What is a simulation of a game?


Presentation for Philosophy of Computer Games conference, Berlin, October 14-17, 2015.


The relationship between simulations and games is unclear.

Some, for instance, claim that that games are a particular sort of simulation — e. g., “the computer game is the art of simulation” (Aarseth, 2004, online).  Others claim that simulations are a particular sort of game — e.g., “I consider simulation models to be a subset of the more encompassing game model” (Klabbers, 2009, p. 49).

In both these instances — and in many others (see Karhulahti, 2014) — regardless of whether simulation or game is given priority over the other, simulation and game are assumed compatible with one another and, occasionally, equivalent.

Or, in other words, if a game happens to be a simulation — if, for instance,we claim that racing games or sports games or war games are simulations — then this claim alone does not preclude these games from being games.  Likewise, should a simulation also happen to be a game — as, for instance, nominative-based claims might insist about Microsoft Flight Simulator (subLOGIC, 1977) and Euro Truck Simulator (SCS Software, 2008) — then this does not preclude these simulations from being simulations.

With the goal of clarifying the relationship between simulations and games, I will argue here that transforming a game into a simulation may well preclude that game from remaining a game.

In order to argue this, I will not use a conventional strategy; I will not attempt to define a simulation, and then to define a game, and then to compare and contrast these definitions in hopes of finding either critical differences or critical similarities between the two.  Rather, I will restrict this analysis to an examination of what a simulation of a game (SoG) might look like, given three possible (and mutually exclusive) relationships between games and simulations:

  1. Games and simulations are essentially distinct — i. e., games are not simulations.
  2. Games and simulations are essentially equivalent — i. e., games are simulations.
  3. Game and simulations are in some relationship other than the two above.

The extent to which an SoG within any one of these three is more likely and compelling than within either of the other two is then taken as an indication that the relationship between games and simulations within that particular scenario is more likely and compelling than within the other two.

This strategy of focusing on the relationship between simulations and games, rather than on either game or simulation in isolation of the other, offers some advantages and insights in comparison to more conventional analysis.  For instance, this strategy initially avoids having to define a game as anything other than a simulation, not a simulation, or something in between.  This strategy similarly avoids having to assign a simulation any definitive ontological status beyond a single and important one:  its semiotic function as a reference.  For, as a reference, a simulation is necessarily bound in important ways to its referent.

Presentation slides.