Inconvenience and Realism in Video Games: let’s talk about the weather

Getting Hit by Lightning

It seems counterintuitive to say that people want to experience some inconveniences when they are in a virtual world. People who are new to embarking on creative endeavors often make the mistake of attempting to make something too beautiful and perfect. The result is invariably the same: people cannot relate and, after marveling at the technical skill, quickly become disinterested. The same is true in life simulation video games that attempt to create a digital and stylized version of reality. A virtual world that is too perfect is unrealistic and the gameplay soon becomes boring. In order for players to feel that a game is realistic, the game world needs to have elements of imperfection in the form of small nuisances. When developers include real world obstacles and minor problems into a world simulating or sandbox game, they capture what we believe to be important experiences in our world and they also keep players engaged.

As soon as The Sims 3 first came out in 2009, people began demanding that the developers add weather into the simulated world. As The Sims Studio and Electronic Arts released expansion pack after expansion pack over the next three years, the demands became more forceful. People wanted weather above having awesome RPG-esque adventures in exotic locations (World Adventures), the opportunity to be self-employed (Ambitions), becoming famous and hang out with vampires (Late Night), having rich intergenerational communication (Generations), or even becoming fairies (Supernatural)![1] It is understandable that the developers wanted to manifest their fantastic concepts and see how they would affect the world of The Sims. It is less understandable why people were enthusiastic to such a degree about such a mundane thing as weather; however, I believe this desire speaks volumes about what makes a virtual world compelling and immersive.

Let us look at a bothersome situation that happened to me quite recently in the real world. This morning my plan was to get up really early to go grocery shopping and beat the crowds of people who like to hang out in the middle of the aisles and chat at my local Trader Joe’s. Although it was barely light outside, I could see from my window that ice had encased my car. Instead of melting completely by early morning, the ice remained. The park across the street was equally frozen and my heater was working overtime in an effort to counteract the cold. Looking at my car, I knew it would take about twenty minutes of scraping to clear the front and back windows. The prospect of leaving my apartment to confront the freeze that had occurred overnight seemed so utterly unpleasant that I abandoned my plan of going grocery shopping.

If this same situation occurred in a game, it would probably not be as frustrating, in fact, it might even be enjoyable. A fundamental difference between an inconvenience in the real world and a game world is that a person is not physically affected in the latter. For instance, if my umbrella breaks during a rainstorm and I am not able to get indoors immediately, I am going to become soaked and end up in a bad mood. Even more seriously, if my umbrella acts as a lightning rod, it will ruin more than just my day. However, the inconvenience of an umbrella breaking at an inopportune time, or acting as a lightning conductor, in a game world does not physically affect the player. Instead, these types of random unfortunate events make the game more realistic and more enjoyable for the player.

In games that attempt to simulate the real world, developers constantly face the obstacle of realism. In order to make a game feel realistic, the creators need be sensitive to what players believe are essential aspects of the world, and its physical laws, as well as their own lives. For example, although the gravity of Earth is essential to how we interact with our world, players do not seem terribly concerned by game characters whom this force does not constrain in the same way as it does us.[2] A game does not have to attempt to identically replicate the real world in order to be immersive; instead, the game only needs to have enough similarities to the average human perceptual experience so it communicates through a visual language that a player can easily understand. Games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent may not perfectly replicate the average human’s visual experience; however, these games convey the way in which strong emotions affect perception.

Amnesia

The type of game dictates what aspects developers must ensure are realistic. In Baseball video games, creators must try to replicate how real athletes move and the general real world game mechanics. In First Person Shooter games, the developers must communicate the high emotional charge of the fights and story.[3] Furthermore, they must also copy the look and feel of the weapons that the players use. If creators come up short, they can expect disgruntled customers and online mockery.[4] In games that attempt to simulate normal life, those designing them must be attuned to what players consider defining features of their own lives. Rather sadly, most of us pay a lot of attention to our everyday hang-ups, misfortunes, and accidents. Therefore a strategic life simulation such as The Sims must contain inconveniences for the player, and his or her characters, such as: being late to work, breaking electronics, toilets overflowing, dirty laundry, and having to take the trash out.[4]

A possible explanation for why people were so insistent that EA and The Sims Studio release an expansion pack for The Sims 3 that added weather is that it would offer an additional layer of reality, full of inconveniences and exciting variables, to the game. In The Sims 3: Seasons, players can experience the types of weather that accompany each season while engaging in season-specific activities such as building snowmen in the winter, swimming in the ocean in the summer, playing with leaves in the autumn, and picking flowers in the spring. The expansion pack also evokes the powerful feeling of nostalgia. Players can build snowmen, celebrate the PC version of Christmas with their in-game family, play in leaves, set off fireworks, fall in love on Valentine’s Day (or “Love Day”), and dress up for “Spooky Day” (aka. Halloween). People often have fond memories of these times of year, and would like to re-experience the pleasant feelings they have attached to them.

