I feel like we need to lay all our cards out here on the table with this "realism" thing. I keep seeing it get misused and, frankly, I'm not super-happy about it. I mean, it all seems pretty basic, doesn't it? And yet people keep messing it up. So, once again, let's roll out the Realism 101.
1) What Is Realism?
Realism is the illusion of reality, which is to say, the inclusion of real elements and rules to increase the solidity and consistency of a work. Realism exists to connect fiction (an abstract lie) to real life. For example, creating physical sensations of touch, smell, and taste are not possible in most mediums, but by appealing to realism, those sensations can be evoked.
It is important to distinguish between "physical realism" and "cultural realism". Physical realism refers to the laws of physics behaving the same as they do in real life; fire burns, water wets, and a sharp piece of steel being stabbed into flesh hurts like hell. The purpose of physical realism is to connect the audience's senses to reality, to invoke sensations that are not normally communicable through conventional mediums, and to give a sense of weight to the proceedings. And in most cases, even worlds with magic in them are still supposed to run on basically realistic cultural rules - again, fire burns, water wets, etc., even if the rest of the world is full of "impossible" things.
When it comes to those "impossible" things, by the way, I'd like to remind everyone that myth & reality have "coexisted" on Earth since the dawn of time. People have always believed in gods and monsters and other things that exist in fantasy - but they also believed that farming works like this and smithing works like this. They believed in consistency and observable results, but they also believed in snake-headed monsters and lightning-throwing deities. These things were not, to them, in opposition. Somehow, people found a way to create civilization even though they also believed that the sun was towed across the sky by a divine chariot.
Cultural realism, on the other hand, isn't a real thing unless your story takes place on Earth. Why bring it up? Because it's commonly invoked, usually to justify adherence to genre standards or to justify sexism/racism/etc. Culture is highly malleable. Even in real life, "cultures" across the world have a huge variety of values, styles, and concepts. You can find matriarchal cultures and race-inclusive cultures no matter how far back in time you go. The idea that people from a specific time period are "just that way" is factually and provably false.
In addition, if you're depicting an entirely separate society on an entirely different planet or plane of existence, there's absolutely no reason to connect it to a real culture's mores and values - after all, those two cultures have never made contact. Why would the world of The Witcher have the values of real Europe when those two cultures have never actually intersected? Is this meant to be some kind of parallel evolution? How, exactly, did a culture created in entirely different circumstances come to have the exact same values and standards and aesthetics of Medieval Europe? Is it because you're dumb and lazy, but you want to pretend you're a serious auteur?
When someone says "this game needs to have racism and sexism because that's period-appropriate", what they're usually saying is "I want my game to have racism and sexism and I'm going to use the guise of realism to justify it", and it'd all be easier if they just owned up to it.
2) Why Is Realism?
I already basically the question of "what realism does", but it's also important to note why people invoke it. People invoke realism because they believe it is a justification in itself; it's a "high concept" in a lot of ways, and even if you're not talking about the specific benefits it offers, people are generally willing to accept "realism" as a justification for a design decision.
But - and I'm repeating myself here - most people who invoke "realism" are doing so in a very haphazard way. People use it when it pleases them and throw it away when it doesn't. And that's fine as a design choice, but it's pretty bad as a justification for design choices. I've watched people argue that male heroes have to be muscular and strong because it's not realistic to have chubby or fat protagonists, but then immediately turn around when it comes to female characters ("oh, it's okay for them to have large breasts and curvy physiques because it's just a game"). The fact is, most people who invoke realism don't actually care about it. They just want to justify their design decisions but they don't actually want to carry through and make the product "actually realistic".
If you want something in your game to be realistic, fine, good. Realism is a helpful tool in a designer's arsenal. It has utilitarian benefits for creators. It does things. But if you're trying to tell me that the culture on your made-up world has to mirror your perception of a real culture, you're trying to escape judgment for your own design decisions. You're trying to go "well it's not MY fault, I HAD to do it, because of REALISM", and that's clearly not true, because "adherence to realism" is a choice, not a rule. And that brings me into my final point:
3) How Is Realism?
I just wanted to throw this out here: if you're going to invoke realism, please be careful that you're not totally fucking wrong. Because there's a shitload of people out there with half-formed ideas about Medieval Europe that they got from Renaissance Faires and Hollywood movies, and those people are like "well of COURSE this would happen, because REALISM". If you are going to invoke realism to justify something, please, please make sure that you actually know what you're talking about.
I mean, being frank: I don't expect a designer to know everything about reality. That's impossible. But if you're specifically going out of your way to say "I had to do this because of realism", please stop for a moment, do some research, and make sure that you're actually correct.
So, to sum up:
1) Realism is a useful tool, but don't pretend that you're bound by it when you're not.
2) Don't invoke realism as a justification unless you're prepared to be consistent.
3) If you DO invoke realism, make sure you know what you're talking about.
Thanks in advance,