Realism and Immersion

(I’ve posted on this previously but this is an updated version, as part of some reflections on the topic for the chapter mentioned in the previous post)

My issue with the use of the terms ‘realistic’ and ‘realism’ to talk about texts like movies and games started when I first went to the cinema to see Saving Private Ryan, a film the entertainment news media readily claimed as ‘realistic’, and I recall a newspaper article that had interview with Second World War and Vietnam veterans, who after seeing the film spoke about how how ‘accurate’ the portrayal of the battle scenes were, including how ‘real’ the Omaha Beach scene was. I remembered the odd sense of dislocation at the time of watching, wondering how anyone could compare the comfortable and entertaining experience of viewing a film in a cinema with surround sound and bag of Maltesers with the horrible, brutal and ‘actual’ experience of war. I felt a great disservice being done to the text and the those involved in the historical events and I recalled those thoughts years later later playing Call of Duty: Allied Assault game, the first PC game of the series, which featured ‘Operation Overlord’ a mission to survive the Omaha Beach scene.

Lights down, a comfortable seat, tasty snacks and a decent sound setup once again for the experience but this time something else occurred, responses that were totally unlike those of the cinema event. As I directed my character out of the landing boat, the pelting of bullets decimating my virtual squad members I ‘died’ immediately and sank beneath the bloodied waters only to instantly reload the scene and try again. As reloaded, died, and reloaded again and again, I slowly pieced together the tactics necessary to survive. Hiding behind the large metal anti-landing placements, but only for a second as the briefest hesitation would mean an enemy volley of machine gun fire would find me, I began too look around, to take in and explore scene, putting together an overall strategy in response to the visual and audible clues as to how to solve the puzzle of the game, while directing my avatar with enough speed and accuracy to perform accordingly to the code’s mechanics. I witnessed a scene of a medic attempting to pull wounded soldiers to the forward position – and wondered if they were subject to the same rules of the game or did they exist at a different point in the uncanny valley, and at no point did I confuse the trajectory of the simulated bullets with the effects of ‘actual ones. My elation of making it to safety against a sand bank was ironically ripped from me as the Captain ordered me back into the surf to retrieve weapons from the fallen, not because I’d survived, but because the overlooked the now standard component of game design that it is cheaper to force players to go over the same area twice than it is to design and build more areas in total.

The feelings, emotions, responses I had during this game play were some of the most intense and rewarding of my FPS playing experience, comparable to early victories in Wolfenstein 3D against cyborg Hitler, and the terrifying experience of playing Doom in the dark. At no time did I feel the experience was a realistic simulation of the events, it wasn’t ‘immersive’: the endless reloading of my character, bathroom breaks, a spot of vacuuming and a walk to the shops during the time it took to finish the mission, meant that while I was ‘absorbed’ by the entertainment at no point did I confuse the ‘real’ experience of playing as anything else than a representation, a fictional and interactive account. The discourse of ‘realism’ is an elemental factor in the media effects response to the FPS genre, one that is contributed to in the marketing of games that focuses on pixels and polygon counts. The replication of ‘real’ world locations and ‘accurate’ sounds, models and textures are imagined to create a mythical status of immersion, drawing the player into the game experience through more and more detailed environments, and as such the ‘realism’ and the ‘effects’ of ‘realistic’ media violence has taken centre stage in the criticism of FPS games, and the moral, political and legal cases that have been against the genre in recent years. I will go into more detail on this in and I’ve been slowly putting my thoughts together on the notion of game play as being ‘absorbing’ rather than ‘immersive’ and I will explore some of the theory involved in the construction of ‘immersion’ and take a look at some of the  theory involved replacing the notion of ‘absorption’ over ‘immersion’ in the next post.