CHI NL Read: Realism in Digital Games

Hello everyone! We are very pleased to have Katja Rogers showcase her CHI 2022 paper with us, titled “Much Realistic, Such Wow! A Systematic Literature Review of Realism in Digital Games“.

[Reading time: 5 min.]

This hierarchical taxonomy of the realism dimensions that we found attempts to arrange the dimensions of realism in the literature based on their degree of abstraction and how they relate to one another.

What’s your name?

Hi, my name is Katja Rogers!


Katja Rogers, Sukran Karaosmanoglu, Maximilian Altmeyer, Ally Suarez, and Lennart E. Nacke. 2022. Much Realistic, Such Wow! A Systematic Literature Review of Realism in Digital Games. In Proceedings of the 2022 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’22). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, Article 190, 1–21. (open access)

TL;DR (if you had to describe this work in one sentence, what would you tell someone?):

Realism is an important concept in the design of digital games, but it’s often unclear what is meant by the term, so we systematically reviewed the literature to identify the dimensions of realism that researchers conceptualize.

What problem is this research addressing, and why does it matter?

When referencing realism in digital games, researchers often don’t clarify what they mean by it. This makes it really difficult to synthesize and compare results of studies involving realism, and prevents a comprehensive overview of the many forms that realism can take on.  

How did you approach this problem?

The work consists of three parts:

  1. An informal review of existing typologies of realism, drawing on non-interactive media studies, simulator research, CAVE systems / virtual reality research, and games studies (see Figure 1). Across these, realism types can be broadly categorized as referring to narrative, perceptual, interactive, or psychological aspects—but there is a lot of overlap and confusion surrounding the term and the forms it can take on. 
  2. This motivated our systematic literature review using thematic synthesis (see Figure 2) to identify existing dimensions of realism conceptualized in 205 academic papers, and develop qualitative themes surrounding the design goals of realism/unrealism. This was based on reflexive thematic analysis of snippets of text surrounding relevant keywords (realism, realistic, fidelity, etc.); see Figure 3. 
  3. We then conducted affinity mapping and card sorting to map how the realism dimensions inter-relate within a framework that includes a hierarchical taxonomy (see cover image).
Chronological overview of all papers in our initial informal primer of existing typologies of realism across non-interactive media studies, games research, simulator research, and CAVE systems / virtual reality research.
Figure 1
Our method consisted of thematic synthesis (light and dark green) conducted using keyword concordances as data (left input) and existing realism typologies as theory (right input). From this we derived dimensions of realism, with which we conducted card sorting activities and affinity mapping (yellow). This resulted in two main contributions bold font, double border): themes based on the thematic synthesis, and 2) a framework consisting of a comprehensive hierarchical taxonomy of the dimensions of realism identified via the thematic synthesis, and an overview of how each type of realism maps in a common player-game interaction model.
Figure 2
Thematic synthesis was conducted based on keyword concordances of 600 characters before and after relevant keywords like “realism”, and employed first-order descriptive coding and second-order more interpretive codes.
Figure 3

What were your key findings?

Realism is a complex and multidimensional construct, and both realism and UNrealism are design goals in digital games. Across the literature, we found a lot more dimensions of realism than referred to in prior typologies of realism. Most commonly, papers did not clearly specify the type(s) of realism at play. These types of realism held varying degrees of abstraction (e.g., the more general perceptual realism vs. the more specific ones of visual/graphic, auditory, or haptic realism). In a prototypical model of player-game interaction (input; core mechanics; output), they often apply to more than one component (e.g., environmental realism can be based on both a game’s core mechanics and its output to the player).

What is the main message you’d like people to take away?

Consider the following best practices when you reference realism: 

  • give a clear definition of realism as a whole, 
  • clarify whether you consider realism through a subjective or an objective lens, 
  • clearly specify the dimension(s) of realism of interest to you, and
  • describe what you consider to be the opposite of high realism (e.g., abstraction, stylization, lack of detail, exaggeration, …).

What led / inspired you to carry out this research?

Throughout my PhD research, I found that the terms realism and fidelity are used so vaguely and broadly that it makes it incredibly difficult to give clear answers on when realism is or isn’t useful. This became a pet peeve of mine and drove me in wanting to systematically explore and untangle the concept.  

What kind of skills / background would you say one needs to perform this type of research?

This research mainly required a willingness to read up on a lot of different systematic review methods to find one appropriate for this particular type of review and research question, and a team that is willing and able to put in the time needed to support best practices like double screening with third-coder tie-breaking. Managing multiple coders throughout the various stages of a systematic review takes a lot of attention to detail to keep track of things, and make the process as smooth as possible. Finally, choosing the keyword snippet approach required being comfortable with scripting to deal with extracting text from multi-column papers and fixing encoding issues. 

Any further reading you recommend?

  • James Thomas and Angela Harden. 2008. Methods for the thematic synthesis of qualitative research in systematic reviews. BMC medical research methodology 8, 1 (2008), 45.

Your biography

I’m an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Amsterdam with the newly formed Digital Interactions Lab (DILAB). My key research interests focus on realism in virtual environments and digital interfaces. I’m especially interested in the role of realism in the design of embodied interaction as well as audio (in all its forms). I hope that by learning when to design for realism and when not to, we can do a better job in designing for positive effects of technology usage – be it increased learning, wellbeing and stress relief, or enjoyment.

If you’d like to chat more about realism, you can find me on Twitter and Mastodon, or just send me an email 😊.

Katja’s website:

CHI NL Read takes place around once a month, where board members and blog editors Lisa and Abdo invite a member of CHI NL to showcase a recent research paper they published to the wider SIGCHI community and world 🌍. One of the ideas behind CHI NL Read is to make research a bit more accessible to those outside of academic HCI.

CHI Nederland (CHI NL) is celebrating its 25th year anniversary this year, and we have much in store to acknowledge this occasion. Stay tuned!