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Beyond the obvious something that seams real, realism in games is a hard feature to hit.

In some cases, things that are completely impossible in real life are seen as realistic by gamers. For instance, in some FPS you can survive being hit by a fair amount of bullets when in real life one is enough, Newton-defying car drifts, etc.

So, in some cases, reductions of life-like actions or consequences implies a bigger sense of realism.

The root of this pseudo-philosophical question lies in:
I am going to create a engine for battles in an online (browser-based) strategic game. Browser-based means that the battle would not be seen. And i do not know how to approach this realism issue.

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So you create a game with battles, that cannot be seen. Where does the problem with realism arise? If there's nothing to show, there's obviously no realism to show? How does the user even know that there's a battle taking place? In short: Your question is kinda vague and open-ended. – bummzack Nov 16 '11 at 23:38
You're making a game right? Why are you aiming for realism rather than something fun to play? If you know the battles aren't seen, you're making an issue out of nothing. As such, I don't think this is a great question and it's very vague, so voting to close. – Ray Dey Nov 16 '11 at 23:48
You should take a look at Europa Unversalis, it's about the most real game that I know that has 'invisible' battles and feels very authentic, could be a good case study for you. – Roy T. Nov 17 '11 at 7:36
Reality is unrealistic. (Warning: link goes to TV Tropes. Don't go there unless you have a couple of hours to waste; it's very likely you'll lose track of time.) – Michael Madsen Nov 17 '11 at 22:39
Since you don't have battles shown, for realism, you should add in features like formations, weathers and etc. Those are likely going to help you achieve your realism that you want without showing battles. – Xeon Apr 28 '13 at 12:21

This is a common area of confusion amongst both game developers and players. Like many such confusions, its root cause is sloppy thinking. Video game worlds do not, in fact, attempt to mirror reality. Instead, they present their own limited worlds which are loosely based upon some facet of the reality with which you and I are familiar.

When people talk about realism in games, what they're really talking about is mimesis, which is (loosely speaking) the degree to which the presented world maintains internal continuity, within the boundaries set by the player's understanding of the game's fictional world. (I like to think of mimesis as "the degree to which something behaves like itself". Which is glib, but gives the gist of the idea)

To take an example from Roger Giner-Sorolla's essay Crimes Against Mimesis (which was written in reference to interactive fiction), the following would be a violation:

This is a tidy, well-appointed kitchen. On the table you see a chainsaw.

The chainsaw doesn't fit what we'd expect to find in a kitchen, and so it breaks the player's belief in the reality of the situation; or in other words, it breaks mimesis. (Randomly strewn coloured keys often had exactly this problem, in the FPS games being made in the 1990s)

By contrast, if the same scene was written:

This is a tidy, well-appointed kitchen. On the table you see breakfast: six fried eggs, a foot-high stack of pancakes and about a pound of fried bacon. A huge checked flannel shirt is draped across the chair, and on the other end of the table you see a chainsaw.

Now the player can fit the presence of a chainsaw into the reality of the game world; it no longer breaks mimesis, because we've given the player a plausible explanation for how and why the chainsaw came to be where it is.

This is the challenge in creating a game. It's presenting a consistent world where everything that's present is reasonable, and doesn't pull the player out of the world. It's fine to make things bigger or more exciting or not work using the same physics as the real world, as long as they work using the same physics as the game world. It's when established rules within your game world have bizarre exceptions that you break mimesis, and that people start complaining about a "lack of realism".

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I think the more common word in the game industry, and the entertainment industry in general actually, is 'Immersion' as mentioned by mh01. – James Nov 17 '11 at 19:06
@James: "Immersion" refers to the mental state of a player. Mimesis is a quality of a game (or other creative work). I'll agree that lacking mimesis is one really effective way to break a player's immersion, they're not the same thing. – Trevor Powell Nov 17 '11 at 20:33

Instead of realism, think immersion. The game must feel real to the player, but feeling real is not the same thing as being realistic. What's meant is that the game world and it's setup must be plausable (or at least semi-plausable), internally self-consistent, and deducable.

Take an old classic for example - let's say Doom. Everybody knows Doom. OK, we're on a moon of Mars (which just happens to have full gravity, breathable air and what looks like forested mountains in the background), demons from hell are running loose, and you're the only survivor. Most definitely not realistic, but within the rules of the game world that it sets up for itself, it works, and - yes - it was acclaimed for being "realistic" back in it's day.

For your specific example, don't get too hung up on the problem of being realistic. What you want instead is to set up a scenario in which the players feel as though all the wild, crazy and fun stuff you're going to throw at them may actually be happening somewhere, even if that particular somewhere may have completely different laws of reality.

So, how do we model a browser-based battle simulator? Well how do people normally get to witness battles they can't see? One way is through news reports I guess, which can contain all manner of outlandish exaggerations, propaganda and lies. And perfectly suited to a browser-based setup too. That might be a good start.

Another thing to do is take some inspiration from something similar that already works. Let's look at Nation States - a browser-based political simulator. You pick some starting parameters, every day you get issues, you make decisions and these decisions influence the country you're managing. Lots of room for ideas in there.

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+1 as Immersion is exactly what I was going to suggest. Video games go for believable to support player immersion more than realism. – James Nov 17 '11 at 19:04

I believe that Extra Credits just had an episode dedicated to this very topic which in my opinion was very enlightening.

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This is a great link! But right now this isn't an answer (link only). You should sum the video and also post the link. – bobobobo Apr 28 '13 at 10:10
Good point I will try and get to it sometime over this week. – ClassicThunder Apr 28 '13 at 21:37

I think by "realism" you really mean I believe it. In other words, I "buy into" this game world. The game world and how it works makes sense to me and I can work within it. My disbelief in the fact this game world is not real is "suspended". A good definition of "suspension of disbelief":

The temporary acceptance as believable of events or characters that would ordinarily be seen as incredible. This is usually to allow an audience to appreciate works of literature or drama that are exploring unusual ideas.

So the game world is self-consistent and has rules that it itself doesn't break. Abstract game worlds, like Rez, even though they don't have much relation to reality at all, are playable because they have consistent rules that you can learn, and so take control of the player and move him through the self-consistent game world.

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