An Argument Against the Trend of Realism in Video Games

Our ability to engage with and enjoy playing video games as a leisure activity cannot exist without the line between us and the game's subject matter. Call of Duty, for instance, is an enjoyable game based on being a soldier in the line of duty and comes with all of the death and all the fictional mortal peril that one might expect from a war game. It is an extraordinarily popular series but there's no debate that subject matter of the game comes from something horrifying. Being on the battlefield in real life involves the fear that you won't come home alive and the guilt and mental trauma associated with taking another human being's life. Nothing about war is fun. A war video game is fun because nothing about it is real.

This applies on a less extre me scale as well. Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon, for instance, are widely described as being relaxing games. But it's only relaxing because it does not involve the truly backbreaking work of being an actual agricultural worker. The line between the game and the game's subject matter is essential to the ability to find enjoyment in it. 

Keeping this in mind, the ambitious pursuit of realism in the gaming industry is truly troubling. As the graphical capabilities of technology have improved, this push towards realism has reached a frenzied pace. Indeed, now whole swaths of games will dismiss a gamers if it follows a representational approach to graphics rather than a literal one.

The reason why the great majority of players are able to play Call of Duty without the emotional baggage of experiencing active duty is because there is a thick line between them and the game. From the choices of whether to include gore, how long corpses stay on the ground before they disappear and how much space you have in your bag, game designers have tools available to them to distance the player or to pull the player closer into the world of the game. Though in recent years it seems games have been praised for seeming more realistic, I question whether realism is the final frontier for the industry. 

A player isn't killing literally hundreds of human beings and is not in danger of being killed when he plays the campaign of a fps placed in WWII. The lack of smell, taste and even the need to use a controller hold fast as a barrier, both mental and physical, between player and game. But what happens when this line is blurred?

The advent of VR as a viable technology seeks to answer this though experimentation and the findings seem troubling. The clearest example I can think of is, Virtual Reality Pornography paired with peripheral devices. The result of such a setup is a fairly convincing, charge towards giving a realistic experience to the viewer through both visual and audio information but also introduces a physical sensation. 

*As an aside, I am sex positive and do not view VR pornography as morally deplorable.

This pursuit of more precise physical sensation does not only appear in the porn industry. However, even the Nintendo Switch's HD Rumble seeks to provide its player with more accurate controller feedback. Pairing VR with this type of technology seems all but inevitable at this point, but is this really what ought to be pursued? Perhaps it isn't particularly clear if I use an example as benign as porn. Imagine a highly visually, audibly and physically convincing FPS. Of course, you still aren't in mortal peril. But at what point does the line become so blurred that your mind cannot differentiate between reality and the game world, and what would be the ramifications if the line disappeared, and are we putting ourselves at risk?

I recognize this may sound absurd but, press pause and ask yourself this, have you ever felt something that you knew was irrational? Then look at the world and your countrymen, a difficult truth about people is that our brains betray us all the time. Frequently we're affected by things, and we don't even have to be in close proximity to something horrific to be haunted by it. I can think anecdotally about videos I've watched that have haunted me for years. There hasn't been a day I haven't had the video of Tamir Rice's slaying replay in my mind for instance. And I'm sure if you're reading this, you can think of some as well.

It's hard, but looking back on 9/11, there is no question that, that event was a collective trauma for Americans. It has been estimated that over 60% of Americans watched the events of 9/11 live.  Dr. Dana Rose Garfin, a research scientist at the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California Irvine writes:

In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, media-based exposure was associated with psychological distress. This included acute stress (which is similar to PTS but must be experienced in the first month of exposure), post-traumatic stress and ongoing fears and worries about future acts of terrorism (in the months following the attacks).
— Dr. Dana Rose Garfin

If PTSD-like symptoms have been associated with media exposure to atrocities committed far from the viewer, what could we expect if we seek to emulate the horrors of reality and then place ourselves inside of that fantasy in progressively more intense ways?

Perhaps this trend towards realism in video games is too hastily supported and, unintentionally, we are putting our psychological health at risk.

The articled cited can be found: Here