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From Planes to Pets to People: The Growth and Breadth of Simulation Games

by: Garth Henson ; edited by: J. F. Amprimoz ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

What are simulation games really? This Bright Hub article follows the growth and explosion of simulation games in recent years and attempts to shine a light on what, exactly, they are.

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    Definition of Simulation Games

    Webster's dictionary defines simulation as "the imitative representation of the functioning of one system or process by means of the functioning of another". A simulation can therefore be viewed as a way of deriving the possible outcome of an action (or process). Everything from weather to investment markets are carefully simulated by specialized members of the particular industry using numerical models on powerful computers. Simulation and simulators are used in training and education functions as well. For instance, the military uses "war games" to simulate combat scenarios and train troops in correct protocol while universities and business schools will use "business games" to train their students in executive practices.

    But how do we define Simulation Games in the video game realm? In a dry, dictionary sense we can try to call one "the imititative represesentation of the functioning of one system or process by means of the functioning of" entertainment software. However, in addition to being somewhat boring, this definition is also much too broad. Super Mario Bros. is an imitative representation of a plumber trying to rescue a princess by means of the function of entertainment software, but we would be hard pressed to find someone who would label it as a simulation game. It does little to explain what the simulation genre means to gamers.

    First, we will try to refine our definition for simulation games. Then we will look briefly at their history and evolution to their current state.

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    One Gamer's Sim Game Is Another's Action Game

    As previously mentioned, at its basest level, every video game has a modicum of simulation quality to it, but to the average gamer, only a small portion of those titles would ever be labeled a simulation game. There is no real defined line that can distinguish a simulation game from other genres, but rather it is a spectrum of concepts that plays itself out to the individual gamer. Of course, some titles are so geared towards the raw definition we cited that there is little to no debate over their being a simulation game – but that is not always the case.

    Consider the balance of realism and entertainment as the defining line for simulation. Possibly one of the best examples to examine would be in a racing series such as Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsport. The realism of having to deal with everything from worn tires to custom suspension altering the handling of your vehicle could quite easily push these titles into the realm of being called a simulation game. On the other hand, we would be hard pressed to find someone arguing for the simulation title to be applied to other racing games such as Carmageddon or Out Run.

    This balance between realism and entertainment (or raw action, if you will) is really the pinnacle in defining just what a simulation game is, and this is also the concept from which we will view the rest of our discussion.

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    Early Simulation Games

    Considering the history of video games, perhaps the earliest and most widely accepted form of simulation game is indeed the vehicle simulator. Whether we look at Brad Fortner’s development of Airfight, an educational aerial dogfight simulator in which students could choose from an array of military aircraft and weaponry in order to shoot each other down in a shared airspace, or Atari’s Gran Trak 10, an early racing game, vehicle simulation games began to take flight (Oh Garth. Groan, really, groan. - Ed.) during the mid-70s. Lest you think that vehicle simulations end with these, however, consider that, through the years, we have seen simulators that let us fly planes, helicopters and spacecraft or drive cars, trucks and everything from a racing yacht to a battle mech from the comfort of our own home.

    All manner of simulation games have been spun as people have shown interest in simulating different aspects of real life within a digital world. As gaming developed over the years, new sub-genres of simulators were spawned. One of those genres is that of construction and management. With early successes like Will Wright’s SimCity (originally titled City Planner 1.0), the concept of having full control over construction and management of cities, parks and even entire eco-systems was discovered to be a magic formula to pull in fans for years.

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    Modern Focus on Simulation Games

    Another popular mode of simulation game that may not always be recognized as such is that of the sports simulation. Many early sports games were more fantastic and un-realistic and therefor may not have fit entirely within the definition of simulation we have established, but in more recent years, we have seen a long list of sports game franchises that pride themselves on being the most realistic of their realm. Perhaps the most widely recognized contributor to this pool would be Electronic Arts with their entire division of EA Sports dedicated to producing recognizable titles such as Madden NFL, NCAA Basketball, NBA LIVE, FIFA Soccer, Fight Night and more. These games allow us to step into the shoes of a sports figure and exercise judgment in environments which we would otherwise never be able to experience. Sports management games like Football Manager 2010 or Championship Manager 2010 offer players an amazing amout of management detail and realism by crunching numbers to predict outcomes of everything from subtituting an underpreforming player with a big ego to spending more money on training the 15-16 year old youth team.

    Along with branching into sports, we have more recently seen simulation games merge closely into personal life, and to address the rising interest, we see the unveiling of entire worlds that quite literally simulate entire aspects of real life. These “life simulations" offer an opportunity to live a simulated life vicariously through a digital medium and participate in conversations and activities in which we might otherwise never partake. Games such as Petz allow players to adopt and raise an animal from newborn to adulthood, taking on the activities of feeding, grooming and even playing with their digital pet. So, why not just adopt a real pet? Like the sports games mentioned above, many simulation games allow us to participate in activities that may not be feasible to most in real life – whether it be the adoption of Horsez and Tigerz or simply allowing a child the responsibility of a pet despite severe allergies.

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    Controversy Surrounding Simulation Games

    While Petz allows players to personally interact with simulated creatures, the profoundly popular Sims series, and other similar titles, allow a player to actually simulate human life. What part of life, you might ask? All of it. From being able to restrict a character’s access to food and water to encouraging interaction between two or more characters, these life simulations let you observe what might happen were you to have complete control over all aspects of a person's environment. This type of control can be quite revealing about our own character, interestingly enough. Those of us with a curious – though somewhat warped – nature have experimented on hapless characters within the games, just to see what might happen. The cheat codes in The Sims make these experiments even easier to conduct, and perhaps even crueler. Is this sort of deranged experimentation cause for concern? Not necessarily, because the world in which it is being executed is not real – the very definition of a simulation.

    It is this amoral nature of the simulated environment that has been cause for some controversy in recent years, specifically surrounding First Person Shooters. While FPS games have varying degrees of realism, from fantastic alien worlds and cartoonish over the top violence to the much more life-like Call of Duty series, even the most realistic FPS generally isn't referred to as a simulation game. Referring to our definition on the previous page of simulation as a spectrum between exacting realism and simplified entertainment we can offer some explanation.

    Getting shot at with live ammunition, unlike playing sports or driving a car at high speed, is not generally considered entertainment. Even CoD's often controversial gameplay and graphics are still so much towards the "simplified entertainment" end of the spectrum that it isn't called a simulator. The knowledge that there are no permanent repercussions from being fragged and the reality that none of your actions (or lack thereof) in game are of any permanent nature keep these games from being a realistic combat sim - and also help us understand the attraction to shooters. Furthermore, developing a more serious themed video game tends to generate more controversy than making one with little or nothing to say. Six Days in Fallujah, a game based on actual military actions carried out there was dropped by publisher Konami after veterans and anti-war groups mobilized against it - despite the number of veterans consulting on the project. A company announcing that their next game is a "combat simulator" rather than simply a shooter will get a lot of press, and might even be banking on it. It is a delicate balance of both politics and marketing when trying to find a definition for simulation games.

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    While the gamut of simulation games is vast and has grown considerably in both scope and quality through the years, the basic premise remains the same: place the player in a situation where they are forced to make realistic decisions and can see the simulated results of their actions. Whether we are flying over Germany in a Go229 Flying Wing, currying our digital pony or hunting Dark Wing mercenaries on Ander’s Moon, we are able to escape from reality into a digital world for a time. This quasi reality offers a level of control and entertainment limited only by the imagination of the player. So, whether you choose to build your cities or demolish them, shoot hoops or kick field goals, sit back, relax and enjoy!