How Games Can Be Real

Luth Haroon
3 min readFeb 5, 2021

In one of our games design classes last week we spoke about the persuasive/political power of videogames over other media. This power lies in how they allow us to play out their arguments, not merely in our heads (which every medium affords), but concretely through action and consequent feedback. “With great power comes great responsibility”, so as designers we need to tread carefully with what we are saying with our games, lest we convince our players of something that doesn’t resonate with the real world.

If a videogame purports to model our world, explicitly or otherwise, it is precisely that — a model, therefore an abstraction of how the world actually operates. It would be wrong to take the game (or any model for that matter) at face value because it’s ultimately representational; in less polite terms, fake. As far as games are world/life simulators this is true. However, I think there’s another sense that games can aspire to be real and not merely representational.

Games are machine-like

Consider how machines work for instance. When a machine takes two inputs and provides a consistent output (so that A + B = C), it’s eliciting/communicating a kind of truth, whether or not it has any real world value. Games with coherent systems communicate a similar sense of truth.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/ce/Bonsack_machine.png/400px-Bonsack_machine.png

Games are logical

Logic provides another point of comparison.

If all cats are red, and Fred is a cat, then it follows (i.e. is true) that Fred is red.

Even though the premise here is false, the argument remains valid, meaning logically true. On the other hand, the statement “all cats are fish, Fred is a cat, therefore Fred is a mammal” is an invalid one (logically false, though the conclusion is true).

Many games have this sense of being valid. I think it’s partly why puzzle games can fascinate us, because we find them to be true in this way (despite their outlandish premises). But the notion permeates almost every other genre too, and when it’s invalidated through sleight of hand, we recognise it as such (when there’s rubber banding in a racing game for example).

https://www.destructoid.com/ul/352649-review-stephen-s-sausage-roll/three-noscale.jpg

(Note: it’s perhaps unsurprising that videogames share the truthiness of machines and logic since they run on computers, but analog games have it too. A less obvious point of comparison could be the way that we say someone is being ’true to character’ in a story — games can feel true in this way also.)

Conclusion

So the persuasiveness of games is at least twofold. They persuade us through their fiction of being representative of the world, but also in their adherence to these other measures of reality.

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