October 9, 2003

Simulation Aggravation

by Andrew Stern · , 10:04 am

Greg Costikyan posts a strong, unhappy reaction to newsgaming.com‘s Sept 12. I was glad to read zang.org’s balanced reaction to Greg’s post. (Mind you, Greg is someone who lives a block from Ground Zero in NYC, who saw the towers fall.)

Without getting into the politics (other than to say I find Sept 12 to be a useful, thought-provoking piece, and exciting new genre for games), I’m not sure why Greg and some of his commenters are so vitriolically opposed to calling Sept 12 a simulation. Greg writes, at the height of his vehemence,

But to call this a “simulation,” as the creators do, is fucking obscene. Simulation of what? Where’s the research? What systems are simulated?

Hmm. A common definition of a computer simulation is: “the technique of representing the real world by a computer program; a simulation should imitate the internal processes and not merely the results of the thing being simulated”

Perhaps they object to calling Sept 12 a simulation since, by its own admission and intent, it presents a biased, opinionated “toy world”. It’s not meant to be an objective model of the “real world”.

But this may not be the source of Greg’s reaction. Maybe he sees Sept 12 as simply too “toy”, too small to deserve to be called a simulation, since its underlying control logic may not be much more complex than, say, Missile Command.

But, assuming the implementation is in some bottom-up rule-based way, that theoretically would allow for emergent behavior, it’s a simulation. But what is it simulating? Its own internal world logic. By this definition, a simulation doesn’t have to model “real world” logic, just be consistent within its own world. It’s simulating the logic of a non-purely-realistic worldview.

If Sept 12 weren’t implemented in a bottom-up rule-like way — if it were in fact re-creating the results of the implied internal processes in some far less flexible hard-coded-like way, not generating them from rules — it would be an emulation, not a simulation. For example, if they created gazillions of quicktime videoclips that covered all the possible permutations of when you could shoot a missile, all the patterns of buildings you can destroy, etc., and played back the correct videoclip in response to the player’s actions, that would be an extreme case of an emulation. (I’m sure my friend Adam Frank would like to me point out, if an emulation is good enough, it is indistingushable to the player from a simulation.)

By this definition of simulation, a lot of videogames not called simulations could technically be simulations: Pong, Missile Command, Defender, Pac-man, Quake, Sept 12. Or, if they’re not actually currently implemented as simulations, they could be. But most games (if not all) probably have some emulated behavior mixed in with the simulated behavior, making them what one could call “impure” simulations.

This is a major difference between games and hypertext, by the way. Games often could be implemented as simulations, potentially allowing for emergent behavior; hypertext cannot (unless you adopt a more “exotic”, simulation-like approach). Interactive fiction (e.g., Inform) has simulation elements. Personally, I think the most interesting approaches are hybrid top-down / bottom-up approaches, like IF.

Update: Minutes after posting this (when I should have been getting back to work already), I found a new paper on Gamasutra, by the Interactive Insitute of Sweden’s Craig Lindley, “Game Taxonomies: A High Level Framework for Game Analysis and Design”. In the paper, among many things, he talks about games as / versus simulations.

17 Responses to “Simulation Aggravation”

  1. Mark Bernstein Says:

    “This is a major difference between games and hypertext, by the way. ”

    You don’t need to go all the way to Card Shark and Thespis for examples of rule-based hypertext: _afternoon, a story_ (Joyce 89) is already built from what you’re calling “bottom-up rules” and Storyspace calls “guard fields”.

  2. noah Says:

    I don’t want to seem to be bringing up First Person in every comment thread, but I think Gonzalo’s essay in the book makes clear what he means by simulation:

    Narrative is based on semiotic representation, while videogames also rely on simulation,[1] understood as the modeling of a dynamic system through another system…

    1. I am often criticized for using the term “simulation” in a very broad sense, particularly by colleagues with a computer science background. Traditionally, simulations model real systems and connote an intention of scientific understanding. When I use the term it is in order to describe a different form of representation and, as in modern semiotics, I do not see the need for a real referent. Just as the word “unicorn” lacks a real referent, I say that Mario Brothers simulates an imaginary dynamic system (the Mario world).

  3. andrew Says:

    Noah, thanks for excerpting that quote from Gonzalo; I’m on the same page as him, probably due to osmosis from reading his papers and helped along by drinking together at Siggraph. (Although he has some pretty strong views about interactive drama that I sometimes don’t agree with :-)

    Mark writes: “_afternoon, a story_ (Joyce 89) is already built from what you’re calling ‘bottom-up rules’ and Storyspace calls ‘guard fields'”

    Yes, that’s true, that’s a way to inject some autonomous system behavior into the experience of reading / playing a hypertext. (Perhaps all of these arguments about games vs. hypertexts vs. IF etc. could be boiled down to statements about one’s preferred balance of the various ingredients they all share.)

