The Realism Excuse

Earlier I saw a question about whether a game should model gender dimorphism. The answer is “99.9% of the time it should not” but it got me thinking about different levels of simulationism and when a factor that exists in the real world is represented in a game.


Think of D&D as an example. Comparing a halfling (A creature 4 feet tall depicted with muscle proportional to its stature) and a human (A creature with poor foresight and an over-inflated opinion of itself) the average difference in strength is two points. So if two points represents the difference, essentially, between a child and an adult then anything less than half of that difference isn’t making a difference on the scale that the game models and doesn’t need to be included in the game.

So it doesn’t need to represent gender differences because they’re essentially insignificant on the scale that the game cares about. (Side note: Gender differences are typically much smaller than the average person estimates) So it’s not included in that context and isn’t relevant to any game operating on a similar scale. Case closed.

Except that’s not quite true. Examining the system in more detail it’s apparent that the it’s not simply a simulation of the world that doesn’t care about any effect below a certain size. There are plenty of examples of this, I’m personally a fan of the observation that most things can become more Charismatic by setting themselves on fire, but keeping to the “Strength” theme – compare the range to the modifier. A +2 difference for halfling vs human would imply that a halfling will be stronger than a human about 28% of the time.

Call me cocky, but I’m confident that I can beat up a child in the 28th percentile.

So it’s not so much that it’s not simulating below a certain level of detail as that it’s not simulating accurately in the first place. Most things in the game try to bear some relation to realism: More dexterous people are less likely to fall off things, poisons kill slower than stabbings, swimming is harder in plate mail etc. However in the comparisons between these things the simulation is not consistent and has stayed that way through several editions despite millions of players.

In short, it simply doesn’t care if it’s wrong.


Which demonstrates a point that I wanted to make with this article. The average games does not have a single abstraction layer, beneath which details do matter and above which are all of the ones that do. They actually have three:

The first is gross effects. These are truths that are undeniable and ingrained to the part that a game feels deeply counter intuitive if you contradict them. Stuff like “If you walk towards a thing you get closer to it.” Where these are relevant they’ll either be implemented or the game will need to do something to lampshade why they are not.

The second is observable effects. These are things that could affect the outcome and most people observing a situation would be aware of them. If a character is firing a gun you might expect it to matter how close the target is, what cover they’re behind, what sort of gun it is, how well trained the shooter is, how long they’ve had to take their shot, what the weather is, what the lighting is like etc. The average game simulates only a very small number of observable effects. It’s generally taken as red by most players that it’s okay for a game to focus on the most important or most interesting of these.

The third is tiny effects. These are things that don’t make enough of a difference to register on the scale that the game has established. Generally these are ignored and when one is allowed to have an impact it tends to be jarring to the players.


So a lot of the time when a game talks about “realism”, you’re moving two lines around to define what this game is going to simulate. Importantly everything in the gap between the lines (i.e. between “So obvious it must be included” and “Too small to ever be included”) is included at the game designer’s discretion.

A good designer will exercise this discretion to include factors that create a better game. Exactly how that’s done will depend on the game and you’d expect the process of playtesting to cause a designer to switch up the factors that they choose to attend to, based on how it effects the visceral experience of the game. Ultimately everything that’s included at this level should be on the basis of “This will make the game more enjoyable/competitive/whatever”, it’s a red herring to pursue being more realistic.

There is a tendency for some designers to want to insert particular things because they would like the game to act as a vehicle for their beliefs. I have no inherent problem with that – games are a cultural medium and affect and display out thinking as much as any other – but it should be honest. A person standing up and saying “This is what I believe.” I don’t think it’s good to hide behind a pretense of realism. If nothing else you’ll muddy your message by not being clear about your intention to project it.

If you ever feel that you must insert something “because it’s realistic” ask whether there’s anything else that has a greater influence on the factor you’re examining that hasn’t been modeled. For example if you’re considering modelling the impact on gender dimorphism on strength have you already accounted for regional variation, genetic qualities of individual parents, available diet in the region and socioeconomic class the character grew up, level of activity in daily life and so on. If the answer is “yes” then the factor you’re considering is in the discretionary zone and there’s no “realism” argument supporting it.


The main argument for such factors must boil down to “Does this make the game better or worse?” Be prepared to think in those terms and to discuss in those terms. More often than not, realism is an excuse. Whether that’s to avoid making a technically difficult change when what you’ve got is okay. Or to insert an opinion that you want to share but don’t want to admit. Or to defend a mechanism that you’re attached to emotionally but has done poorly in playtesting. It’s an excuse. To yourself as well as to others.

We make better games when we don’t make excuses.

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