I see the term realism thrown about quite frequently by gamers in forum discussions, blogs, and even in reviews. The fact is that realism in video games is a myth. Just as fiction cannot (by definition) be real, there are no real video games.

Realism is defined by Merriam-Webster in two pertinent ways:

1.    concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary

2.    the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization

Essentially, when talking about video games people tend to talk about graphics and sound effects in terms of how “real” they are both in a visual and an audible sense. Developers frequently go out of their way to provide accurate representation without idealization to the best of their ability. Some developers record authentic sounds for various gun types and the noises made by shots of specific bullet calibers at gun ranges. Modern facial animations are based off of the face movements recorded from real human beings. Millions of dollars are spent on getting the most realistic look and sound possible in many of this generation’s games (Note: I did not say that this realism is the goal of all modern games. I am merely talking about the games that DO attempt realistic visuals and sounds). Given those facts, it is hardly surprising that gamers tend to think about games in terms of being more or less realistic.

The truth is that video games are not, nor have they ever been given to realism. Many games outright eschew real world facts for the impractical and visionary all the time. Examples of this are easy to pick out: Super Mario Bros., Minecraft, Star Fox, Borderlands, Skylanders, etc. None of those games fall under the umbrella of either of the provided definitions for realism.

The best that one can say about them is the attempt they make at illusion of reality. When a game sucks you in and holds you in rapt attention (i.e. immersion) it is creating a convincing illusion of reality. You care about and are invested in the environment, characters, and avatar in the game you are interacting with. However, often times these things do not look real. The presence of polygons means that graphics frequently look unnatural, flat, and have awkward angles. This is only a problem if a game is trying to produce in-game objects that look real. If a video game is going for a more animated aesthetic, then realism ceases to be an issue because the game is not trying to emulate the real world. The human brain is great at abstract thinking and it is this ability that allows us to become immersed and invested in a game that does not perfectly replicate the real world. This is because we can make that mental leap and relate imperfect digital creations to real world counterparts either real (like an AK-47 or a dog) or imaginary (like a space ship or a dragon).

This is not to say that the future of gaming graphics technology is not moving closer to realism. Graphics technology is improving at an astonishingly fast pace. At this year’s D.I.C.E. summit, Tim Sweeney gave a talk in which he stated that, “Within our lifetimes, we will be able to push out enough computational power to simulate reality.” Last year, the Australian company Euclideon made a startling announcement that the graphical power of their unreleased software promised unlimited graphics detail. Essentially that opens up the possibility for more or less perfect fidelity to real-world objects in video games. The ability to produce life-like graphics is nearly here. But will games be more realistic for their ability to replicate the real world?

In short, no. Because for all of the work developers put into making their games look and sound more real, perfectly realistic games would be catastrophic failures. How fun would a game like Call of Duty be if taking a bullet wound left your character screaming for a medic on the ground? Or how about lacking the ability to fast travel to various locations? Or playing through a driving game that required strict adherence to traffic safety laws? None of those would be fun, or at least they would be plagued by problems constantly. While striving to make games feel more real, developers are also tasked with making their games fun and playable through the implementation of clever and enjoyable game mechanics like health bars, shields, fast travel locations, magic abilities, etc. Given this, even a video game with the most realistic appearance and sound remains fictionalized because it must still be a game.

What the achievement of perfect graphical fidelity will do (in my opinion) is create crazier and more mind-bending video games than we have yet seen using high graphical fidelity. To see this trend one has to look no further than what happened to painting with the advent of the photograph. Painters for centuries had been attempting to portray accurate landscapes or human figures, but then perfect fidelity came along in the form of photography and made that attempt a moot point. Painters then began experimenting with abstraction and surrealism and from that experimentation emerged great artists like Picasso and van Gogh. I would argue that with the advent of perfect graphics, video games will follow a similar path (although I realize that some already do). Instead of striving for such things as graphical power, developers will be free to focus on gameplay mechanics (perhaps something better than the Bioware dialogue wheel?) and making their game more fun, or adding more content.

Don't like the Bioware dialogue wheel?

Whatever the case, video games are not real nor, in my opinion, should they be. And if you disagree, watch The Matrix.