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Realism In Gaming
January 18, 2005 | Scott Hanks

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M4 Carbine Reloading
Selecting my trusty triple-barreled rocket launcher from among the seven weapons I am currently carrying, I load the tubes and launch a swarm of target tracking death upon my opponent. I watch the volley of destruction close on my oblivious target, gloating over my superior tactics that allowed me to catch my prey unaware. At the time of impact, however, something goes horribly wrong and the unlikely survivor spins around and handily takes my head clean off with a perfectly aimed sniper shot. “Oh, whatever!” I roar in murderous rage as I click my mouse furiously to respawn.

Of all the things that could be considered unrealistic in the games we play, why do we ignore or even appreciate some reality breaches, while others we label as the work of a mental defective? There are several factors to take into consideration before passing judgment on a game maker’s decisions, though the verdict may not always be in their favor. In this feature, we’ll take a look at why most people would never complain about Pac-Man being unrealistic, yet those same people could write a whole list of irritating inconsistencies about Soldier of Fortune II.

Chewing the Scenery
In the world of fiction--whether movies, novels or video games--there is a state called the “willing suspension of disbelief” wherein the audience accepts what is being presented to them as real enough that they allow themselves to become emotionally involved. A well presented piece of fiction can retain an audience in this state from start to finish. A poorly presented piece of fiction will constantly remind the audience that what they are witnessing is just a pathetic lie.

In video games the suspension of disbelief is dispelled to a degree every time we see graphical glitches, encounter invisible barriers or witness the artificial intelligence doing something that is more artificial than intelligent.

Just as movie goers now expect far more from special effects than they did ten or twenty years ago, many gamers have become spoiled by modern hardware and demand better and better illusions.

Chris Butcher of Bungie Studios talks about this phenomenon (called the “Uncanny Valley” theory) and how it relates to computer graphics and A.I. in an interview at

"As characters become more photo-realistic, you start to believe in them more and more. With humans characters, you get to a certain point of realism. What happens is there are characters that are so realistic you want to believe they are actually human. Then you notice their deficiencies. They have very plastic skin or very wooden eyes. All of the sudden they just become creepy. They are like zombie people, rather than appealing computer people. The appeal of the character rises, then drops dramatically, then rises again as you approach photo-realism."

".... The problem is that we are starting to approach that 'uncanny valley' point with [A.I.] behavior. We have all these characters that say all of these interesting things, that are very rich and meaningful about their environment. They have all of these interesting combat capabilities, but you can do something that they are not programmed to respond to, and they don't know how to react. Then all of the sudden they become dumb, like a zombie...

“...That is what artificial intelligence is all about. It's about tricking the player into believing that there is something intelligent there." (

We can still enjoy games that don’t have stellar graphics or lifelike A.I., but it is far more difficult to become engrossed in them if they are lacking in these areas. How important these sensory deceptions are simply depends on the type of game we are talking about. For example, a game like Burning Monkey Solitaire doesn’t rely on suspension of disbelief for enjoyment. A game like Doom 3 does.


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