Writers have spent many many column inches discussing immersion in games. That is, if people can agree on what it actually means.
Immersion is some kind of quality that a game can have which makes it easy to lose yourself while playing it. Some people call it flow. Others call it a compelling narrative, or even just a cool IP that players want to be a part of. There’s probably more than one type of immersion – being immersed in game mechanics isn’t quite the same as being immersed in your in-game life/ story.
Compared to that, realism in games gets short shrift. Of course people can’t really cast fireballs, dragons don’t exist and couldn’t fly even if they did, space lasers don’t go pewpew in the blackness of the vacuum of space , and so on.
That’s a misleading definition, though. Realism in games is about being true to a genre, about NPCs acting and developing consistently, and about players being able to work out some values of cause and effect within the game world. Or in other words, a game world can build its own realism and then be consistent within that. And if a game has that sense of realism then the player can use RL logic to figure things out.
Here’s an example. In Dragon Quest 9, I picked up a quest from a cat. It said, “Meow meow meoooooooww!!!” and a quest went into my quest log (much like a real cat actually, although in that case it would have got bored and gone to sleep long before you figured out what it wanted).
So the logic of both the game play (you wouldn’t get a quest that was impossible to figure out) and the fantasy game world (magic exists, why not talk to animals?) says that at some point I’ll be able to learn how to speak to animals and can then come back and talk to the cat again. And now, although there is no quest in my log to say ‘learn how to talk to animals’ I will be looking out for opportunities to do that. In fact, my character just learned how to train as a ranger, and was told that it would help me communicate with monsters. Is a cat a monster? I don’t know if the game thinks so, but clearly I need to try this out.
So the more consistency, genre coherence, and realistic world building in the game, the less a player needs immersion breaking tutorials and quest pointers to figure out how to get to their goals. It’s the realism which gives players a chance to figure out anything on their own, other than by random trial and error. Can you make an educated guess at how to help that NPC, or do you need quest text that says ‘kill ten rats’?
This doesn’t need to be subtle. If I see a wagon at the side of the road and the owner says, “Oh no, my horse has cast a shoe,” then I don’t really need a quest to go and find a blacksmith … do I? I just need a motivation (maybe I need that wagon) – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an immersion-breaking quest reward (why exactly does that wagon driver want to give me a halberd and what was it doing in there anyway?)
I’m not sure though if this type of realism lies in the past or future of MMORPGs. Older games were more likely to try to do this, to create worlds which were more self consistent (even if they failed). Modern ones prefer to make their gameplay very separate, to have long quest lists with explicit goals and rewards. But even so, realism is that quality that makes a world believable. Without it, there might as well be no world at all.