Is swordplay in videogames anything like the real thing?

The sword has a special allure. Who hasn’t imagined being an expert duelist or grabbed a friend and sparred with a couple of sticks? 

Videogames are often the manifestations of our fantasies, an attempt to fulfill our dreams in a virtual version of a reality we wished we were capable of. They allow you to scale buildings when you have little to no upper body strength, or shoot villains with sniper rifles from miles away without much more than the knowledge of basic physics. But how accurate are these virtual representations of their real life counterparts?

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Rick Lane at IGN talks about how videogame swordplay correlates to reality:

Historically, games have been fascinated with swords even longer than they have with guns, ever since the D&D inspired RPG found its way onto computers in the 1980s. Unfortunately, in terms of sword-fighting, any chance of a realistic portrayal has been hobbled by dice-rolls and stats. Recently however there has been a spike in popularity of games which ostensibly present the art of sword-fighting in a more authentic manner. The likes of Skyrim, Dark Souls and Dishonored place less emphasis on numbers and more on player skill. But how much closer are these games to a genuinely accurate portrayal of sword-fighting?

If you took a longshot and said hardly at all not much, you’d be right. 

There are a whole host of problems with realistically depicting how swords work in games. “From a swordsmanship perspective, it’s all wrong,” Guy says. “You can’t model swordsmanship if you’re pressing a button.” This if the foremost issue with sword-fighting games. Conventional control systems simply aren’t built to represent sword-fighting accurately. The binary on/off nature of mouse buttons and gamepad triggers are completely at odds with the fluid, intricate nature of swinging a sword.

But what about Kinect? Motion control?

Motion controllers hold more potential, but there are complications here too. Guy does motion-capture work for Neal Stephenson’s ambitious virtual sword-fighting project Clang!, which will use custom motion controllers, but there are certain issues that he believes are very difficult to resolve. “If you swing with your sword, and the other man parries, in real life that stops your sword, or moves your sword in some way. In the game there’s nothing stopping the swing from going through, and that is the single most challenging problem we have to deal with.”

With motion control, we can see that perhaps our desires are not necessarily to make games as real as possible. Would you rather play Zelda with a GameCube controller or a Wiimote? For the large part, we cannot do the things we do in videogames in real life and this is part of the reason why we play them. If we could swordfight or were especially good at it, would realistic swordplay in a videogame be satisfying? This is one of the fundamental problems of virtual reality. The dissonance of player ability between reality and the gamespace is not something that is particularly bothersome, but largely part of what makes videogames so appealing.

You can read all of Rick Lane’s article, which has a lot on the evolution of martial arts and swordplay here