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Playability as Realism

Jon Garthoff


In this essay I discuss how realism operates to constrain games, especially role-playing games, that take place in a fantasy milieu. The design of these games involves tradeoffs between two values, which are sometimes labeled “realism” and “playability”. These values are ordinarily understood to be wholly independent and competing. Using resources drawn from John Rawls's conception of political theory as a search for a “realistic utopia”, I show how these values can instead be understood as aspects of the more general value of creating and conceiving a realistic fantasy through the medium of game play. I also explain how realism operates differently as a constraint on tabletop role-playing games from how it operates in realistic video games and live-action role-playing.

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