When is a serious game a simulation?

I have had several discussions with people at workshops on games/gaming about what is the difference between a simulation and a serious game? In fact on the one hand this is a simple question (games are fun, simulations are not), however, it is more complex depending upon what is meant by simulation. Igor Mayer (of Gala) makes a very good distinction between a simulation and a serious game – based on the idea of a box: with a serious game you are inside the box playing the game; with a simulation, on the other hand, you are outside the box, manipulating some variables and watching what happens to the result. This type of simulation might be a production line/factory simulation, (physical system?, etc); such a simulation can be ‘played with’ in an experimental manner – watching what happens as the variables are changed – typically until some optimal solution is arrived. However, this type of simulation is not the only type of simulation. If we simulation a social process – such as a decision making process, for example, the decision whether to invest in a start-up company, then we are simulating the social process of a group people discussing, negotiating, and trying to reach agreement. In this case there are no variable which we can manipulate; and continuing with the box analogy the participants are inside the box. A further complication is that most serious games that are intended to address real-world problems need in some way to simulate some part of that reality; whether that be the roles that participants play – fo r example in a crisis management simulation (fire department, police, hospital, etc), and also the process of what happens – the procedures  (the first responder calls the ambulance because there are casualties at the scene, etc). The ambulance calls the fire service to cut open the crashed car to get access to the injured passengers…

So the being inside the box (game) and outside (simulation) is a useful distinction; but we need to keep in mind that some simulations simulate complex social processes and are not mathematical simulations. Complex social processes  are not black-box mathematical simulations, driven by equations. But rather than focus on this philosophical question of the definition of a serious game the most important thing is to ask what is the game/simulation trying to achieve – is it to practice an emergency response to a crisis, or is it modelling a factory or airport’s operations? In the former we would concentrate on defining the roles and processes that participants need to enact, in the latter we would focus on defining the system mathematically (input/output variables, equations, etc). So the game/simulation design needs to be driven by what the game/simulation is for and for whom…

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