Game? Or Simulation?

What is the difference between a simulation and a game? I hear that question a lot and I’d like to propose an answer.

But, first, let me share a story. When I was younger, I used to play a lot of chess. My inner geek loved it! The rules are easy to learn and yet there’s an almost infinite number of possibilities. Such fun! My friends and I would stay late, after school, or play at each other’s houses.  They’d stomp me, I’d stomp them, and we’d try to impress each other with fancy terms. ‘Oooohh… Queen’s gambit.’

One time, I entered a big tournament! (queue the dramatic music … dunh, dunh, dunhhhhh) Chess tournaments are so intense. Everything’s quiet and everyone’s staring down at the cute little pieces on those tiny boards. There’s so much focused brainpower – probably unsafe really. I won some and lost some, and there was always that tiny hope that I’d beat someone better than me. Fiero!

Chess has been played for more than 1000 years! But, I have to ask, is it a game? Or is it a simulation? I know that sounds like a trick question, but it’s not. Most people play chess like a game. But some people are working on a whole different level – when they look at a chess board, they see a complex simulation – a mathematical symbol set. For some, it’s even a lifelong career.

So which is it, game or simulation? There’s no question that chess meets the requirements of flow – it has goals, feedback, and is simple enough to not distract. And most importantly, it has a great balance of difficulty vs skill when playing an equal opponent. I suppose that makes it a game – and that’s why it’s sold in toy stores and not office max.

But, what if we finish the story? We’ll have to fast forward many years to when I’ve become a software engineer. One of my co-workers had put together a casual lunchtime chess tournament. I hadn’t played for years, but it was just as fun as I remembered! And after that one event, I found myself sucked right back into the attraction! Only this time, I was older. And I studied it seriously, like old people do. I read books and bought software and starting going to tournaments every week. I put a lot of time into it and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute (yay flow!). But at some point, I realized that the game of chess no longer ‘felt’ like a game. It had become something else.

And there’s the answer to our original question: it’s about the level of expertise. Chess was a game when I started, but once I moved past the intermediate skills, it stopped ‘feeling’ like a game. The same is true of learning games. It’s pretty easy to come up with game ideas that teach beginner or intermediate skills. Like the Damage Control Trainer for the Navy. That game teaches basic skills and anyone who’s ever played it has said it ‘feels’ like a game. It really works.

But, what about a game for experts? That’s a different story. It’s hard to design a game that teaches experts but still feels like a game. Pretty soon we have an open-world sand box that allows the trainees and instructors to ‘play’ out complex scenarios. Experts need complex controls and they want sophisticated rules and actions. Somewhere along the way, it stops being a game – it becomes a simulation.

I want to end with one final story. I had a friend that played World of Warcraft (WoW). But not just played it, he PLAYED it. Like 20+ hours a week, for years. He was an uber-elite, WoW’ser. I watched him on a raid once and his screen was so covered with customized interfaces that I couldn’t even see what he was fighting. He said he doesn’t even look at the graphics anymore. All he sees is symbolic data – waves of scrolling numbers, hits, misses, percentage of health, and popup text that tells him to start a new buff rotation. At some point, he stopped playing a ‘game’ and started playing a complex simulation.

So that’s my answer. It’s depends on the level of expertise. I can make lots of products that promote flow, moment-to-moment control, and other techniques from games. But, once I start designing for the expert, it stops ‘feeling’ like a game. I suppose that’s still a fuzzy answer to the original question, ‘Game? Or Simulation?’ But you know what? It’s a simple and quick litmus test – and that sounds like check-mate to me.

This entry was posted in All, Game Design. Bookmark the permalink.