The Truthiness of Simulation

“We’re not talking about truth. We’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist.”


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 façade 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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Long before the videogame era, games operated as simulations in one fashion or another. Yet forced to rely on relatively simple procedures and calculations, games were necessarily abstract, and resultantly, they tended to simulate in a highly metaphorical manner. For an example, look no further than Monopoly.


Originally titled The Landlord’s Game when it debuted in 1904, Monopoly was the brainchild of a Quaker woman named Lizzie Magie, who hoped to explain the single-tax theory of Henry George and demonstrate the dangers of real estate monopolies. But rather than write a treatise or climb atop a soapbox, Ms. Magie instead devised an abstracted simulation of private land acquisition in which participants rolled dice and moved around a board collecting properties and attempting to bankrupt the competition. She made her argument through a game – a highly abstracted yet compelling simulation of the business practices she wished to condemn.

Think about it: an abstracted product that represents a bigger real-world issue, a subversive argument with political overtones, an intellectual engagement with the audience – this is art we’re talking about. Yet the form it takes is not one we traditionally associate with art of any sort. It is simulation as art, procedural representation used to express thoughts, convey ideas and communicate the intangible.

Monopoly is hardly an edge case, as countless games perform similar tasks. Operation simulates surgery; Clue simulates a murder investigation; Mall Madness simulates … umm, shopping. Risk simulates global warfare; Battleship, naval warfare; chess, medieval warfare. Life, Assassin, Mafia, Settlers of Catan – each of these provides an abstract, though relatively straightforward, representation of some scenario. Even games without such deliberate contexts still provide metaphorical enactments of human actions. Poker, for example, hinges on economic conflict, reliant on prudent wagering and chip acquisition. Most team sports are, in the end, highly abstracted campaigns of territorial conflict. And as WarGames taught us, even Tic-Tac-Toe can ultimately be used as a proxy for global thermonuclear war. (Thank you, Matthew Broderick).

Yet with the dawn of the computer, games have been able to leave metaphors behind and provide a much more literal representation of reality – a simulation in the contemporary sense of the word. Computer Space and Pong, the very first commercial videogames in history, were basically rudimentary physics simulators that mimicked thrust and rotation or deflection and vectors of direction. From the get-go, the medium’s impulse was similar to its analogue predecessors: to simulate. Now, games can do so in much more direct ways – but that’s not to say they gave up the artistic license of games past.

Fable 2 provides a good example. Many think of Fable 2 as a fairy tale. It tells a lengthy story; it involves monsters, magic and a legendary hero – heck, it’s named “Fable.” But this isn’t quite accurate. Fable 2 doesn’t tell a fairy tale; rather, it simulates the experience of living through one. It’s a fairy tale simulator, delivering players into an interactive, fable-like environment. There are a wide range of simulated elements that flesh out this elaborate world: jobs, trading, marriage, kids, townsfolk, countrysides, side quests, moral choices and a variety of other tangential details that help suggest the life of a legendary adventurer.

Yet even though Fable 2 allows for a much more realistic simulation, it does not wholly give up the reductive qualities common to games of the past. For starters, time is incredibly abstract. Characters move about no faster or slower than one would expect, suggesting the passage of time is realistic. Yet by the clock, hours pass like minutes, children grow in mere days and the hero’s lifetime of adventuring passes in about 30 hours of gameplay. As such, the passage of time varies across multiple timelines, allowing an impression of real time while also reducing the experience into a manageable amount of gameplay.


Space is similarly collapsed, as everything seems cartoonishly smaller than it should be: The village of Oakfield has only a handful of houses (despite its 30-some inhabitants), palatial mansions in Bowerstone measure about 30 feet wide and players never actually see most of the continent due to the option of “fast-traveling” through the world during load-screens. And though the game does include much to do in this fabled lifetime – work, marriage, children and all the rest – there are countless logical actions that are never afforded the player. (Why, for example, can’t he jump?)

But perhaps most indicative of its aestheticized reality is Fable 2‘s use of metaphorical gameplay, another staple from gaming’s pre-digital roots. The job mini-games are all highly abstracted: To work at the blacksmith’s, the player must hit a sliding icon with perfect timing to simulate a perfect hammer strike, and a relatively small number of these strikes will serve as a full day’s work. Is this the realism that today’s games afford?

The reasoning for these devices is obvious enough – a “realistic” simulation simply wouldn’t be much fun. No one wants to spend 24 real-world hours to get through a single day in the game, and no one wants the monotony of replicating every hammer blow of a day’s work in the blacksmith’s workshop. So the designers took some artistic liberties; they collapsed time and space, used metaphorical enactment of actions and limited the options available to the player to keep the possibilities manageable. This is the nature of artistic simulation – it’s truthy. The simulation feels whole and complete, it feels fully rendered, it feels like the experience it depicts. Yet at the same time, it clearly fudges the details.

Scientific simulation can keep its hard reality. This brand of simulation, however, deals more in the impression of experience. It doesn’t need to be realistic; it only needs to be verisimilar, or, if you prefer, truthy.

Robert Buerkle is a visiting professor of videogamery at the University of Pittsburgh (where he also teaches film studies). When he’s not teaching, he writes stuff.

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