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Realism VS Idealization
by anjin anhut on 11/10/10 04:28:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


super mario by pixeloo and by nintendo header

What's Up?

Well, when talking games with my colleagues, online or with my students, I often find myself in discussions about realism. The funny thing is, that everybody, especially in regards to gaming has a different understanding on what realism actually is. The fact, that the people who write about games professionally and those who sell them, don't treat realism properly and elevate it to some sort of key quality, is not helping either. Games get hyped for realism, while it is in fact believable idealization what makes them so much fun. Games get dismissed for a lack of realism, while it is a unique style what makes them different. And on and on and on.

Time to get things straight!


How Realism Became Dominant, When Talking About The Art Of Video Games.

The Thesaurus defines realism as (art, literature) the ability to represent things as they really are.

Various websites also (including describe it as the representation in art or literature of objects, actions, or social conditions as they actually are, without idealization or presentation in abstract form.

So bottom line, we end up with three approaches to creating art: Realism, Abstraction and Idealization. You probably are already familiar with Scott McCloud's famous triangle, where he mapped comic art characters in relation to Reality (realism), Meaning (idealization) and The Picture Plane (abstraction) from his book Understanding Comics. If not, stop reading and go here immediately. (I will prepare a full book review soon. This one is a must read!)

Anyway, the three approaches displayed in McCloud's triangle represent art styles. As a comic production company, you could end up on this map, wherever you want to be. You would just need to hire an artist with the necessary skills and artistic vision. In arts, finding your place on this map, is a matter of skill and choice for centuries now.

scott mccloud understanding comics page

Not so in video games. Video games started in the absolute top corner of the triangle and any move towards realism or idealization heavily depends on the available technology. In the early days, pixel art was no choice, it was a law of nature. No matter how impressive your artistic skills and mind blowing your vision was, you are forced to work with a certain degree of abstraction by the machines. Understandably, technologic development focused on breaking free from the top corner limitations. Bit by bit (see, what I did there?), technology allowed for less abstraction and more realism and idealization.


scott mccloud understanding comics game version


Artistic ideals are diverse and there are many. Artistic ideals are mostly depending on cultures and sub-cultures, are heavily debatable and therefore not suited to be a mutual standard to measure technological progress. But reality is.  The engineers and programmers responsible for creating the next console, engine or graphic processor had to focus on achieving realism.

Unique to video games as an art form, possible realism can be measured with numbers. We count bits, pixel resolution, polygons, processor speed and so on. An artistic quality and approach, which in other art forms is subject to style, suddenly became scientifically measurable. So marketers started selling systems and games by also focussing on realism, a non-debatable mutual standard for graphic quality. If my system got more bits than yours, my system's graphics are better. It's as simple as that.

So we end up with an industry that considers abstraction as a thing of the past and ignores idealization as a worthwhile quality. Weirdly enough we maneuvered ourself as a community into the realism corner and now we are stuck there. Developers are bound to sell realism now, as they were bound to use abstraction back in the days. Though, many japanese franchises and indie developers aren't bound to this artistic limitations, since the described realism fetish is not as prominent as with most big western publishers for example.


So Realism Is King! Or Is It?

Now I would like expand the discussion, to include gameplay also. Not everything branded with realism is actually realistic. Companies try to sell us games, arguing with realistic graphics, realistically destructible environments, realistic lighting, realistic physics and  realistic gameplay. But it's a lie. A marketing trick. In fact they are creating and selling something way more awesome: an ideal version of reality.

Lighting is not mend to look realistic… it's mend to be beautiful. The destruction of the in-game environments is not mend to be realistic… it's mend to be spectacular. Gameplay is not mend to be realistic… it is mend to be streamlined, smooth and comfortable. Believable idealization is what makes images, gameplay and narrative ideal for us and most attractive.


The Real Role Of Realism In Games Creation

Realism is an imposter. Realism is not the quality we seek, but just a component of it. And a component to handle carefully also. The more the better does not apply to realism, no matter how much marketers and journalists try to convince you otherwise.

