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Thinking Virtually

#39: Dirty Words: Keepin' It Real

An Alternative View to The Realism Rathole

by Travis S. Casey
January 14, 2002


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In the first of twoAlternative Views to The Realism Rathole, Travis S. Casey offers his own views on realism, fun, and making sense. This article is from Travis' regular Skotos column, Building Stories, Telling Games, which I've featured in Thinking Virtually on occasion. It's in fact part of a mini-series that Travis wrote about "dirty words" for RPG gamemasters, and is thus mildly edited to better fit here. We'll see a few more of Travis' dirty words in the future, as we match them up with engineering problems. --Shannon


This is part of a series of columns on "dirty words" in gaming – those words which get a reaction, usually a negative one, from at least a small segment of the gaming community. This one is about one of the most-despised words: realism.

I know the first things that a lot of people are going to say, so I'm going to go ahead and say them:

  • "If I wanted reality, I'd be working at my job, not playing a game."
  • "How can you talk about a game being 'realistic' when it has dragons, unicorns, and magic?"
  • "Realistic isn't fun."

These reactions are quite natural, so let's stop for a bit and consider them. I see two basic themes underlying both of them: that a thing has to be just as it is in reality to be realistic (which implies that only things that really exist can ever be realistic) and that realism is an on/off switch – in order for something to be realistic it has to be exactly like it is in reality.

Both of these themes get down to a single question – what does realism mean? That's not as simple a question as it might seem at first, because in English (and in most other languages too, for that matter) words tend to have multiple meanings. Here's the meanings that I've seen the word "realistic" used for:

  1. As in reality. This is the version of "realistic" that people generally seem to be thinking of when they raise objections like the ones above.
  2. Making sense and being self-consistent. This is the sense that people generally mean when they talk about "realistic magic" or such things.
  3. Finely detailed. Just as a "realistic painting" stands in contrast to an abstract painting, a "realistic system" in this sense stands in contrast to an abstract one.
  4. Being consistent with a genre or with source materials. Using this sense, someone might say that it's not realistic for orcs to be smarter than humans.

(Please note that this isn't pulled from a dictionary – these are ways that I've actually seen/heard people writing/talking about games use "realistic".)

Senses 2, 3, and 4 are ways in which we can apply the term "realistic" to something that doesn't exist. Just as you can have a "realistic painting" of a unicorn, meaning that it's done in a realistic style, one can have "realistic magic" in a game – meaning that it's done with attention to detail and so that it's self-consistent.

A second thing that I think is important is that there can be multiple levels of realism (or unrealism, to look at it from the opposite end). Jackie Chan's movies, for example, aren't fully realistic – things happen in them that are wildly improbable. However, they're considerably more realistic than, say, the Hercules and Xena TV shows. We can say that something is more realistic or less realistic.

That, to me, is an answer to the first objection – just because a game tries to be "realistic" doesn't mean that it has to be exactly like reality. And we can pick and choose which aspects of reality we want to showcase in a "realistic" game. To put it another way, John Le Carre writes "realistic" spy novels, and Tom Clancy writes "realistic" thrillers. They're believable, match the real world fairly well, and so on. And they are definitely not boring.

Which brings us to the last objection – that realism isn't fun. I agree; there's nothing about having a realistic game that intrinsically makes it fun. On the other hand, though, there's also nothing that makes unrealism intrinsically fun either! Regardless of whether or not you want to make a "realistic" game, you have to work at making the game fun.

I've said it before, and, as I've said before, I'll say it again – the unexamined game is not worth playing. When considering whether or not to add a particular "realistic" feature to a game, you need to think about how well it fits with what you want the game to be. The same goes for unrealistic features as well, of course, but there seems to be less of a knee-jerk reaction against those in most of the gaming community.

Sometimes, being "realistic" can be done by nothing more than thinking a bit about how you're going to explain things. Skotos' own Castle Marrach is a case in point – the fact that new characters don't know anything about the game world could have simply been ignored, as it is in most games, but instead, the game designers chose to create a backstory that explains why this should be so. In doing so, they made the game a little bit more realistic, without any real cost to the players.

Indeed, the whole idea of damaged memories provides opportunities for roleplaying that wouldn't exist otherwise – players who are returning to the game, or who already know something about it from another source, can work in the fact that they have some knowledge of what's going on because of it.

One thing that should always be considered when thinking about realism in games is the reality to which you're referring – which is the reality the game is set in. This is especially true when dealing with well-established genres or settings. If you make a game set in Middle-Earth and make wizards be common, you'll get the same kind of complaints from hard-core Tolkein fans as you would if you made a game centered around the real-world military and made major mistakes about weapon capabilities.

This leads to another point: if you don't want to take time to make sure something is accurate, don't make it look as if it's meant to be accurate. For example, in a real-world game, if you don't want to bother with finding out facts about a bunch of weapons, don't make up names and stick them on your weapons, or, worse yet, use the names of real weapons and just hope that no one will care. Use generic names like "small-caliber pistol" and "assault rifle", instead of specific names. Remember: the advantage of making up your own stuff is that no one can say you got it wrong. The worst you can do there is not be consistent.

To me, the central idea behind realism is that in the second definition above – making sense. Ideally, you should be able to play a roleplaying game by asking yourself, "What would my character do in this situation?" It's not supposed to be about the rules – it's supposed to be about the characters and the world. When you can do that, I'd call the game realistic. When you can't do that – when you have to stop and think about rules rather than about your character and the situation he or she is in – that, to me, is an unrealistic game.

Remember – when you're making a game, the primary goal is fun. Realistic doesn't always mean fun, but it doesn't always mean boring either. If a realistic game is what you want, then try to think about how you can make it realistic while keeping it fun.

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