Fantasy vs. Realism

The standard Big 5 includes a facet in the domain of Openness to Experience called “Imagination” (here’s a link to IPIP inventory: Imagination).

When people take the Big 5 test, the ones who score high on Imagination (here, ‘IM’) mark that they ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with statements like:

  • Have a vivid imagination
  • Love to daydream
  • Spend time reflecting on things

Inversely, people who score low on Imagination tend to ‘agree’ with statements like:

  • Seldom daydream
  • Do not have a good imagination
  • Have difficulty imagining things

Let’s remind ourselves that these are self-assessments. This test gives people a way to report their own experience, away from particular goal or outcome. These scores are not the result of a clinician ‘testing’ someone’s imagination and producing a value that shows how strong that faculty is for them. It’s a claim they make about what it is like to be them (and, therefore, what kind of entertainment they tend to prefer).

Before we jump into how this applies to gaming, I think it’s worth spending a few extra words on the experience of the facet itself. For a variety of reasons, I find it to be one of the facets that can be difficult for game developers to come to grips with.

The simplest explanation of this facet I have come across is this: people with a high score find their inner world more interesting than their outer world, and people with a low score find the outer world more interesting than their inner world.

The Game Industry Is High-IM

It should surprise no one that when I give game developers the Big 5 test, or when I give talks on motivation and I poll the crowd on fantasy vs. realism, that the population skews heavily towards high Imagination. In many ways, imagination is our job.

The challenge this creates is that it is easy to come to believe that high-imagination experience is the norm in our species. There is a temptation among many game developers to even look down on those who cannot do what they can do, as though the ability to create a clear mental fantasy was somehow a sign of an inherent superiority.

Of course, that isn’t true. In other, more physically-based industries, the dangers that can emerge while working with people who spend much of their lives in their heads are made clear. Daydreaming is not a high-value attribute for people who deal (for example) with dangerous materials, machines of any kind, direct human care & interaction, etc.

That fact can be easy to forget that when one is born, bred, and raised in a safe, Silicon Valley-style environment.

The ‘examined life’ is one part of the human experience. As someone who spends a huge amount of time in his head, I can tell you that I found it astonishing to interview a large number of people who have never had the experience of long periods of inner examination or contemplation.


People with a low Imagination score tend to look puzzled when asked what they are thinking about. They will tend to be people who are engaged directly with what is in front of them at all times, and do not see the need to ignore the actual world for long periods. This does not mean that they do not think–quite to the contrary, they think constantly, but tend to let their mind do the thinking for them, rather than constantly driving their mind towards particular ideas or fantasies.

This is what is meant, generally, by the word ‘practical’. It is easy for high-IM people to become distracted by their idea of what is happening around them, even when that idea may have nothing to do with the truth. Low-IM people will be more inclined to see things as they actually are.

Genre Preference

With that definition in mind, it may be easier now to understand why a high-IM score tends to predict a preference for fantastic or highly-imaginative settings and a low-IM score tends to predict for a preference for realistic ones.

There may be several factors at work here. With a low-IM person (and depending on the individual), it may be the case that a life spent looking at the real world has given them a much richer appreciation of what the actual world contains–which in turn leads to a preference for those topics based on familiarity and affinity. Or, it may be that without the years spent tasting the complex twists and turns of fantasy settings the barrier of entry to comprehend what is happening in a unique, unrealistic setting too high.

The same processes may generally be present with a high-IM person, but in reverse. Someone who has spent much of their life inside their own mind, digesting a complex web of  stories and other worlds (both from other people and of their own making) has, therefore, spent less time engaging with the real world. Their affinity for those entertainments we find in reality will likely therefore be lower, etc.

Keep in mind that when I am describing these processes, I am generally sharing experiences that my interview subjects described to me, coupled with my own analysis. It is a subjective mess, and may or may not reflect the global experience. I found in my discussions that there are many, many ways for a person to arrive at a high or low score in any of these facets.

Individual experience is impossible to predict. Here, I am trying to simply provide the designer with a foundation upon which to start to build empathy.

What is ‘Fantasy’?