    Also, in your considerate post about newsgaming.com on your blog, “September 12th isn’t a simulation, not in any serious sense”, I basically agree with that too; it’s pretty small. But it has enough behavior to it to make its point; we all agree, it’s more than just an editorial cartoon.

  4. nick Says:

    I was going to write about this at greater length, but I’ll mention it briefly instead: September 12 succeeds in one important regard and fails in another.

    It’s a success – and nothing proves this better than the angry criticism of it – because it demonstrates that a small, simple game of this sort can be about a serious issue in the real world. This is an issue very important to Gonzalo. Notice that when people criticize the game by saying “but the world isn’t like that! this is a stupid oversimplification” they assume and admit that the game is about the real world, even if they don’t think it does a good job of being about the real world. I think September 12 is an advance over Kabul Kaboon in this regard, perhaps because you aren’t a victim but rather control the trigger, or perhaps because it is more realistic both in terms of its graphics (still cartoonish, but not cribbed from a painting) and its interactivity.

    However, the problem with September 12 is that it doesn’t do any of the interesting things that Boal’s theater projects do. You can’t use it to rehearse for the revolution. You can’t try different strategies or get into different roles to try to overcome oppression. In fact, it’s a situation of violence rather than oppression that we see here, so I suspect that there’s no way to formulate a game that deals with this in a Boalian way. Part of the problem may come from its being overly simple; part may result from its being a one-player game.

    Now that many of us agree that games can be serious, we should try to develop games that help us work through serious issues in a complex way. That requires that games provide more than just provocation: they should provide a space (a simulation) in which we can act and think in many new ways. Some may have done this already, but I don’t think September 12 is among them.

  5. Jason Says:

    As I posted last week ( http://misc.wordherders.net/archives/000900.html ), I don’t think that Sept. 12’s “behavior” (to crib Andrew’s term) is nearly as intriguing or thought-provoking as the paratext/media that buffers it – the images, the rules, and so on (the post listed above goes into much greater detail, so I don’t want to repeat unnecessarily here).

    And, apologies for being dense here (and clearly I haven’t had the privilege to read First Person yet, which might clear up my confusion), but I’m not clear on his distinctions regarding simulation. You quoted Gonzalo as stating: “Narrative is based on semiotic representation, while videogames also rely on simulation” with simulation defined as “the modeling of a dynamic system through another system.”

    What is the “another system” in there? Or, in other words, how is stating that “Mario Brothers simulates an imaginary dynamic system (the Mario world)” different than stating that “The Sound and the Fury simulates an imaginary dynamic system (Yoknapatawpha County)?” The distinction – to me at least – seems to rely *less* on the modeling of a dynamic system (both are fictions of complex systems – the South in one, a carpenter-turned-plumber’s adventures in another) but rather more on the delivery (mediation) of those systems (simulations).

    Both rely in part on semiotic representation (as he clearly states), but I’m not sure how both are not also simulations? It seems that the -something- he is looking for to describe games’ (perhaps ergodic?) nature is something other than the ability to simulate a dynamic system? Or does a simulation, in these terms, require some semblance of increased control not afforded in a novel (as opposed to a relatively ‘linear’ platform game)?

    To continue the ramble: could it be that he meant to say “the modeling of a dynamic system through another *dynamic* system” – but I’m not sure I would disqualify the reading of signs by claiming that doing so is “not dynamic”?

    Someone want to untangle these knots for me?

  6. William Says:


    Your note makes me consider again the ideology of the game-that-can-be-mastered as a type of simulation. The fact that there’s not much you can do may be part of the point. I think it’s what I hinted at as being a sort of operational bias in the game-object – that the pleasure of the game is part of an ascendence of a kind of technological/economic mastery that Heidegger made reference to: one in which relations with the world are eventually framed in exclusively operational terms.

    I think there’s a difference between a dynamic system and a manageable one. You can have a sophisticated, dynamic model that you can never get to behave the way you want: it’s definitely simulation, it’s just not fun. In its simple, toy-world way, that’ exactly what 9/12 is, and that’s part of the strength of its rhetoric.

    What can the player “do” about terrorism? That’s an essentially hegemonic position. And no wonder: games are about pleasure, and having power is more pleasurable than not having power (certain libidinal complexities aside.) Games about terrorism – or any game in which mastery can be achieved over a model of a usually intractable simulation target – may provide, perhaps, a cathartic release for those who feel closely identified with power yet feel they lack it (perhaps that’s the malaise of the American population). Or perhaps it serves to educate a process-oriented workforce: everything I needed to know about SAP, cost management, offshoring, and downsizing, I learned from SimCity and Masters of Orion.

