Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Verisimilitude is a Lie

It is quite the fashion in today's gaming world to dismiss realism in game design as an impossible and undesired goal. Rather common wisdom claims that the real goal is verisimilitude, as if that's something different.

Let us consult the online Merriam-Webster definitions.

Verisimilitude means: having the appearance of truth : probable as the first definition. The second definition is simple: depicting realism (as in art or literature).

That second definition is highly interesting. We're after all talking about game design. Not much of an art IMO, but like art a created image.

Let's look at realism. First definition references the mindset, we're talking game design so that doesn't work. The second a philosophy, again- doesn't apply. The third and last seems to apply: "the theory or practice of fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization."

Ah, that one applies. And oddly enough it means exactly the same as Verisimilitude when applied to the same subject. Exactly enough that Merriam-Webster uses realism to define Verisimilitude.

Looks like we can lump the crowd screaming about "Verisimilitude Not Realism" into the same group as the discredit Forge Theorists. People who make up words and change common meanings of existing ones to suit their goals.

In short, people who can't make a good point and resort to two-bit words in order to give them the illusion of credibility.


Roeguard said...

Hmmm, I'm going to disagree with you on this one. Superficially, I think the two words are synonymous, and in certain contexts can be equally interchanged.

But in the case of game design (or any other "modeling" system), I think the distinction becomes relevant.

Based on the wide variety of definitions out there, and the context in which they are used, I would say the difference is that Realism is about accuracy and truth, while verisimilitude is about being similar to truth, or resembling accuracy.

The old "Fake by True" from a couple years back comes to mind.

I haven't been following the debate you've referenced, however, so I'm not sure about the validity of the arguments being tossed around, but I could see how "theoretically", there could be a real choice between the two when designing a mechanic.

Gleichman said...

Sorry, I'm not a big one for made up jargon. Words should mean what they mean.

If one creates a game mechanic that is not realistic, but claims that it has Verisimilitude- what one has done is not provided Verisimilitude, they have lied.

It's that simple.

Roeguard said...

I guess I'd need some more specific context to understand how its not applicable.

I do agree that words should mean what they mean though. Its shame when our language is diminished through casual misuse.

Gleichman said...

Try to come up with your own context.

Give an example of a mechanic that is realistic, but doesn't enhance verisimilitude. Or the reverse.

See if it's possible using the actual definitions, and with verisimiltude remaining a synonym with truth as the dictionary claims.

John Morrow said...

I tend to use "verisimilitude" rather than "realism" for a few reasons reasons: It sidesteps pedantic arguments over exactly what is realistic. It sidesteps pedantic arguments about how a game with magic, superpowers, and so on can be "realistic". And I really thinks it gets to the heard of the matter, which is to make the game and setting feel realistic to the participants, even if it's not strictly realistic in a real world sense. But I think your basic point is correct, which is that verisimilitude and realism are generally the same thing, pedantic arguments to the contrary aside.

Tolkien touches upon these points in this in his essay "On Fairy Stories" when he writes:

"Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker's art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called 'willing suspension of disbelief.' But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful 'sub-creator.' He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is 'true': it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed."

Randall said...

Encyclopedia Britannica says this about the word "verisimilitude"...

...the semblance of reality in dramatic or nondramatic fiction. The concept implies that either the action represented must be acceptable or convincing according to the audience's own experience or knowledge or, as in the presentation of science fiction or tales of the supernatural, the audience must be enticed into willingly suspending disbelief and accepting improbable actions as true within the framework of the narrative. -- verisimilitude. (n.d.). © Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.. Retrieved August 17, 2011, from website:

This pretty much describes how RPG people use the word to describe something that isn't "realistic" but feels "realistic enough" that players can easily suspend their disbelief. I can understand not likely the word, but the RPG usage doesn't seem to be a lie -- at least not to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Gleichman said...

John Morrow said...It sidesteps pedantic arguments over exactly what is realistic. It sidesteps pedantic arguments about how a game with magic, superpowers, and so on can be "realistic".

I wouldn't consider such a argument pedantic any more than Tolkien. I think instead that there is great value in exploring how to combine realism and fantasy to produce a believable sub-creation.

It's my view that writers and gamers are losing that ability.

They are doing so by avoiding the question, by saying that realism is impossible, and making up a buzz word so that they don't have to engage the subject.

Realism and Suspension of Disbelief places limits upon the game designer and player, and the modern gamer will stand for no limits.

Thus he never grows. And what he creates is without value to any but himself.

Randall realism has the identical meaning.