By this point, it is probably clear that ‘fantasy’ in this context does not necessarily include only the kinds of settings traditionally associated with the genre of ‘fantasy’ (elves and dragons and etcetera). Here, we area discussing all things imaginary.

People with a very low-IM score may in fact reject all storytelling as a waste of time. What good is a story that didn’t actually happen? To many people, the answer is ‘not much’. To such people, the best offerings in video games are often either purely abstract (Tetris, etc) or deeply realistic (simulators of all kinds, etc). People with very high-IM may reject completely anything without fantastic elements.

Fantasy and Realism are Exclusive

Unlike many facets of game experience, we cannot (yet) provide a game that satisfies both the high-IM player and the low-IM player. Plenty of games stretch out the distance here by providing either highly-credible fantasy worlds (Skyrim) or by providing lightly-fantasized versions of the real world (Call of Duty). Still, the designer is obligated to decide which extreme of preference their game will satisfy.

Interestingly, while it is not (yet) possible to build a game that will satisfy, there are absolutely people who are capable of thoroughly enjoying both ends of the spectrum. People are still more flexible than vieo games, it appears.

Developing Accurate Empathy: High-IM for Low-IM

I hope that the first part of this article is already a good step towards kick-starting this process.

But to truly expand one’s understanding of the low-IM experience, I have found the simplest method to be to play high-quality realistic games–but rather than allowing the experience of ‘mundanity’ to become the primary experience, to instead actively seek out a personal appreciation for the parts of the game that remind you of the real world.

The Madden series is an interesting example of this. Madden as an entertainment experience is simply vast – it has 3-5x more game inside it than most games with a similar price. It’s a fan-favorite that continues to impress year-over-year. I would offer that anyone who can’t find something to enjoy in Madden either isn’t actually trying or has a personal block against the sport itself. For myself, once I got over my prejudices, I found a game that can be just as deep and as rewarding as any of the Pokémon series.

Games like Spintires, the less-wacky versions of The Sims, vehicle sims (Euro Truck Simulator, Flight Simulator, etc), or any of the hundreds of other games that offer cool-and-mundane experiences that have become available on Steam over the past decade are great titles to experiment with. Find one you genuinely like, and play the shit out of it. Learn to savor the real world.

Developing Accurate Empathy: Low-IM for High-IM

Going the other way is sometimes tricker. However, low-IM people in the games industry usually have already spent their life being exposed to the stuff that their colleagues like. In fact, sometimes such people develop an inferiority complex about their preferences. “I guess that stuff is cool…” Often, this means that low-IM people already have developed something of an understanding about the high-IM experience.

But of course understanding and empathy are not quite the same thing. How do you go about developing empathy for an experience you can’t really have?

Like many of the other facets, one of the best ways is to stretch yourself with what you can do. Most folk who spend time playing games have an idea of their upper-limit of fantasy that still ‘works’ for them. Go there. Go there, and while you are playing that game, put your attention on the feeling of escape the world offers you.

The central promise of a fantasy setting is this: you can go to a place where the unpleasant limitations you live with every day can be lifted. There’s nothing inherently wrong or dangerous within this promise (even if it is possible to take it too far) — while you play, put your focus on the sensation of being released from your daily limitations.

Then, try out something that is beyond your understanding. Try something far more fantastic than you would normally try. And when you do, search for where that escape might be found for you. Is there something in this fantasy setting that releases you in some way? It can be as simple as “here is something I never really thought about before.”

Search for that, and if you find it, dig in and enjoy it.


How much fantasy or realism players want from designers varies dramatically, and presents a series of difficult decisions for the game developer to make — and without a broad perspective, it is far too easy for designers to make assumptions about other people’s experiences that can drive their games to fail.

Each individual has an inherent range of imaginative breadth that they are willing or able to enjoy. Humans as a group enjoy the fantasy experience to some extent, but disagree on where the ‘best’ setting is. You’ll never satisfy everyone, but the further you push your game towards the imaginative or simulation edge, the higher the chance that your game will turn off people at the other end of the spectrum. Is that a problem? Only if that isn’t your intention.

People love to argue about this one. When this topic comes up, I encourage designers to spend more time listening than speaking. You might be surprised by how  much you learn.

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