Sims 3: Seasons - Fall Day

Another reason for why people subconsciously appreciate realistic in-game conveniences is that, if done well, they keep players engaged in the game world. After the initial novelty of a game wears off and a player has either lost ideas for what to do (in a sandbox or simulation game) or is no longer invested in the plot (see Meaning, Morality and Video Games: the enduring value of RPGs for how good games avoid this), the person may lose interest entirely and stop playing. One of the ways a game can overcome the possibility of a player becoming bored is by introducing surprises either in the plot or, in the case of The Sims, in the gameplay itself. A player will certainly become more engaged and attentive to their in-game activities if his or her plan is suddenly thwarted by a debilitating blizzard or a tempting summer festival with snow cones. When a player is surprised, temporarily stressed, or forced to rethink his or her plan, the person approaches the game with renewed enthusiasm and investment.

Although freezing mornings, allergies, and heat waves are annoying for us to experience, these types of disruptions are essential for creating and maintaining the realism of an immersive virtual world. These problems enable players to more fully buy into a game world because they are part of their own life experiences. Minor hang-ups such as needing to fix a stereo and remembering an umbrella are necessary in life simulating games because they help bridge the gap between the real world and the game world. To put it simply, what makes a virtual world realistic is that it communicates to us in a language that we understand. Even though our experiences are fundamentally different, we can all agree that being job-threateningly late to work after breaking your shower, contending with a zombie attack, and burning your breakfast (and half the kitchen), are all bad things and a game that captures the feeling of this hellish type of morning is doing something right.


[2] See the Prince of Persia Trilogy as an example.

[4] See the Counter-Strike series where equipping a knife makes the player’s character run faster.

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8 thoughts on “Inconvenience and Realism in Video Games: let’s talk about the weather

  1. Great article and a very interesting topic.

    I think the key aspect that implementation that something as mundane (though infinitely complex) as weather into a typical videogame captures is that dynamic, random chaos of everyday living.

    In the case of The Sims, it might have been ‘weather’ specifically, but in gaming more broadly, I think the idea of things outside of the players control and not rigidly within the design of the designer are both incredibly appealing. That’s partially why RPGs and RPG elements are so persuasive: things can go wrong, epicly so, even when you thought the stars were aligning in your favor.

    And that whole aspect ties into why sandbox games are addicting and why gaming has an intense community aspect at its core. We want those crazy, unpredictable moments because they give us, the players, an opportunity to overcome unexpected obstacles. In turn, those moments create the experiences that fuel the stories we tell to our friends. They enrich not only the gameplay, but the community of playing a particular game.

    • Thank you so much!

      In some ways it is rather a large demand for players to ask for weather or some chaotic system to be introduced into a game. Randomness is one of the hardest things to achieve in gaming; however, it is so necessary to have it in sandbox games in order to make the realistic. It is also kind of counterintuitive because I think we like to think of our lives being under our control.

      That is very true: it is exciting when things happen that the player had no control over and the game designer didn’t necessarily intend. It does give games the magical quality of “anything can happen!”

      What you say about those unexpected moments in which a player has to overcome an obstacle enriching the community is very true. In some ways it facilitates a bonding process because people discuss their experiences in forums or in person. It also makes the game that much more exciting because in situations where people have to immediately address an obstacle, most likely there will be different solutions that people can discuss.

  2. As you mention, with changing seasons comes other effects, like allegeries. I do not know if Sims is pairing the weather and the seasons with all of their effects, such as flu season in the Winter, more kids on the street in Summer, and crowded malls during Christmas. (It would be very cool if they could build in the Black Friday shopping day following Thanksgiving.)

    • Those are good ideas and definitely would help better capture the feelings of each season, at least in the US. As of now, the Sims world is not different depending on the language in which you choose to play it. It seems to try to stay away from any nationality or potentially sensitive cultural aspects. For instance, you don’t have a “Christmas/Holiday Party” you have a “Gift-Giving Party,” and instead of “Thanksgiving dinner,” you have “Feast Day” or something like that.

