The paradox of realism

by Rob Horning

30 December 2005


Recently in Slate James Surowiecki wrote an assessment of the Xbox 360 in which he posits a “paradox of realism”: “After a certain point, the more “real” a game gets both graphically and experientially, the harder it is for that game to seem real.” This seems entirely accurate, because “realism” is more a special-effects selling point than an effective contribution to game-play, which often has more to do with abstract elements such as the rate at which the game becomes more difficult or the intuitiveness of the controls or the variety of tasks involved, problem solving levels, or the careful calibration of the player’s frustration. The most effective computer games are primarily reward delivery systems couched in some implied open-ended narrative. Truly successful games don’t really need to leverage technology, they don’t become outmoded, they don’t make themselves obsolescent. But nevertheless we are expected to buy ever more sophisticated gaming equipment. Hence the ceaseless promotion of “realism” as an exciting thing to consume, as though one can’t get reality simply by living one’s own life. (Living our own reality perhaps doesn’t give us the chance to consume contrived reality as a product, which is what realistic games seek to do.) Typically, the selling point of realistic games is that it is supposed to make you feel as though you are really doing something you could never do, like fight in World War II or do acrobatic karate or play pro football or whatever. But as Surowiecki suggests, the more real something gets, the more the little flaws and inaccuracies bother us. Also, the more realistic the decisions we have to make, the more ungamelike it becomes, the more we are in over our heads, forced to solve problems that are not especially compelling (like how the hell does this controller work?). The more reality the game seeks to provides, the less imagination we have to bring to it, and the less willing we become to do any of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy fictional situations. Old games drew out imagination, new ones intentionally stifle it, and claim that stifling is what makes them fun. (How? Advertising and a pervasive positivistic ideology that holds that technological change—new game systems that have tons more resolution and processing power—is always for the better.)

The new generation of ultra realistic games purport to make us a more active participant in a believable environment, but in reality they take us from being players to being tourists. When a game is sold as “realistic,” that translates into a promise that the game will do all the imagining for us and we’ll be allowed to simply be tourists in the game’s hyperreal world. Like the “convenience” goods the consumer society in general specializes in providing, it promises the contradiction of passive excitement, where you get to be enthralled as a spectator and so dazzled that you are fulfilled without having to make the effort of being engaged. Just follow the tour and the interesting stuff worth seeing will be presented to you—no need to research your own itinerary. That is the trajectory game development takes, because that is the trajectory that society as a whole takes, technologically speaking—such a course reinforces the passivity of consumers and leaves them more helpless to entertain themselves, more alienated from the real and eager to consume “reality” as a mediated product, more in thrall of manufactured entertainments that have a limited periiod of effectiveness and thus leave us compelled to always consume more.

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