Between Simulation & Escapism: Gaming’s Growing Pains in Embracing Realism

When video games were first realized, they were incapable of depicting realistic graphics and gameplay. Due to the minimal processing power of the systems they were developed on, they often featured simplistic conflicts, using simple shapes, solved in simple ways. Even as the processing power increased over time, it was considerably difficult to create any sort of semi-realistic simulation within the confines of an interactive electronic game. So people got used to the fantastical nature of video games.

Now, however, things are different.

The computers and consoles at our disposal these days would have been the subject of science fiction back when video games were first dreamt up. The processing power of top-of-the-line modern computers can deliver incredibly realistic graphics, while also simulating physics and movement as close to reality as possible. We are finally able to realize reality within video games.

Yet people are struggling to adapt. Those who play games, young and old, are finding it awkward to adjust to the more realistic visuals and controls of games coming out these days. As a culture, we’ve come to associate video games with escapism and fantasy. We are unable to get used to the idea that games might look, and play, closer to reality than was previously possible.

These feelings can result in anger and frustration when an older franchise attempts to “grow up” in a way, by adding more realistic visuals and/or controls. A perfect example is Wolfenstein: The New Order. When trailers for it first started showing up, the reaction among many was frustration and disappointment. They had hoped for a return to the campy style of the older games, and were not at all interested in this bleaker, grittier take on the franchise. In spite of this, the game garnered significant praise from critics and fans alike.

All media embraces both fantasy and realism, of course, but there is usually a gradual shift away from all things being fantastic. Movies began with theater-style overacting, but eventually began to embrace more realistic dialogue and movement. Comics went through many phases of fantasy, but also began to lean towards realism over the campiness of the silver age.

Video games have only just begun embracing this, and the industry is experiencing growing pains over it. People are quick to deride games that go for more realistic visuals and mechanics, but there’s only so much that can be done when we insist that things were fine “just the way they are.”

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