  3. Hi Rebecca!

    I’m just playing catch up with blogs as I’ve been involved in ‘other things’.

    I’ve only had a chance to briefly skim your article on video games but it’s one I will return to because I’ve been thinking alot about the relation between gaming and ‘real life’. I’d love to write an article on it myself but haven’t had time yet, so reading them is profitable just now.

    I love gaming myself though only have limited experience with RPG’s like Fallout 3 and Borderlands (okay that’s more a shooter than anything else). I confess I’ve never played Sims games (don’t think I have the patience) but the whole ‘virtual reality’ world fascinates me, with both sci-fi/fantasy books, games and films.

    I could go on for an age but will stop, will leave it for a future article! The Christian world seems quite divided on gaming…while people like me just enjoy the ones I like. Seems quite simple in a way!

    Just wanted to say your article looks very interesting and I’ll return to it in due course.

    Best wishes 🙂

    • That is awesome that you like gaming! Compared to most gamers, I haven’t played very many, but I think it is quality of experience over quantity.

      I would be very interested to read whatever you have to say about the Christian world and gaming. I can see that it could be a potentially divisive issue, but I am nowhere near familiar enough with the dialogue to articulate it or advocate a specific stance. I, like you, play the games I like and stay away from those that seem disturbing or upsetting.

      I am glad you are back in the blogosphere and I look forward to checking out your new blog! All the best 🙂

  4. I take your point. It’s quite odd at first that gamers should want something like weather as a means of improving gaming experience. I’ve never played Sims games but something happened recently when I was playing Borderlands 2. It’s more of a FPS (no matter how it’s marketed) but there came a point after I’d been playing awhile where I was, I admit, getting a bit bored, not a million miles from giving up. Then it started snowing…in the game I mean! At first I didn’t notice as there were only a few flakes but them more came I I suddenly sat back from the screen and was just amazed. It’s not often a game makes me put the controller down and just look at the screen, enjoying the view, but I did when the snow came on. I don’t know why the designers decided to put actual falling snow in the game but it made a difference to me. I kept playing when otherwise I’d have given up, just because of the snow. It made no difference to the actual gameplay in all honesty but I just love snow so I kept playing! In a strange way it reminded me of ‘just watching’ snow falling as a kid. I used to love seeing white flakes fall from the sky, especially heavy snow. It changed the whole environment. I loved as well when it was night and you could watch the snow fall in the light of street lamps. I remembered all this just through the ‘trigger’ of snow falling unexpectedly in a video game.

    Actually, now that I remember just sitting back from the screen, putting the controller down and watching from afar in wonder, it makes me think of other games I’ve played where similar happens. The whole point of gaming is for interaction, controller in hand, moving your character. For something to happen on screen that makes you put the controller down and just watch is quite something.

    I remember that moment in Fallout 3. Your Fallout 3 life begins with you being born in an underground Vault and, in short episodes, takes you through to your youth and your escape from the Vault. All you’ve ever known is life indoors, inside a Vault. Then you escape through a tunnel and suddenly you are confronted with the vast panorama of the world outside. At that moment I did the same, I just sat back from the screen and ‘took in’ the view.

    Again, in Uncharted 2, there is a point where you are injured and taken (by obligatory mysterious stranger!) to a mountain village. It is so colourful and alive after the snowy previous part of the game that again, I just took in the view for awhile.

    It’s huge credit to the game designers to be able to achieve that effect.

    My mind is full of thoughts not but I’ll stop there.

    Great article 🙂

  5. Your snow experience sounds incredible and much like an in-life experience would play out. It seems like those in-game moments can make you push on, despite your desire to quit the game. I am debating on whether to explore the world of “Assassins Creed” and have been warned that things become progressively harder, despite one’s skill; however, the plot, graphics, music and plot can provide sufficient motivation to continue.

    I agree that gaming is all about interaction: your character going through and changing a world. Also, it is amazing when you not only affect the game world, but it affects you. It is moments like that makes me wonder at the greater potential of gaming.

    You talking about Fallout 3, Borderlands 2 and Uncharted 2 make me want to play them!

    Thank you so much for your support. Many good wishes to you. 🙂

I would love to hear your thoughts, ideas and questions! I will make sure to visit your blog (if you have one) and make substantive comments on your posts. Thank you for reading!

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