I'd like to quickly elaborate on three well documented principles to illustrate my claim. Escapism, suspension of disbelief and the uncanny valley.

According to wikipedia, escapism is mental diversion by means of entertainment or recreation, as an "escape" from the perceived unpleasant or banal aspects of daily life. You can find many similar definitions of the term, but in essence it all boils down to the wiki one. This is why we play. We want to be entertained and have a break from whatever boring, demanding, scary or even painful elements of our reality we have to put up with. We need a decent dose of realism to make our escape believable. But we don't want to face the aspects of reality, we desire to escape from in our games. So, creators don't just ramp up the realism level, but try to carefully select what needs to be represented in a realistic fashion and what needs to diverge from reality. Selective realism is idealization.

Like print, tv, canvas and cinema, video games by nature never can be a 100% realistic. Maybe in the future there will be some direct way to plug fully fleshed out experiences directly into the mind of the player. But until then, players will always be aware of the fact that they are still in their living rooms and not really in Azeroth, as much as moviegoers will always be aware of the fact that they are sitting in a crowded theatre.

To still enjoy their moment of escapism, players need to get active. They have to suspend their disbelief. Suspension Of Disbelief is a commonly known principle of storytelling and worth having in your mental library, even if you don't consider games a storytelling medium. Anyway, video games need to be realistic enough to be believable, plausible and immersive enough to allow the player to suspend his disbelief. The funny thing is that consistency is a way more important aspect in this equation. Audiences don't necessarily need a high degree of realism to believe, they just need a consistent presentation. In a life action movie, special effects need to be photorealistic, while in a way more abstract and idealized animated feature film, they can be hand-drawn.

When it comes to believability going for the realistic route can be quite dangerous. Realism is a commitment and anything you add to your product needs to be consistent with the early establish realism standards. One principle illustrating this danger is the so called uncanny valley.

Originating as a concept in robot technology, the idea is simple: Adding realism to a depiction of a humanlike character increases its lifelikeness. When the lifelikeness gets to close to the real thing, the depiction is rejected by the beholder for being a "broken" or "fake" human being. A lot of our natural rejection of corpses or sick people and a lot of xenophobia come into play here. There is a way to acceptance again, but for that the depiction and lifelikeness need to be perfect. Basically, the audience can always connect to a stylized character like Mario and to a perfect simulation of a real human. But in-between there is the uncanny valley, a negative-zone, where the audience rejects the flawed fake human. It's an interesting psychological concept and very important to understand by game designers and artists. Check it out, if you are not familiar with it.

summer glau and wally to illustrate the uncanny valley

From Wally to Cameron, I guess you can see where the creepy uncanny valley lies and where the perfection begins.


Anyway, to wrap it up, I just wanted to articulate 3 things:

1. Realism is only a standard for the power of the available game technology, not a standard for artistic expression.

2. Realism is not the key to a convincing experience. It is just one ingredient to create believable idealization.

3. Realism therefore is not the king quality, many claim it to be and we need to stop judging games by the degree of perceived realism.


ps: the header image is a montage of Nintendo's and Pixeloo's Super Mario.

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Wesley Burton
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Very well said, I could not agree with you more. I think the gaming industry will eventually free itself from the shackles of realism, just as literature and painting eventually did.

anjin anhut
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I'm having big hopes in indie developers, and in the all the new ways of digital distribution, where you can skip the big publishers, allowing püersonal artistic choice. I hope it expands its audience more and more and becomes a financially solid way to publish games.

So we would have also a business incentive to go with a diverse palette of styles in games.

Allan Rowntree
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I like the story that the developers of an 8bit football game (soccer) with characters made up from a handfull of pixels started to project onto the players behaviours not in the game, like shouldering/heading the ball.

