Understanding Realism in Computer Games: Pros and Cons

realism in video games

I remember the time I first glanced at the characters of an old shooter game and thought that they seemed so real. Facial expressions, body movements and voice tonalities were all on point, each expressive and human. Looking back and comparing it with the graphics of today, the evolutionary jump that computer games have made is undeniable.

Nowadays, thanks to new developments in procession power and improved capabilities of hardware, the visual side of most recent games can be distinguished from reality only with some effort. From the movement of grass and shadows to the texture of clothes, everything seems real and palpable. Developers are now moving to the subtleties of reality like the appearance of the skin and eyes in certain circumstances, all to be able to remake human emotion and indeed, what we accept and recognize as signs of humanity.

In response, the demand for more realistic games continues to rise. Although theoretically opposites, fantasy and reality form an interwoven mixture in these games, putting side by side historical figures or events and mythical beasts or alien technology. Other games, like Rockstar’s popular Grand Theft Auto francize, fall entirely within the parameters of reality but absolve the player of any real outcomes.

The trend is clear. However, what are the pros and cons of the increased realism in computer games?


1.    Enhanced immersive experience

Realism is the bread and butter of roleplaying games like Grand Theft Auto, Gothic or The Witcher 3. This type of games relies on creating an environment rich in detail and activity that keeps the gamer fascinated and intrigued for hours.

However, it is not the graphics that entangle the player and immerse him in another reality, but the interactions. Dialogues, expressions, outcomes and even emotions, molded on those of physically existing people, have come to be expressed brilliantly by digitally designed characters. As a result, the line between real and unreal is blurred, adding to the experience of playing.

2.    Socializing effect of storylines

The main component of any RPG game is the storyline. Once in character and while in the game, I can freely act as I want or as I believe my character would. This remains true in every interaction with NPCs (non-player characters) or, in some circumstances, even other players.

Either following the main storyline or engaging in online RPGs, or MMORPGs, players internalize the drive to follow rules, complete tasks, assume responsibility and behave as other members of the digital community – thus being socialized. In Witcher 3, for example, even my smallest actions or ill-chosen words could affect the community of Nilfgaard and its inhabitants.

3.    True escapism

While the usual simplistic, violent games can serve as a method of relaxation, realistic RPGs represent another step in escapism. Engulfed in another world, similar to our own but essentially different, I can largely forget the all-embracing rules and regulations that usually govern my life. In other words, I can escape from the real socialization that conditioned my behavior in society since childhood into one of fantasy.

If in reality I am cautious and introverted, in such games I can be a boastful conqueror and adventurer, recognized to be so by the other characters or even players. This form of escapism, especially appreciated by adult gamers, would not be possible without a realism in graphics and in character behavior as essentially, it is not about the game itself, but about us.


1.    Lesser gameplay

Gamers, reviewers and even developers have been saying it for a long time now, and I have to agree – with the new focus on graphics, the most obvious way to increase the realism of a game, the actual gameplay suffers. However, games that aim at high levels of realism are not meant to have the same kind of gameplay as low-spec shooters. As such, the comparison is a bit forced.

2.    High cost

Realistic games – especially those which reach for photorealism, like Watch Dogs – are extremely demanding in terms of system requirements. Moreover, as their development costs more, the game itself is more expensive, leaving you with a pricy end-product that requires an even pricier device to play. Evidently, this is not the ideal case for a developer as the target audience is greatly reduced right from the start.

3.    Psychological effects

Realistic games are so popular exactly because they aim to be similar to reality while at the same time being a kind of moral sandbox in which every deed, however kind or evil, invariably receives absolution. This does not mean that games can induce violence. Rather, they make violence a considered method of interaction. In looking at social realism in gaming, Alexander Galloway finds that “games signal the third phase for realism”.

Following the realism in narrative and in imagery, games portray realism in action. Moreover, this action only functions as long as it has a correspondent in reality. As such, whether I punch a random citizen of Nilfgaard or outrage a city by murdering a chicken in Skyrim, those actions make sense to me only as they have a correspondence with reality. This link between realistic games and actual reality, while improving the experience of playing, can also create dangerous psychological patterns of behavior especially in children.

As with any complex gift of technology, realism in gaming is a double-edged knife. We just need to learn how to use it without cutting ourselves.

About the author


35 years old, married with children (1). My gaming is done exclusively on the Xbox One these days, but my gaming history goes all the way back to the Atari 2600. FPS and racing games mostly, but I dive into other genres on occasion.

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