The line between games and simulations--game's less talked about cousin--is often blurred, and there are no absolutes. Use these guidelines to sort out whether a game or a simulation would be the best solution.
Serious games are being used more often as a learning solution in business and education. They are contextual and interactive, and they provide opportunities for failure to happen in a safe environment related to a performance outcome.
In general, a game-based approach might be a better solution when the learner requires less context or background information to make decisions. Games also are appropriate when learners have just short time periods for learning or when the content lends itself to a heavier entertainment approach. Games come from entertainment and while developing something "cool" shouldnt be an objective, a higher level of fun can be achieved by implementing more game-like features.
During the past couple of years, the use of games as an education and training solution has received plenty of press in industry and national publications, even The New York Times. However, I don't read as many articles about simulations or see many simulation-related sessions at training industry conferences or blog posts about the impact of simulations.
Why are simulations the games less talked about cousin? Is it because simulations have been a training solution for many decades (consider the 1929 Link Trainer flight simulation device), compared with the newer phenomenon of serious games (for example, 1980s edutainment)? Is it because simulations are often less fun because theyre based on more extreme context? Are simulations just consumed within the term "game" when people talk about immersive learning?
Games versus simulations
While there are blurred lines between games and simulations, there are fundamental differences. The list below demonstrates nine differences between games and simulations based on common elements, and explains when a simulation or game might be a better approach.
Remember that the line between games and simulations often blurs and there are no absolutes. This information is presented to get you to think about and consider the benefits of a simulation-based approach.
Amount of story
Game: Requires little back story. The learner can begin engaging with game play almost immediately.
Simulation: Requires a more intense back story to support situational analysis.
When to consider simulation: If learners need a great deal of information to make decisions, consider a simulation. Information can be delivered in the form of a back story that explains the details of the environment, with supporting information through resources and guides.
Point of view
Game: Experienced in a third-person point of view, detached from the consequences.
Simulation: Experienced in a first- or second-person point of view that creates more attachment to the consequences.
When to consider simulation: If personalizing the outcomes is important to skill development and behavior change, you may want to consider a simulation approach.
Type of situation
Game: Is centered on a fantasy environment that has little direct story line attachment to real life.
Simulation: Is built around a real-life scenario that often includes photo-realistic portrayals of environments and characters.
When to consider simulation: Consider a greater emphasis on simulation if real-life context is extremely important to skills transfer.
Interaction required for decision making
Game: Action-based interaction with keyboard keys and mouse controls is the primary activity.
Simulation: Scenario-based interaction with multiple-choice, branching decisions as the primary activity.
When to consider simulation: If interaction is based around branching decisions versus managing linked resource variables, you might consider an increased simulation approach.
Information or rules
Game: Rules govern play. The more you understand the rules, the more you can achieve goals in the game.
Simulation: Information governs play. The more information you have, the better you can make decisions.
When to consider simulation: Consider a more simulated approach if information analysis is the key element of the experience versus following rules that can be applied to almost any situation.
Linear or nonlinear process
Game: Learners can progress in a nonlinear fashion.
Simulation: Learners are required to make decisions within a more linear process.
When to consider simulation: If linear progression is required, consider an increased simulation approach.
Changing rules or situations
Game: New or changing rules, more difficult challenges, or different scenes can change game play from level to level.
Simulation: New situations, variables, and environments can change from scenario to scenario.
When to consider simulation: Consider more of a simulation approach if the chain of operation or process rarely change, but the same process can be applied to a variety of situations.
Type of feedback
Game: Feedback is immediate through scoring and level completion. Failure is indicated by the inability to continue in the game.
Simulation: Feedback is delayed based on decision branching. Success or failure is indicated by evaluating the outcome(s) of decisions.
When to consider simulation: If you want to provide intermittent feedback to learners after they have made a series of decisions, consider a simulation approach.
Score quantity or goal completion
Game: Completion is based on score, achievement through a final level, or a finite number of plays. The player might experience a completely different game the next time he plays.
Simulation: Completion is based on achieving the goal or conclusion of the process by making a finite number of decisions. Replaying the simulation is less challenging, but can reinforce good decisions because the experience is similar each time.
When to consider simulation: Consider more of a simulation approach if replaying the experience multiple times by each learner is not an important component of implementing the solution.
Variety of approaches to simulation
Depending on your learning goals, a single approach might work or you might find you need to blend a variety of methods. Below are simulation categories that might prove useful for selecting an approach or explaining your intended simulation outcomes to others.
Cause and effect. All games and simulations are cause-and-effect environments, but I refer to cause-effect simulations as those that are strictly focused on changing variables and analyzing the results of the changes. These simulations are sometimes referred to as "spreadsheet simulations." They often address practicing process, communication flow, or resource management.
Examples: Forio Simulate Gallery is an online library of simulations, many of which are available for free (http://bit.ly/wywBYy).
Climate Challenge is a simulation that puts you in the role of a president who must tackle global climate change from 2000 to 2100 (http://bbc.in/yZvVWu).
Physical. There are physical simulations such as flight simulators and medical simulators. But there also are physical simulations created for the desktop. These simulations mimic real-world physical actions. While the psychomotor context is often lacking, physical simulations provide cognitive preparation for the real-world physical actions they are simulating.
Examples: Interactive Science Simulations from Colorado University help learners make connections between real-life phenomena and the underlying science (http://bit.ly/wyLAMy).
Score Your Pour from Miller Brewing Company simulates your ability to pour a half-inch to 1 inch of foam without spilling (http://bit.ly/zmSi1h).
Blood Diagnostics simulation mimics the use of a blood diagnostics machine (http://bit.ly/A2RI4J).
Soft skills. Communication, decision making, and negotiation are just a few of the skills that fall within the soft skill performance category. Simulation is often used for skill development in these areas because it is a comfortable environment in which to make mistakes and observe the outcomes. Although the most applicable skills for simulation, these also are the most difficult simulations to do well. Designers must work to make a challenging simulation that creates believable scenarios, but not go over the top and create an interactive soap opera.
Examples: Negotiating for Results from NexLearn provides practice in preparing and conducting negotiated workplace agreements (http://bit.ly/ymmWwF).
Employee Security is an Allen Interactions simulation focused on evaluating employee threat levels and questioning techniques (http://bit.ly/AqEPcE).
The Crime Scene Game from William Horton Consulting provides an opportunity to practice interviewing skills in the role of a police investigator who interviews witnesses (http://bit.ly/wyFQg0).
Software. This one is self-explanatory; simulations are created to mimic software applications.
Examples: Creating a DNS from William Horton Consulting walks you through the process of creating a data source name (http://bit.ly/yNq1hu).
Administering Resources is a simulation on setting up resource-level permissions in an online software system (http://bit.ly/xKVqmO).
Obviously there is overlap between game and simulation environments, and sometimes its hard to define something as a game and something as a simulation. Hopefully, I've provided subtle differentiations that can be helpful in communicating and determining appropriate solutions for designers, stakeholders, and subject matter experts.