    As far as the relationship with theatre goes, it should be recalled that Brechtian theater usually did not include resolution within it: the Brechtian model was to motivate an engagement with the problem that was productive, not to create a sort of fetish-resolution in the dramatic field to bring emotional closure. That’s what I think Nick misses above: we shouldn’t want to win “the revolution” in the game, we want the game to help us think the revolution in the world. It’s notable, vis-a-vis Boal, that Sept. 12 simulates the position of someone with a missile, not of a member of a society in the Middle East. There’s a post-colonial stance built into it from the outset: the idea that we can move around the members of that society, from the outside, like so many Sim-chessmen is rife with problems.

    Jason, BTW, maybe I’m being intellectually lazy, but I’ve always just used the idea of “referential systems with state” as a distinctive feature of simuation. Simulations have objects with properties and state that model real/imaginary objects and their behaviours. Stories don’t – the Sound and the Fury has no state, only depiction. I remember the epiphany I had when I realized both the power and the seduction of object-oriented programming/design – the epistemological power of that idea is still something that I find compelling and a defining feature of our times.

    Forgive me for rambling…

  7. nick Says:

    Brecht is a good reference; one I’d thought about making myself, and perhaps would have in a longer post. I mention Boal mainly because of the inspiration he has supposedly been on Gonzalo’s work (this game we’re discussing seems more Brechtian than Boalian, indeed), but also because he provides a framework for meaningful interaction in a dramatic context.

    Indeed, it seems that being able to manipulate and interact is important to the idea of simulation we’re talking about here, not to take anything away from literary works. There are more metaphorical and more literal types of simulation.

    Thanks, William and Jason and others, for your comments here.

  8. Matt K. Says:

    “Simulations have objects with properties and state that model real/imaginary objects and their behaviours. Stories don’t – the Sound and the Fury has no state, only depiction.”

    That’s a statement a number of contemporary literary theorists would take issue with: see, for just one example, Jerome McGann’s _Radiant Textuality_, a series of essays narrowly about electronic text but more broadly about what McGann names quantum poetics: the notion that all texts are contingent, never self-identical.

  9. noah Says:

    Jason, here’s a slightly longer excerpt from that essay of Gonzalo’s (I assume he doesn’t mind me posting it, as they’ll all be out in the open air relatively soon). Perhaps it’s helpful?

    The design of consciousness-raising videogames is not as simple as replacing Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi with Sacco and Vanzetti. According to Brenda Laurel’s now-classic Computers as Theater (1991), computer software and videogames can be understood through the same rules that Aristotle described in his Poetics. The “interactive drama/storytelling/narrative” paradigm has been the leading design guide in most current videogame design, supported both by such theorists as Laurel and Janet Murray (Murray 1997) and by the videogame industry. It seems that the current tendency is to explain the computer (and videogames) as an extension of a previously existent medium: Laurel did it with drama, Murray with storytelling and, more recently, Lev Manovich (Manovich 2001) based his approach on film studies. The main advantage of these perspectives is that they depict the similitude between so-called “new” and “old” media.

    It would be extremely naïve to think that videogames are a brand new cultural manifestation that does not draw upon any previous tradition. However, even if it sounds obvious, videogames are, before anything else, games. Sadly, good formal research on games is scarce. It seems that it is easier to use already popular theories rather than exploring the field from a fresh perspective. If we want to understand videogames, we first need to understand games. We need a ludology (Frasca, 1999), a formal discipline that focuses on games, both traditional and electronic.

    If videogames are not narratives, what are they? I am not denying that games and narrative do share many elements, but as Espen Aarseth argues (Aarseth 1997), it is necessary to study games through a cybernetic approach. Unlike narrative, which is constituted by a fixed series of actions and descriptions, videogames need the active participation of the user not just for interpretational matters, but also for accessing its content. Narrative is based on semiotic representation, while videogames also rely on simulation,[1] understood as the modeling of a dynamic system through another system. A narrative film about a dog gives us information about the dog itself (description) and the sequence of events that this particular dog endured (action). A virtual pet, such as a Tamagotchi, is not about description or action, but rather about how it conducts itself in relationship with the player and the environment (behavior). In temporal terms, narrative is about what already happened while simulation is about what could happen.

    Because of its static essence, narrative has been used by our culture to make statements. We explain, understand and deal with reality through narrative. Our religious and moral values have been historically shaped in this way through different sacred books (Bible, Koran, Popol Vuh). Although the interpretation of sacred texts has always been open, the written words and the stories themselves have mainly remained fixed. On the other hand, simulation is dynamic and its essence is change: it produces different outcomes. This makes simulations not such a good choice for sacred moral codes since you may not want to have your holy scripts alternately read, “Thou shall not kill,” and “Thou shall kill.” This also explains why videogames are not a good realm for historic events or characters or for making moral statements. A videogame about Anne Frank would be perceived as immoral, since the fact that she could survive or die depending on the player’s performance would trivialize the value of human life. We all know that Anne Frank died and the reasons for her death; her story serves to convey a particular set of values.

