Games As Simulation

Games are simulations.

Games take a set of rules describing how things work, and they apply those rules to a world state to determine how that world changes over time. Sometimes the rules are very simple; “Snakes and Ladders” has about four rules. Sometimes, they are extraordinarily complex; World of Warcraft has rules that govern the actions and interactions of thousands of actors at once, with each actor having maybe a hundred different ways to affect the progress of the simulation. All games, however, share these fundamental attributes: they simulate the changes in a system over time using a set of rules.

Inherent in their status as a simulation is the fact that games are abstractions. No simulation can be an exact model of real life. Therefore, games use only a subset of the rules present in the systems they simulate. Sometimes, games simulate the real world: Roller Coaster Tycoon simulates the everyday workings of a theme park. Sometimes, they simulate a fantastic world: Morrowind is a simulation of the fictional fantasy island of Vvardenfell. Sometimes, they simulate an abstract world: Conway’s “Game of Life” simulates a world composed of either a grid of unicellular organisms, or a world of multicellular organisms with a very strange way of living. In all these cases, however, the designers of the game have chosen which rules to include in the simulation and which to abstract away. Roller Coaster Tycoon does not require the player character to get sleep. Morrowind allows the PC to eat, but does not require it. The “Game of Life” uses a very limited set of rules.

What distinguishes a game from, say, the sort of airflow simulation used by aerospace engineers? Player interaction. In games, players can modify the progress of the simulation. They can change the starting parameters, or choose what an actor will do, or even modify the rules of the simulation as it progresses. It is this interactivity that is essential to the nature of games. Games simulate worlds, but their most important property is that they allow the player to affect the simulation. It is from this ability that goals emerge, that agency arises, that fun appears. Games are simulations with life.

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5 thoughts on “Games As Simulation

  1. The bit about airflow simulations makes me think of Chronic Logic’s Pontifex/Bridge Builder series. These are, at their core, physics sims of a sort that you can imagine an engineer using to answer the question “Will this bridge fall down if I build it?” — but with just enough player interaction wrapped around it to make it into a game. But then again, the bulk of the player interaction in these games consists of what the hypothetical engineer would be doing with his sim: altering the design of a bridge and putting it through its test.

    1. That’s a great example. It’s also an example of where the lines blur with this definition; what makes Pontifex a game and some civil engineering tool just a simulator? The interactivity and goal-definition sometimes lies within the game, and sometimes it lies with the player who turns the program into a game. It’s a very fluid medium we have here.

  2. I don’t entirely agree. Simulation is a part of what games are, but it’s not everything. One major aspect that distinguishes a game from a simulation is that in most games there is one or more purposes from the get-go: there are things to achieve, and ways of losing. These are not up to the player – they are part of the design.

    I find this to be particularly important in light of the “games are art” discussion, and the constant claims from companies like Bethesda that “in this game, you can be whoever you want to be, do whatever you want to do!” Some games may be all simulation, but many games also have a structure that, while interactive and possibly branching, is not simulation – it’s story. (But a new kind of storytelling.)

    I’m not sure how to explain this properly. I’m probably just too tired right now. The point I am trying to make is that what I don’t want to be ignored is the intentionality of game design, of game structure, which is not the same as the results of a simulation.

    But you’re right, of course, that what distinguishes this artform from others is agency. The player is not the same as the reader or the viewer.

    1. I don’t think games are entirely simulation, but simulation is essential to their nature. Story is another very important aspect of games.

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