So I wonder if we automatically project into more idealised game spaces with our own interpretations?

anjin anhut
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Yeah, people do, though it is less about idealization more about the openess of abstract images. The brain is always trying to complete an incomplete image with what its got. Thats why novels offer the most personalized experiences. That's also why in the early days nobody complained about the fact, that they were just looking at a bunch of pixels. To an early Atari player Space Invaders was full of evil aliens and he was fighting them back in some sort of tank. This ability to project own images onto the simple visual representation was also enhanced by the fancy box covers, trying to suggest epic scenarios. It works.

Leaving space for personal projections of the player is a clever way to create games, allowing for various unique concepts. Though not a good business model.

The big chunk of your audience usually prefers to get a presentation, which it can consider "complete". The big screens and tv networks will always bet on crisp and flashy visuals, while abstract flicks need to find their audience on the film festivals.

Joe Cooper
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This reminds me of ZZT.

In ZZT, your character is a white ASCII face that shoots circles.

But ZZT comes with an editor, and that ASCII face can be anyone. Yoshi. Batman. Shaft. It's so void that your imagination has zero trouble filling in the blanks with pretty much anything.

Joe Cooper
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What's really bizarre about the game industry being in the "Shackles of realism", and it dominating discourse, is that it's pretty much nowhere to be found.

In games' facades, "realism" usually means Dark Knight style ultra seriousness about whatever off-the-shelf unrealistic trope they're using, or ugly brown artwork or bloom everywhere. Sometimes it's just lighting and texturing like in your Mario shot.

In gameplay it's even rarer, but still boasted about.

Take space for example.

Space is a bizarre and counterintuitive place that, if simulated realistically, would make a terrible game. If you're trailing behind the ISS by 500 km, at 17,500 mph, you catch up to it by slowing down a tad and this takes a few days. During this wait period, you get over your space sickness and maybe have an accident where the toilet blows all the air into space with your wang stuck in the hole. (This happened once on the Shuttle:

When you see a space game boast that it's "realistic", what this means is they have inertia, and pretty much everything else is junk science. There isn't even gravity, which IRL is an omnipresent force that dominates your navigation (

It's so stripped down that one point in space is as good as another, rendering any combat maneuvering superflous. It's neither interesting nor realistic.

Would it be better if it was realistic? No, it'd be better if they stopped pretending and just had the player click their way around.

Some games do that and it works.

I'm actually a bit tired of people dumping on realism in games. Aside from the flight sims of the 90s that frequently serve as straw-men in these discussions, there's very little realism and the real issue here is the _idea of_ realism and the ridiculous things it has entailed.

Realism could certainly have a role in games and maybe it should be explored better.

There has been a change in our society where we now interact with many aspects of the real world through the internet. There could be opportunities for some ridiculous suspension of disbelief. We could pretend to crowd-source things. Crowd-sourced predator drone operation. Or even more fantastical things like remote controlling androids.

Drawing from life and conceptual realism can also have real value. I really appreciated, for example, the change between Civilization 2 and 3 with aircraft operations. They drew from life in a way that made the game richer by making the aircraft more conceptually realistic; better reflecting their unique role on the battlefield.

Conceptual realism is something many good designers seem to just get, but is rarely talked about.

anjin anhut
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Yeah, totally.

That's why I referred to realism as some sort of branding and tried to articulate that it rarely really is realism we get... and maybe for the better.

Conceptual realism is quite an intriguing concept, probably not for a wide audience, but intriguing non the less. Especially in serious games or demanding rpgs, it could drastically enhance immersion qualities and attach the player to whats happening.

I hope small developers play around with that concept.

Shoshannah Tekofsky
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Wouldn't you say that suspension of disbelief is easier when things resemble the real world more? (both in looks and behavior)

I think so, and that's really where a lot of value from realism comes from. A lot people do not want "spikey haired emo's" (JRPG) or "childish-looking characters" (Mario). People can connect more easily with a game if it has a strong component of realism. I do agree with the majority of your argument, and "failed" realism (uncanny valley) is probably much worse than successful idealization.

I think the "realism" that people mean when they talk about games is not "full realism". They just want the good aspects of reality, and the bad ones muffled over. That connects with your mention of escapism: People do not want to go to the bathroom with their character. They do however want him to look real and "feel" real. They don't want their avatars floating down stairs or having the ventriliquist-talk.

