What is realism in games? One might think of it as the way games’ graphics mimic reality – in other words, their pictorial realism. However, in games as in other forms of art, realism can have many forms beyond a simple illusion of reality. Enter social realism.

Social realism can be defined as “the realistic depiction in art of contemporary life, as a means of social or political comment.” (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2017), and focuses on “anonymous everyday workers were recast as heroic symbols of persistence and strength in the face of adversity” (Manes, 2012). At first glance, this is a difficult parallel to make with games. Many early games were preoccupied with shooting space invaders or chasing ghosts, or later with shooting pixelated bad guys and aliens, making gaming’s assumed escapism a far cry from Les Misérables. However, this social and political commentary is far from absent in the medium, and several very direct examples can be found in the history of gaming.

Figure 1: The ominous border (Papers, Please, 2013)

Papers, Please is a game set in a fictional soviet state, Arstotzka, and puts you in the place of an immigration inspector at its volatile border (figure 1). Your job is to control passports, stamps, and documents, and to assess who has a right of entry and who should be refused. The game takes a very human approach to this mundane task, however: what do you do when a citizen has the wrong stamp but is desperate to join their young children? Will you let them in but have your pay docked so much for the mistake that you cannot buy food for your family? Will you let a spy through for the greater good, if it means you may lose your job and your roof? When your family is ill, do you take corruption money to help them, or do you stand by your initial moral ground? All these questions are explored in the game, making it a sombre commentary on authoritarian regimes and their twisted values from the point of view of an every day anonymous worker.

Figure 2: “she imagines a place where she can live without fear…” (Dishonored 2, 2016)

Sometimes this commentary is more subtle, and has to be found and wanted by the player. Such is the case in the Dishonored series, wherein the player has access to a mechanical and magical heart allowing them to see the backstory of any character in the game, no matter how trivial (figure 2). Non-playable characters can sometimes serve as environmental fodder, and disposable pixels; not so in Dishonored. Pointing the heart at characters reveal disturbing truths about the world they inhabit, and how this has affected them. A woman dreams of escape from a world of fear. Her neighbour has killed a messenger boy for money. Another one burned down a store to pay for his children’s food. Some are evil, some are good, all are anonymous faces affected by the twisted world of Dishonored. This adds an interesting layer of social realism to the heroic antics of the playable character.

It is interesting to note that games strongly anchored in reality are not always the most social realist ones. The Sims, a game about simulating the (more or less realistic) life of a computer character, offers no commentary on the society it mimics; Civilization, a game about building civilisations around cities, economy and policies also abstains from this, presenting choices as a simple numbers’ game.

New Scientist notes that, in games, we are still awaiting a “Citizen Kane moment”, “when a landmark work wins acceptance that games can fully reflect the human condition“, and that this moment must be close (New Scientist, 2013). I agree – and I can’t wait!


Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016). Image my own.

Manes, C. (2012) MOMA |Social Realism: Art for the People [online]. Available at: https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/01/05/social-realism-art-for-the-people/ (Accessed: 23 January 2017).

New Scientist (2013) Social realism lets gamers feel reality’s bite [online]. Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029381-500-social-realism-lets-gamers-feel-realitys-bite/ (Accessed: 26 January 2017).

Oxford Dictionaries | English (2017) Social realism – definition of social realism in English [online]. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/social_realism (Accessed: 23 January 2017).

Papers, Please (2013) [image]. Available at: http://papersplea.se/ (Accessed: 23 January 2017).