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To paraphrase a Mr. W. Wonka, video games can be a world of pure imagination. 

We can fight fantastical monsters amongst painterly landscapes and perform feats of aerobatic brilliance within an abstract milieu plucked straight from the mind of a madman. Or, if you’d rather, we could probably just plod through another ‘realistic’ representation of some dull, brown town and wave our guns at yet another batch of life-threatening foreigners.

You see, despite the video game medium’s potential to present virtual worlds with creative flair, a significant number of players’ still want nothing more than straight-up, graphical realism in their games. Indeed, such is the importance placed on graphical realism that any new supposedly ‘realistic’ game which does not meet expectations may be instantly regarded as a failure. Games like Battlefield, CoD and Crysis are lauded or derided based upon how realistic their smoke particles are; how naturally their lighting falls onto surfaces; how their grass sways in the breeze; or how brick-like their brick textures are. Equally, those games brave enough to adopt an alternative graphical aesthetic are often belittled and viewed as lazy, ugly or just plain wrong.

To an extent, the demand for realism may be culturally determined, specifically from male-gender expectations of masculinity. It seems as though many gamers are influenced by the need to protect a certain macho image and, consequently, there is favour for games with supposedly grown-up realism. Meanwhile, the aesthetic of cartoons is generally associated with a juvenile form of entertainment, and an affront to masculine sensibilities. Interestingly, these Western sensibilities stand in stark contrast to those in the East, where the anime is part of mainstream culture.

So, gamers’ want their experiences to be emulations and tangible reflections of real-world situations. But just how real is realism? Certainly, representation in today’s games can be so visually complex that what appears on the screen is beginning to rival the intricacies of the real world. But even with the power of the modern video games’ realistic representation of space, games still need to make use of tricks and misdirection borrowed from traditional techniques such as painting in order to fool the player into believing in an imaginary world. Thus graphical realism within video games can be described as the production of an illusion: a realistic representation of an external object when no such object is actually present. In other words, there is a significant difference between the signifier (the object in-game) and the signified (the object that is being represented). This is basic semiotics, and a concept beautifully illustrated by René Magritte in his painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Essentially, irrespective of how realistic-looking an in-game object is, it is never actually, y’know, real.

Furthermore, the actions we perform within these realistic games are just as abstract and removed from reality as those we undertake whilst bouncing Mario through the stylised worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom. Whatever the Daily Mail would have us believe, operating a virtual representation of a gun by twiddling a thumb stick or guiding a mouse pointer does not suddenly make you a highly trained marksman. Sure, you can pixel-twitch better than your mates, but get a real gun in your hands and you’ll be floundering like a fish out of water. None of the attributes of a firing a real gun (from the kick-back, the weight and the muscle tension) are emulated within the video game medium. And nor should they be.

Furthermore, why on earth are we so enamoured with supposedly realistic depictions of war and weapons? There is an undeniable gun-porn culture within videogaming; we are obsessively enthralled with gleaming, metal objects and their subsequent, deadly effects upon firing. Is this all down to some Freudian-tinged desperation or the previously mentioned machismo pride? Irrespective, the greater the realism, the more we seem to enjoy shooting the shit out of each other. But it’s all a fallacy, an illusion and possibly an erroneous one at that. As a gun shop owner recently bemoaned via imgur, his establishment is continuously plagued by Call of Duty enthusiasts who presume to know everything there is to know about guns but spout forth nothing more than geysers of absolute nonsense. Ultimately, realism in games is a bit of a con.

This isn’t to suggest that the realistic aesthetic does not have its place and beneficial attributes. Certainly, realistic characters may elicit strong, empathetic emotional responses, and realistic environments might imbue your actions with a unique gravitas but, in a vast world of imaginative possibilities, the fixation upon realism is limiting a potentially boundless medium.

So, maybe it is about time we, as the consumer, opened our arms to new possibilities. Let us stop chasing the dragon of realism, and instead embrace a wider plethora of art styles and modes of representation. Let us unbridle video games from the continuous plod of realism, and permit our video games to soar through wondrous, imaginative lands.

After all, real life is boring enough already.

Image: Genée Cosden

1 comment
  1. As you’re pretty much pointing out, realism is not the correct word. I mean, it’s the word everyone uses, but it’s woefully inaccurate. Supposed realism in games has never had anything to do with the real world; from the tropes, the lighting techniques, the pacing, the framing, and even the sodding lens flare, everything comes, not from the real world, but the world of film.

    Call Of Duty is not about an authentic or real military experience, it’s about being in a military-themed action movie, and there is nothing inherently wrong about that. Where an issue arises is when the term ‘realism’ is brought up, either by game developers, journalists, or the sowers of the seeds of moral panic.

    What these consumers of ‘realism’ want and purchase is not realism at all, it is film logic, film writing, film effects and film lighting placed into a new medium and rebranded as ‘realism.’ Film (and especially Hollywood) has given us a pre-made toolkit of techniques specifically designed to take the mundane real world and turn it into something that engages and entertains, and can do so quickly.

    But games are not film, and we could encompass both under the term ‘screen thinking.’ Perhaps it is the fact that we are watching or playing through a window that has led to the same approaches to engagement.

    I have a feeling that we might see the beginnings of a ‘true realism’ movement should VR finally take off. The sort of ‘realism’ we see in the games you have mentioned becomes jarring and uncomfortable once you feel immersed in the environment rather than apart from it. What works on a screen, from lighting and effects to framing and pacing, does not necessarily work up-close. It is a medium that I strongly hope will reward subtlety.

    As far as guns go, I’m sure it’s a culturally significant and treacherously deep topic to wade into. However, in terms of interaction, guns are the quickest and easiest way to deliver a sense of empowerment and agency. You may not really have all that much effect on the plot, you may be on rails the entire game, but – damn – look how many lives you’ve ended! Shooting someone, even in a game, carries with it a psychological burden – however slight and subconscious – that makes the action of moving your mouse and clicking on something meaningful. It’s an inherent property that means the developer does not have to lay the groundwork for meaning in the moving-the-mouse-and-clicking game (as one would have to do in a point-and-click adventure, for example). Cannon fodder provides a stream of choices, meaningless in the context of the game, but somewhat meaningful to the subconscious, that can distract from any ‘true’ agency.

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