So I definitely agree with your general idea, but not with how you fill in all the details.

1. Mario is not just an idealization, but also an abstraction.

2. More realism in games helps suspension of disbelief

3. The term "realism" in games refers to "more realistic", not "fully realistic". I know that is not what the dictionary says, but when you think about it, it's what the term has come to mean in the games industry, don't you think?

Either way, great article :) Loved the triangle. Wasn't familiar with it.

anjin anhut
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"Wouldn't you say that suspension of disbelief is easier when things resemble the real world more? (both in looks and behavior)

People can connect more easily with a game if it has a strong component of realism."

Not in general. To answer that question, a full article would be in order. ;) I do my best to sum it up.

Abstraction and idealization create a gap between the presentation and the perceived reality of the viewer. The paradox is, that this gap becomes easier to bridge for the viewer, the wider it gets. The viewers memory and imagination, when it comes to believability, personal taste and emotional connection deliver always superior images to anything coming from any other source. The more abstract a presentation is, the more space there is for the viewer to fill it with his own personalized and most effective content. You just have to guide him properly.

There is a lot of published theory around that, for example the Scott McCloud book mentioned in my article. Popular theories around suspense in films or why books work like they do tackle the same principle. Ever talked to some who was disappointed by a film version of a novel, because he imagined things to be kinda different?

But realism comes into play. You just have to split characters from environments.

Spikey-haired characters in Jrpgs on a technical and psychological level allow for a stronger connection for a wider audience as characters with a more realistically flashed out look do. Simply because they offer more space for the audience to project their own desired qualities onto the characters. But those characters come from distinctively japanese popculture, which suits not everybody's taste. For more western audiences the same principles do apply. The Masterchief from the Halo series works in the same way, for example. He basically is just a male in a suit. No face, no name, no ethnicity, no hair color, nothing. He allows for every male playing the game to fully project themselves or a personalized version of a perfect hero onto the character. Maximum connection, right here.

When it comes to environments, props any object that does not relate to how we see ourselves or others… just things, realism is a very powerful tool. When it comes to dead things, audiences need realism to believe those things are there. Weight, texture, volume, functionality…all of that is important, when it comes to dead things.

These principles get especially obvious and are documented well in classic animation, where characters are painted in simple lines and shapes on cells and backgrounds are highly detailed and textured paintings. The french consider this principle a pillar for their comic culture the so called "Ligne claire". Fun fact: In japanese comic culture, characters who are supposed to be evil or less likable get a substantially less stylized presentation, with more realistic proportions ad lighting.

"They do however want him to look real and "feel" real. They don't want their avatars floating down stairs or having the ventriliquist-talk."

Absolutely, but so does Nintendo and so do the developers of spiky haired Jrpgs. Stair-floating and ventriliquist-talk are wrong/bugs, they break constancy. That's why I value constancy over realism. To deliver believability you can go for a simulation (realism) or go for representation(abstraction, idealization), both works. Simulation is just more dangerous, be cause you can not ask for the viewer to fill the described gap, but have to fill it your own and hope your own content does the job. If your own content fails, this is where we slide into the uncanny valley for example. Imagine very stylized characters, like mySims for example. Ventriliquist-talk is no issue there, since it does not break the constancy of the abstract presentation.

"1. Mario is not just an idealization, but also an abstraction."

Absolutely. In understand that my own triangle leaves a lot of space for debate. ;)

"2. More realism in games helps suspension of disbelief."

Only for dead objects and if done in a convincing way.

"3. The term "realism" in games refers to "more realistic", not "fully realistic". I know that is not what the dictionary says, but when you think about it, it's what the term has come to mean in the games industry, don't you think?"

Yeah, many do. But marketers of games, engines, pc-hardware and systems very much like to refer to their own graphics power as realistic in a totality way.

Either way, great article :) Loved the triangle. Wasn't familiar with it.

