Saturday 11 August 2012

Games and Simulations

When is a game a game? When is a simulation a simulation?

That gnomic expression actually arises from some ‘professional’ reading I have been doing. I happened to stumble across some papers on ‘serious play’ and serious games’. In one of them the author was at pains to try to distinguish between simulations and games.

I suspect that, like me, you were probably unaware that there was a particular distinction between them. However, my author (Rushby, N.,(2012),  ‘Making Serious Games Better’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 43, 2, 179) declares that serious games are not simulations, although a serious game may include simulations.

Now, it is possible that you are as confused as I was by this, so I will try to unpack what is going on here.

A serious game is something which is designed to help people to learn. Empirical evidence suggests that people learn quite effectively using serious games, and they enjoy doing so. In this context, a serious game is something like the computer games that the US Army uses for training purposes.

For example, I seem to recall that, a while ago, there was some amusement in the press when the Australian Army bought a US Army training package, and the US vendors changed all the cattle in the package (I think it was for helicopter pilot training) into kangaroos. The veracity of the story is, in my mind, somewhat open to doubt, but you get the idea of the purpose of the game.

A simulation is something slightly different, at least in this context. For example, a flight simulator is reasonably familiar, at least in concept, for most of us. If you turn left the simulator turns left, and if you slow down too much you stall. The point about simulation is that represents a slice of reality, with known inputs and outputs, and this can be assessed for correctness.

The key words used here are validity and fidelity. Fidelity, at least, varies with the skill of the trainee. Someone start off in a flight simulation will need something that is more forgiving of mistakes than an expert there to learn how to deal with specific emergencies. Both, however, need a valid simulation, that is, one which does replicate some real world qualities. Furthermore, in this case, the learning needs to be transferrable, but which we mean that some aspects of the system need to be recognisable in the real worlds as well.

So, then, what is the difference between a serious game and a simulation?
A simulation has a well-defined set of inputs and outputs, closely related to the real world. A game is, I suggest, more open ended, and, in some senses more immersive than a simulation, and has a stronger narrative thread running through it.  

Therefore, the argument is, a game may well include a simulation, or even several simulations, but a simulation does not, of itself, include a game.

Fair enough, I hear you cry, but why is this interesting and what is it to do with wargaming?

Well, I think there are a number of issues, here which the distinction points up.

Firstly, the question is which camp does wargaming, as an exercise in pushing toy soldiers around a table, fall into?

I guess the answer to that is fairly straightforward. Wargaming is a game, in the sense defined above it could also, possibly fall into the serious game category. But wargames also include a simulation, in the sense of a model of combat and movement.

Now a model, as I’m sure I’ve bored you with before, is a stripped down and abstracted version of reality, often represented (even in wargames) by some mathematics, even if it is just adding and subtracting numbers. So a wargame, in this definition is some sort of mathematical model engine of reality, with known inputs and outputs (the simulation) plus something else.

The something else is, of course, that which makes a wargame a wargame, and it is, I think, to do with narrative. Even a simple ‘pick-up game’ has a narrative, even if it is an abbreviated one. The abbreviations comes in not having some sort of back story as to why the two forces are there opposing each other, but the main narrative of the battle is usually unaffected by this.

The second issue to come out of this is to question how educational a wargame might be. A serious game is there for people to learn stuff – about how to do things in terms of achieving overall goals, negotiations with other players and so on, while a simulation concentrates on the immediate inputs and outputs.

Therefore, a goal of educational wargaming might be to try to understand why some decisions were taken, or even forced on the opposing sides. A simulation of a battle would be more constrained; the suggestion is that simulations should, for a given (historical) input produce a given historical output, even if you can see, by working out the process from one to another, how it happened in real life.

Most wargames are not of that nature, however, but we do require some sort of historical veracity and validation to our games. That is, if we wargame Waterloo, we want a logic to why, on the table, Napoleon won, something which we can reflect upon and say “well, that was the critical point”.

This brings us to another issue about the relative failure of educational games to make an impact. A game is more than just doing stuff, it is part of a culture, where wargames do meet, face to face or virtually, to share experiences, tips, ideas and concepts. This blog is an example of such. This relates back to the immersiveness of the game, and how the cultural context of the game and gamers impacts on their playing.

That last point is a big subject, and I have mumbled about it in the past (and I probably will again in the future). In the mean time, perhaps we should be a bit more careful with our language, and say that we game rather than simulate, because I suspect we can agree that the narrative is important to us as wargamers.

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