How much reality should a simulation game reflect?

When my mom video called me this Monday, I told her that recently I have been obsessed with Animal Crossing on Switch. She was curious about the game and asked me what the game was. Therefore I moved my character around to show her my island, telling her in this open-world simulation game you have an island where you can catch fish and bugs, dig fossils, plant fruit trees as well as sell these things to get money for new houses, furniture and clothes. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

She seemed to like this game a lot and asked more detailed questions. I was really happy to see she liked it (because she is not a gamer and most of the time she shows indifference to the games I play) and continued to show her my newly opened museum, especially the unusual fish I caught on my friends’ islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Then she said, “How can you keep these fish and bugs alive? They are from the other hemisphere. Can they adapt to the climate and environment here? Also, to sustain the ecosystem, I suggest you not fish too much.” 

The question and comment left me speechless for a while, and then I realized that for a person that has hardly played any games especially simulation games, I can’t assume that they know a simulation game is simplified for fun and doesn’t 100% reflect the reality. This difference in cognition prompts me to think how much reality a simulation game should reflect and the reasons behind simplification and adaptation of the reality.

In my opinion, the design choices made related to verisimilitude highly depend on the purpose of the game. Animal Crossing doesn’t have a definite and clear goal for players to achieve. There are quests you can take, but your game experience won’t be ruined if you don’t. The core pleasure of the game is to enjoy the freedom of living and thriving on your own island. Freedom is created through various activities I mentioned before. Given that there are so many things players can do in the game, the great breadth of player interactions comes with inevitable limits of depth of each interaction. If fishing in Animal Crossing were like real-life fishing where you have to wait for fish to appear for minutes or even hours and take the risk of the rod breaking when catching big fish, it might give you a greater sense of achievement. But how much time is left for other equally fun activities? Going too deep and real in activities that are only part of the gameplay deviates from the core pleasure and decreases the total amount of fun players can get from the game.

Another important factor that decides how real a simulation game should be is the target audience. We can divide game players roughly into two groups: “hardcore players” who treat the simulation seriously and want the real experience by playing the game, and “casual players” who only anticipate the fun and sense of achievement of doing something they are not able to do in real life. For the former, games with realistic details like Microsoft Flight Simulator may be their best choices. However, if a game like Animal Crossing is created for general audience, the gameplay should lean towards a design that keeps the fun of novel activities and removes the unpleasant/tedious part of them which may drive players away. If creatures caught on my friend’s island in the Southern Hemisphere cannot live on my island in the Northern Hemisphere because they cannot bear the different climate in real life, then suddenly I lose fun and motivation to go to my friends’ islands.

In conclusion, when deciding how realistic a simulation game should be, there is no universal answer. It depends on the shape (breadth and depth) of your game and the audience.

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