Thanks for the challenging questions. I highly recommend "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud. It is a very well done and thought through guide to visual narrative and sequential narrative.

Shoshannah Tekofsky
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"Abstraction and idealization create a gap between the presentation and the perceived reality of the viewer. The paradox is, that this gap becomes easier to bridge for the viewer, the wider it gets."

I can see you offer a very convincing argument, and I feel you are knowledgable on this topic. At the same time, my attitude has always been to take theories with a grain of salt until empirical evidence has been found. Would you know of any? Otherwise, the truth goes to the best debater :)

Also, I feel you're defending the value of stylizing characters. I also think that cartoons have an immense appeal exactly because they are unrealistic but idealized. However, enough people "don't get" cartoons, and need more realism to enjoy the fantasy. These are the people that want more realism in their games, and I think they form the greatest majority of the untapped market. Therefore, I think you are right about abstraction and idealization when we are talking about people that appreciate these. However, a lot of people can't. They need to be able to closely relate the fantasy to their reality. Everyone understand reality. That's why it's so appealing to use proper realism in games. Not perfect realism. Simply superficial realism.

"But realism comes into play. You just have to split characters from environments."

I can see that this is a tradition, but again I remain skeptical until I see some hard evidence. I will totally take your word for it that it is "good style", but further than that I'm hesitant to go.

Thanks for the elaborate responses. Maybe I should do a literature review myself on this topic. It has been an inspiring read :)

anjin anhut
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Yeah, you are right, I'm basing my argument on well documented storytelling traditions, not empirical studies or hard scientific data. I would be curious myself about what such studies would reveal. And I'm aware that those tried-and-true concepts I'm quoting are taken from other media, which are non-interactive. So there is definitely a lot of room for debate or simply stuff we need to find out first.

I'm really looking forward to the day where game content can be as realistic as filmed content is or beyond, so we could start actually judging how this is received by the audience and explore the narrative and gamedesign possibilities of that.

Nice discussion. Thanks

tony oakden
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I agree. Unfortunately publishers need cool screen shots to stick on boxes and in magazines and many customers do choose games based on how realistic they look. All of my best game play experiences have come from products which are not realistic in the typical sense of the word. I wrote something similar in my blog a while ago. Although at the time I was ranting about something else:

Bisse Mayrakoira
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Early videogame graphics do *not* reside at the top of McCloud's triangle. Most of them belong close to the bottom right. Pac-Man's ghosts are recognizable as stereotypical ghosts, not a jumble of forms for their own sake.

Joe Cooper
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They're recognizable as a stereotypical symbol for a ghost.

Unless that is what ghost really look like?

Dirk Broenink
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My ludology teacher has put it this way:

Compare it to paint art. First, our painters were not good enough to paint realism. Then, when technology and technique improved, they were! (Almost, atleast).

The moment it was possible, it also became less interesting to do.

And that's when they went to abstraction and/or surrealism.

Maybe we have to wait till we are able to replicate reality so well in games that we don't care anymore. When the next game doesn't look much better than the previous one, because reality has already been achieved (again, almost), then we will look in different directions to define 'quality'.

You can not market a game to be 'Very realistic' if they are like that.

Bottom line: Maybe we just have to wait till it is possible to do realism properly before we can start thinking about surrealism, idealization and abstraction.

Joseph North
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I don't know I think we might be already at that forefront of Realism in video games.

I mean look at the games we have right now like Crysis, Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain, Grand Theft Auto 4, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and finally Gran Turismo 5. The fact that we are now allowed with the size of game disk and tricks in game tech able to make games this realistic now means the novelty of photo realism is slowly disappearing.

The advent motion control and 3d technology.

The appearance of games like Flower, Kirby's Epic Yarn, Farmville and Minecraft.

The rise of indie games.

And the expensive nature of making these realistic AAA games and being able to still make a profit.

We may finally be seeing that point in time where slowly more and more developers and customers may want something more than just photorealism. I know I do because GTA vice city and san andreas are much more fun to play than GTA 4.