It's a trickier question than you might think.
The simulation is a peculiar genre. It feels like we’ve always had simulations—from SimCity all the way back in 1989, to flight sims, to racing sims, to even train driving sims—even though with a few key exceptions, they’ve never quite broken through in the popular consciousness in the way that, say, RPGs, or fighting games managed to. Many see simulations as the geeky corner of a geeky room: they’re often either all you live and breathe, or they barely register at all. Yet there’s something magical about a good simulation. It seems to outdo reality, to create a world with four walls but no door to the outside that can lock you away for weeks on end. Microsoft Flight Simulator 95 was one of the first games that did this to me, and I spent hours exploring the possibilities of just existing within this world of runways and joysticks. Its reality was better than reality.
This, of course, is deeply ironic, because the overarching logic of the sim is realism. What the simulation wants to do—more than anything else—is copy and reproduce a sense of reality. It’s all there in the name of the genre: as a simulation, it’s simulating something. No more, no less. It’s a videogame imitating reality. It copies something about the world as best as it can so that it can be explored and tinkered with inside the safety of a computer or (less commonly) a console.
Realism is actually an incredibly complicated concept, and one that has developed and changed across history. In visual art, realism is both a thing that people have aimed for (as in, to reproduce what the eye sees as best as possible) and a movement. As a technique, you can trace its development from the invention and refining of perspective: the moment when people in paintings ceased to be Ancient Egyptian-style flat profiles, and became fully-fleshed out figures in three-dimensions. From the Renaissance forward, the race for realism was on. Artists invented all sorts of tricks to paint more and more realistic images—from mathematics, to simple guides and rulers, to amazing lenses that projected images on to canvasses for artists to trace.
But such realism in art was suspicious to some. Copying reality was a mechanical skill, not an artistic one, or so went the criticism. The true artist augmented reality with their creative talent. They made it better. Artists interested in realism in the eighteenth century, at least, ended up making a living painting souvenir keepsakes for rich British tourists. Realism was important here because the tourist could then take a bit of the foreign lands they’d visited—Italy, France, or Germany—back home to show off, like we do with photos today. These artists made a financial killing, but made few friends in the art-snob world. It’s a familiar story today, as visually realistic games today can face similar dismissal, while the artifice of 8-bit retro graphics lap up critical acclaim. Copying reality, it seems, is not artistic. Reproduction is just reproduction—like a child tracing a comic book over baking paper.
Funnily enough realism shifted completely once it was identified as a movement in the mid nineteenth century. After widespread political turmoil, the realists suddenly had an agenda. They were depicting reality as it truly was (of course ‘true’ reality is always filtered through the artist’s biases). Unpleasantness, poverty, debauchery, hunger—all of these suddenly became respectable subjects for art, and, along with it, became somehow identified with realism. Realism was now more than respectable—it was trendy, and it was political.
Realism took yet another turn with the coming of cinema. The filmmakers behind the Italian neorealist movement—the most famous of which was Federico Fellini, if only today for his massive influence on Martin Scorsese—reacted against the tightly-wound, economical plots of American and European cinema of the day, where every moment of a film lead directly to the next plot point. The neorealists were interested in what happens before and after a character walks in and out of the screen, with shots often lingering and taking in conversations and scenes totally irrelevant to the narrative. These meandering, wandering films claimed the title of realism in a different sense: theirs was a realism to the happenstance of life. Real life, according to these filmmakers, does not have a plot.
By the time we come to the supposed realism of the videogame simulation, we’ve got quite a lot of baggage bound up in the word. What exactly is realist about the simulation?
Well, in contrast to the realism of visual art, the simulation is not a visual or auditory copying of reality. This can certainly be there too, and it often is—as marked by the ever increasing graphical requirements of flight and racing sims—but it isn’t the most important factor. A simulation can be a simulation with terrible graphics or with great graphics, as Microsoft Flight Sim 95 proved two decades ago.
No, a videogame simulation is an attempt to faithfully reproduce a system. What defines a flight sim, for example, is the careful copying of an aeroplane’s control scheme, of the effect of wind on partly-raised ailerons, of the need to lower landing gear and place the brake in the off position before your wheels hit tarmac. What defines a racing sim is not the beauty of the track that the player tears through, but the realistic usage of fuel, tire wear and grip, and accurate cornering speeds. Realism in the simulation is about systems. This, above all, marks the difference between arcade racers and simulation racers. In the former, the system underpinning the car becomes invisible. In the latter, it’s the most important thing imaginable.
This faithfulness to systems is ultimately the reason the simulation has remained in the geeky corner of a geeky room, and has also paradoxically ensured its longevity. A good, deep system can suck you in for weeks, for years, even—and can almost always be improved upon through updates and sequels. But that same depth can leave simulations as a daunting prospect to learn and master.
The realism of images—a beautifully rendered track instead of a beautifully simulated system—will always be more welcoming to a passer-by. We can embrace the veneer of life more easily than we can its substance.
I told you the simulation was a peculiar genre.