But I offer you the same challenge I gave Roeguard.

Give an example of a mechanic that is realistic, but doesn't enhance verisimilitude. Or the reverse.

See if it's possible using the actual definitions, and with verisimiltude remaining a synonym with truth as the dictionary claims.

Roeguard said...

Lengthy Response was too lengthy, and broke the comments. I emailed it to you instead.

In short though, I don't think you are wrong.

But I also think that all mechanics are inherently theoretical and will never be as "realistic" as the actual. So its just a matter of degrees and a basis for name calling. ;)

Gleichman said...

Roeguard said...
But I also think that all mechanics are inherently theoretical and will never be as "realistic" as the actual.

Go back to the definition of realism, there is no requirement that it be reality.

Thus a painting can be realistic, as can a movie, or a book. None are real.

billy4911 said...

Wow, how the little things get out of hand so fast.

All RPG's (and anything else we do that isn't the actual 'thing') are equally realistic and provide the equal amount of verisimilitude. I think this is the point.

The level of each (great in the case of sci-fi or fantasy, and moderate in terms of WWII gaming) is irrelevant. There is tons of grey area and things can be more of each than another thing. But each game/thing/picture/story will be exactly the same shade of grey of both realism and verisimilitude at the same time.

If the point is to say that a game is more realistic or less realistic, fine. But none of it is real. An analogy will always fail at some point, the point at which it ceases being the thing to which it is compared.

The two words don't represent different levels of accuracy or fidelity to reality.

Helmsman said...

Maybe realistic game design is unfashionable, but only so much as those that are doing it aren't really involved in the blogger culture sphere. I spent 10 years as a gamer immersed in the pursuit of a more realistic mechanic. Granted I was also preoccupied with making those realistic mechanics as simple and elegant as feasibly possible. I think there's also certain aspects that people prefer in simulation. I like the simulation of firearms, so I've designed several game systems with very solid trauma systems that could cover what might actually happen when a bullet hit a person. But I also look at how to accurately model social interaction in a game without impeding or replacing the actual role-playing aspect. That of course is very subjective because opinions on social rules vs. purist role-playing are quite polarized. But still there is a lot to look at as far as where human will fails and what those failures look like that I think RPG's have a lot of gaining to do, so I think the quest is worthwhile.

Nicholas said...

Gleichman said:
"Verisimilitude means: having the appearance of truth : probable as the first definition."
Probable strikes me as different from realistic, but I cannot tell if it is looser (a "realistic" estimate is the most likely estimate in the jargon of contractors, as opposed to a "probable" estimate, which is typically more optimistic) or stricter (an unlikely event would be realistic if there was a chance of it happening, but I wouldn't describe a one-in-a-million coincidence as probable). So I think the important word is "appearance": On the website there is a page titled "Reality is unrealistic" Which lists many common things people believe about things like spies and scientists that aren't true, but if the truth were shown to them they would decry it as Unrealistic, so great is there belief in the Hollywood version.
For example, Elizabethan architecture is associated with dark-oak paneling, but that is because oak darkens with age: It is realistic, in an Elizabethan game, to describe the oak as pale (which at the time, it would have been) but it is verisimilitude to describe the oak as dark, because if my players have actually been to say, The Globe, they will remember how all the oak was dark, how all the television shows set in the historical Globe used dark wood, and how a great many books set in the time use dark wood.
I can fight that tide, and be factually correct, but I'll probably lose: My players will imagine dark oak, because it has verisimilitude, while light oak has mere realism.

Gleichman said...

Nicholas: All you doing here is repeating the the made up definition of the in-crowd, trying to say there's a difference where there is no difference.

In your example of Elizabethan, you're not attempting the appearance of truth at all. You're playing to expections and continuing a lie- one that is believible, but a lie none the less.

Call it illusion, call it suspension of disbelief. But don't use a word that is a synonym with truth.

Nicholas said...

I don't think I made myself clear: I agree with you.
"Verisimilitude" in gaming has the appearance of truth in the sense that it is not the truth but it seems to be. It refers to a subcategory of lie: Instead of lying to change people's mind about how the world works from true to false, verisimilitude as used in gaming is a lie that takes advantage of a wrong idea the audience has already got.
That's the difference between having the appearance of a thing, and actually being the thing.
(To audience: If anyone else is reading this later, I'm putting a lot of weight (if we were talking, it'd be audible) on the word appearance, which I think makes the definition almost sarcastic in nature. My whole argument is basically that Verisimilitude isn't synonymous with realism, but synonymous with pretending to be realism.)