What is "realism"?

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Andrew Martin:
One could argue that a game system is "realistic" if it doesn't violate the sense of realism in the players.

So if a game has it that prayer (for example) doesn't work in a modern setting, this would be realistic in a group of scientist players, yet this same game would greatly violate the sense of realism for a group of religious players.

Similarly for things like adding a skill number to a attributes number in a realistic game. For someone who's young or not knowledgeable about the real world, this would seem realistic in a game as it seems to reflect talent and skill, yet, from my point of view, it's greatly unrealistic.

Then let's say this example game is revised to cope with my knowledge, and we check it for realism, and yes now it passes my tests for realism (it no longer snaps my suspenders of disbelief). If I and a teacher from the school I work at, play this this game, my teacher friend might say: "hey! This part isn't realistic! Skills don't develop like that because... (blah, blah, blah!)". :) By listening to my teacher friend and leaning more about how skills develop, the game changes back from realistic to unrealistic. Or does my sense of realism (for this game) change? :)

Interesting timing, I just wrote a short essay on this subject, and was considering posting it here to see what the Forge-ites thought about it.

This may be a slightly different angle than what you were expecting, but the thesis of my essay was that the re-creation of "reality" is really secondary to creating a "believable" game world. That is, I think players/ desigers are really trying to create believablity in their games rather than true "realism." I also argue that "believability" is based on logic rather than physics/ whatever of the real world.

I think the basic thesis of my essay wouldn't seem foreign to people here, though I don't know if the concept was ever expressed in the terms I used.

Anyway, here's the essay, be warned that it was written for a DnD site.

Realism and Believability

The argument of realism vs. abstraction is one that pops up all the time, not just on this forum, but on various RPG forums across the web. The realism camp argus that DnD isn't realistic (most of the time this is in regards to HP and combat, but  there are other mechanic disputes that could be classsified as realism-based), while the anti-realism camp argues that DnD is abstract and not meant to fully represent reality. The point of this essay is not to argue either for or against realism per se, but to rather suggest a shift in the discussion.

I believe people who argue for realism have missed the point a bit. This is not to say they are wrong, but I don't think realism is really what they're looking for. Realism is a complicated and messy thing, and - as the anti-realism folk are quick to point out - the real world doesn't have magic or dragons or other fantasy elements. True realism also tends to dampen dramatic or heroic effects, something many gamers look for in RPG's. So what is it that the realism crowd is looking for if it's not realsim? I propose that it's not realism these people should argue for, but rather believability.

The difference between realism and believability is subtle, but I think it goes to the core of what these individuals are looking for. I think the realism crowd realizes they aren't looking for true realism. If someone wanted to play real life they wouldn't be playing DnD. But these people just have a hard time believing in certain aspects of the game, whether its the HP or combat system or whatever, and this becomes a distraction in their gaming experience.

So what defines believability versus realism? Realism, obviously, is based in real-world physics. If it doesn't exist in or if it doesn't work the same way as it does in the real world it isn't realistic. Believability, however, is based in real-world logic. This means that for a mechanic to be believable, it's underlying logic must work in the real world. Is this just realism with a different name? No, the differenence is physics versus logic. Realism is bound by the confines of the real world, and is thus fairly rigid. The rule of believablity is logic, and thus is inherent more flexible than realism. A believable mechanic can break the laws of physics if its still logical. However, the basis for such logic must be found in the real world. This means that a believable game system will be pretty close to realistic, though it may be exaggerated or may contain (unrealistic) fantasy elements.

One issue with the idea of believability, however, is that believability is inherently subjective. Different people will have different definitions of what they are willing to believe. Thus switching the "realism" discussions into "believability" discussions will not eliminate the arguments, but it will get both sides arguing about the same things. At present, the realism camp discusses the unrealistic elements of DnD, while the anti-realism camp discusses DnD's abstractive nature, two different (but not mutaully exclusive) concepts. Under the concpet of believability, both parties can get together and discuss what's really at the heart of most DnD arguments - simple differences in personal opinion.

Thierry Michel:
When game system yields probabilities close to the (actual or subjective) frequencies one would observe in real life in the same circumstances ?

Ron Edwards:

I'm afraid this is a broad-spectrum smattering of older threads, but I really do recommend reviewing them, for this thread's discussion to be maximally productive.

Purpose of rules - this thread is mainly about GM authority, but the realism issue crops up subtly more than once, especially on page 3
Hard Time (prison RPG)
Simulationist reality and Narrativist reality
Transparency again - again, this is not directly about realism as a term, but everything in the thread relates to the topic
Playing The Riddle of Steel (a little)
The psychology of combat
Failure=Advancement - a good example of avoiding the realism-debate for purposes of a better discussion
The FooFoo Factor
What is the most realistic RPG? - a seminal thread. I strongly recommend not posting to this (current) thread until you really read and process this older one, especially Ralph's (Valamir's) post at the end of page 1. I also recommend skipping over my objections to the issue of suspension-of-disbelief, as it kind of derailed the discussion.
"Realism" valued in both G and S?
Realism in RPGs
Realism in RPGs II
Using realism in RPGs part 2



Well, let's get a little perspective here. I agree that realism has a lot of grey area -- but I don't think it is totally arbitrary for each person. Among reasonably sane people, there is a lot of basics that are agreed on.

I'm not sure that's the case John.  Or rather, I think that the basics that could be easily agreed upon are going to be so basic as to not constitute a practical approach to designing a realistic game.  I also think that those basics will be mostly in the form of "do not"s rather rather "do"s which leaves plenty of room for individual arbitrariness.

There are many levels of defining realism where it becomes untenable as a goal.

1) what is realistic?  If you want to model something "realistically" you have to have a source for what the definition of "realism" for that something is.  Different sources can and will conflict, so even if you manage to develop a model that is hyper realistic according to one source, another individual will dismiss it as unrealistic because they arbitrarily have selected a different source as a benchmark.  

Take as an example a game modeling realistic morale factors and taking as its source the famous book "Men Under Fire" which pretty much rewrote the book on the performance of soldiers in a combat situations.  Years later, much of the data of that book has been found to be faulty (and in places outright fraudulent) and most of its conclusions dismissed.  Is the game "realistic" or not?

2) It is a given that all models involve abstraction.  One cannot build a realistic game with 0 abstraction.  That would be life.  Even if a group of individuals can manage to agree on what the definition of "Realistic" is for a particular purpose, they are likely to have different ideas on how best to abstract it.  This boils down to priorities.  What elements of reality are so important that they must be abstracted as little as possible and what elements of reality are less important enough that they can be abstracted out to the point of being ignored as inconsequential.  

Two experts in the field who agree 100% on what constitutes "realistic" who decide to model a game on the same source material can come up with a game that each considers to be the "perfectly realistic model" but which the other would consider "unrealistic" simply because of the different priorities they placed on what to model in detail and what to abstract.

3) The importance of playability.  Realism vs Playability is a debate far older than even roll vs role.  Plenty has been written about it, so I won't waste any space here on it.  Except to say, that even IF two people can agree on a source to model the game on and even IF two people have exactly the same priorities for that model, that one persons attempt to make the game playable will be viewed as unrealistic by the other, and the others version of realism will be viewed as unplayable (and thus a failure anyway) by the first.

What this tells me, is that even if you jump through hoops of fire and pour through the library stacks looking for original sources, one man's "realistic" is another man's "unrealistic"

Therefor, I do think that viewing it as something which is virtually completely arbitrary for each viewer, is exactly appropriate.  At which point it becomes completely pointless to discuss as an issue unto itself and winds up largely serving as a red herring issue in discussions.


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