Games Are But Exemplary Depictions

When people argue about the credibility of games, the choice of game mechanics or the variety of options available, they often put forth the argument of the game being unrealistic. These people do not refer to the possible context of PSI powers, dragons or faster-than-light travelling being present in the game, but to their perception of being within the game world shattering at the confrontation with choices they are denied in-game but would have at disposal in real life. The inability of Bioshock PCs to pick up food but instead instantly eat it is an oft-cited example.

I do want to point out that I see some kind of a misunderstanding taking place in these debates. For most cases, games are not simulations. Games do not want to depict reality as is (and will probably never strive to do so), not only because people would probably find it boring or because the workload implied would massively exceed most developer’s budgets – the main reason for the design decision of restricting game actions is that games are not reality simulators. What they are is exemplary depictions of a certain world. Therefore, Bioshock PCs do not pick up food, because managing the PCs luggage is not part of the experience the game developers wanted to present. And while certainly no one wonders why no single coins and bills have to be managed in the players inventory (instead of just summing them up as a number), people tend to anticipate a high degree of realism in other parts of the game.

This, I believe, is the core of the misunderstanding. The number and variety of available game actions is carefully chosen by game designers to fulfill a certain purpose. The reason why we are not forced to have our PCs constantly eat, drink, sleep and (especially) go to the toilet is that those game actions are of no relevance to the game. Though that defecation example might be a rather obvious one, the same is true for many other cases where people would argue about the unreality of the game.

“The Sims”, for example, is a game that is on the verge to simulation. Nonetheless, the game’s designers chose to omit parts of reality and simplify it at others instead of having the PCs live through life in all detail. They chose to have the game time run 60 times faster than real time, because they wanted to exemplarily depict real life. Newer iterations of the game series have even taken back complex reality depictions in favor of more accessible gameplay. And while there are certainly cases where – either due to lack of attention on the designer side or communication problems between different departments – game actions that would appear logical are missing or altered, in most of the cases the answer as to why a certain option is not available in a game is that this is not part of the model nature of games.

The same is true for other media, when we don’t see movie characters go to the toilet regularly (except for when their absence matters to the story). Narrative media always have the responsibility to carefully balance how much realism they want in the story and how much authorial power they want to retain. So the next time someone jokes about a Skyrim character carrying around 15 battle axes and three sets of heavy armor, take a moment and reconsider how this decision has been made in order to keep the balance between what the designers want to achieve in the game (provide the player with treasure-hunting capabilities without the need of constant backtracking) and what would be true in reality (the availability of but one or two weapons at the same time due to extreme weight).

In order to reasonably discuss the choice of designers to allow or permit certain actions or situations in-game, one has to consider not only what would be true for our reality, but also what contributes to the intended feel and gameplay of the game.

A realistic depiction is not always a good one.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Emergence Room | Non-Linear Reality

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