What's So Great About Realism?
by Dave Rickey
When viewed objectively, the fact that the "realism" argument keeps coming up in these games would seem odd. Bringing realism into a discussion that includes fireballs, trolls, energy swords, blasters, and nanotechnology is, at first glance, totally out of place. Yet come up it does, over and over, and in the oddest contexts ("A *real* fireball would leave a smoke trail"). Somehow, in spite of the obvious incongruities, we cannot escape from the belief that reality is the default, and departures from it are suspect and probably false.
Games are where people go to escape reality, so why the push to make it "real"? Because games have to ride the line between keeping our minds busy with fantasy, yet keeping it believable enough to keep our interest, to be fun. When you go too real or too fantasy, the balance is lost and results in a game that has lost its spirit and isn't fun. So, often discussion about games revolves around making them fun. And then things get ugly, because everyone has very firm ideas about what is fun, and often those beliefs aren't accurate even for themselves. For some strange reason, like a zen koan about the eye that cannot see itself, players can play a game, have fun doing so, but not really know why it is fun.
One key to the path out of this confusion comes from recent developments in neuropsychology. What they are finding is the real fundamental workings of neural chemistry and firing that underlay the conscious and unconscious processes that we think of as "thinking". One is that, although our minds are very plastic, they contain pre-dispositions, sort of a genetically derived "BIOS" that sets the initial conditions that allow our minds to form. The brain wiring seems to contain certain hardwired functions, and one of these is termed "intuitive physics", a part of our brain that, although not directly coded with knowledge of how real-world physical processes works, is built to gather and integrate data on those workings and form them into a set of expectations. If there is any hard-wired function in this, it is a simple drive to identify causality: Observable effects have identifiable causes, and we cannot help but look for them. This tendency to identify causes for effects can get quite pronounced, such as the phase most children go through when they imagine profound or dire consequences from apparently innocuous actions. The roots of superstition probably lie in trying to establish causes for otherwise inexplicable observations. The desire to understand the ultimate causes of the world around us fuels both science and religion, this is a very powerful instinct we are talking about.
The other key comes from how the brain preserves neural pathways that prove successful at making predictions and suppresses those that fail. When we attempt something and succeed, we feel a rush of pleasure: endorphins, dopamine, and various hormonal and neurochemical effects encourage the neural connections that have just formed to be reinforced and optimized. When we attempt to reach a goal and fail, we feel frustration, shame, even anger, and similar processes discourage the neural patterns that led to the circumstances that created those feelings. When we have a successful pattern of goal-seeking established, and something that changes the circumstances so that the pattern is no longer effective, we feel confusion, disorientation, even fear, and a strong desire to re-establish the environment that fits our earlier, successful, pattern.
Out of this, we may be able to extract an answer to one of the most vexing questions in game design: What is fun? Fun is the process of establishing, seeking, and achieving goals, in a larger context that gives both the process and the results consistent meaning. Fun environments both surprise and reassure us. They surprise us by working on rules that are very different from those of the real world, and reassure us by having an internal consistancy and logic that is reminiscent of that we find in the real world. Realism is a constant theme, because the exemplar of the environment where these things can occur is the real one. The reason why the market for trading real cash for in-game rewards will never be stamped out is because ultimately, they act as stand-ins for the same thing: The underlying desire to achieve goals.