Reality Bytes

Reality Bytes
The Truthiness of Simulation

Robert Buerkle | 18 Aug 2009 13:00
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"We're not talking about truth. We're talking about something that seems like truth - the truth we want to exist."

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This, according to Stephen Colbert, is the essence of truthiness - "truth that comes from the gut" rather than from evidence, facts or logic. Things that are "truthy" need not heed reality - they need only feel authentic. They are instances in which we deny what is actually true in favor of what we want to believe.

Debuting in the inaugural episode of The Colbert Report, this quirky neologism was, of course, intended as political commentary - Colbert originally used the term to reference the Bush administration's justification for the Iraq War and the nomination of Harriett Miers to the Supreme Court, a satirical skewering of governmental logic. Yet the idea is equally apt for describing the "reality" inside a videogame. The Grand Theft Autos, the Resident Evils, the Call of Dutys, the Rainbow Sixes - none of these are all that real, but they certainly feel real. They provide worlds that feel whole, complete and immersive. They feel true - or at least, truthy.

Narratologists - folks who study stories and storytelling - discuss a similar phenomenon in fiction, though they use a different word for it. They call it "verisimilitude" - fiction's ability to maintain the fa├žade of reality. Humans have an uncanny ability to fill in details, make causal connections and infer logic from incomplete information because we naturally want to make logical sense of things - even fictional events - and verisimilitude relies on this. It's the reason we cry during sappy love stories and feel inspired by science fiction, despite our conscious awareness of its unreality. The word's Latin origins are telling: Verisimilitude literally translates as "like truth." Fiction is not true, but it is like truth. It's truthy.

Videogames are certainly fictional, but fiction is an idea we associate more readily with movies, books and theater - the arts we traditionally describe as narrative. So to understand the truthiness of games and their at times tenuous relationship to reality, let's think of them in a different light - not as stories, but as another form of representation that also relies on verisimilitude: simulation.

Simulation provides us a unique way of depicting the world: procedural modeling. Simulators model processes, creating dynamic environments that users can manipulate. The application to videogames should be pretty self-evident. However, we aren't always inclined to think of videogames in these terms because traditionally, we associate simulation with science, technology, industry, medicine and finance - disciplines rooted in physics, biology and hard-and-fast numbers, realms that rely on accuracy and precision to derive their value. Videogames, on the other hand, trade in fantasy and whimsy - in fiction, the stuff of stories. What we need is a new way to think of simulation.

Scientific simulation is the sort that relies on empirical truth, so let's propose an alternative category: artistic simulation. Just as we can distinguish police sketch artists who aim solely to capture reality from expressionist painters concerned instead with emotion and subtext, so, too, simulation designers may strive for accuracy (commercial flight simulators) or instead for aesthetics (Crimson Skies). For the former, departures from reality would be considered flaws, but for the latter, they're merely artistic license. That's the true value of artistic simulation: By freeing simulation from the demands of reality, we can allow for abstraction, a quality that's been crucial to Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Minimalism, and just about every other art movement of the past two centuries.

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