    The potential of simulation is not as a conveyor of values, but as a way to explore the mechanics of dynamic systems. Sim City, Will Wright’s urban simulator, is not about Paris or Rome, but about potential cities. Of course, it is possible to learn a lot about a big city such as Paris — or any other — through Sim City, but that kind of knowledge is different from what we can read in a Hemingway or Balzac book. It would be possible to create a model of Paris in Sim City and use it for experimentation: “What would happen if I removed the Seine River? What if I built narrow streets rather than large avenues?” Novels usually take a concrete set of characters, in a particular setting, enduring a particular set of events. Simulations also have particularities and referents, but their main characteristic is that they allow tweaking and changing the original model. Certainly, a reader can extrapolate the characteristics of the characters and settings of a novel to model its ideological rules. Although this is an exception in narrative reserved for sophisticated readers, it is a requirement in simulations. Simulation is an ideal medium for exposing rules rather than particular events.

  10. Michael Says:

    I’m one of the people who has trouble with using the word “simulation” to describe any process-intensive system. The history of the term “simulation” in computational practice is rooted in building computational systems that veridically model some real-world dynamical systems. This means that you can establish one-to-one relationships between variables in the simulation and entities in the real world.

    But more generally, a computational system is a representation – “modeling” is only one very special case of representation. I know that Gonzalo is using the term “simulation” to mean “dynamic representation”. But the problem with co-opting the term in this way is that it already has a history of being used in a much more specific way (and forces us to come up with a new word for the more specific use).

    Just as the word “unicorn” lacks a real referent, I say that Mario Brothers simulates an imaginary dynamic system (the Mario world).

    Why not say that Mario Brother’s is a world? What’s gained by saying that Mario Brother’s simulates some imaginary world (an imaginary world, incidentally, that in no way pushes back on the program)?

    I would call September 12 a process-intensive, interactive political cartoon. Since computational systems are representations, and political cartooning is a genre of representation, it makes sense that you can build a computational political cartoon. Calling it a simulation only clouds the issue.

  11. noah Says:

    The history of the term “simulation” in computational practice is rooted in building computational systems that veridically model some real-world dynamical systems.

    But doesn’t the term also have a history outside computational practice? I’m thinking, for example, of Lev’s book. He starts out by saying that he’s going to use “simulation” in two rather different ways. One is the tradition of modeling orders beyond the visual — the tradition that computational practice generally calls simulation. Lev’s other way of employing simulation is continuous with the artistic traditions of frescoes, dioramas, and the Baroque — an immersion in a virtual universe.

    Sure, we could decide we’re going to start using different terms for these two things, but right now “simulation” is used in a variety of ways (interesting no Baudrillard in this thread yet). I think it’s okay for Gonzalo, Greg, Lev, Michael, and Baudrillardians to use the term differently. We’re just going to have to be clear what we mean, and clear that other people may not mean what we expect.

  12. Nicolas Szilas Says:

    About simulation…

    I like considering that narrative, beyond being “a fixed series of actions and descriptions”, or “about what already happened” is simply something that exists in the real world. As something that is in the world, why not simulating it (keeping the computational practice of the term…) ?

    Ok, narrative is cultural, not natural. It is not produced by physical laws, but maybe there exists some laws that govern the narratives also? And if we could simulate those laws, we would have a both interactive and narrative dynamic system…

    Well, this idea is behind IDtension, the system I am building for Interactive Drama. Note that the simulation of narrative I am working on includes a simulation of the user (a user model), which means that the computational model of narrative is not simple…

  13. Jason Says:

    Rather than plaguing your comments section with a lengthy response, I posted my comments here:


    (and thanks for the intriguing conversation)

  14. Marie-Laure Says:

    About Frasca’s game: funny coincidence, I implemented exactly the same idea in a Director program that I wrote for fun. It goes like this: you are taking care of a beautiful flower garden. At first there are only flowers, but after some time a few weeds appear. Your mission is to save the flowers by killing the weeds, which you do by clicking on them. But for every killed weed, two more weeds appear, and no matter what you do, you end up with a garden full of weeds. I did not do this project for the sake of an ecological message, nor for gaming interest, but because I like the visuals (I used real flowers and weeds that I scanned), and also to teach myself programming. What’s the point of this comment ? That there is a stereotyped, widely generalizable design principle that can be clad under various themes, like Propp’s structure of the Folk Tale.

    About simulation and narrative: for quite some time now some game theorists, including Frasca, have hyped a supposedly fundamental difference between “simulation” and “narratives”—games being simulation, narratives being “re-presentation,” so that games can’t have a narrative structure. This view reduces narrative to the semiotic mode found in the classical novel: a retrospective representation of past events. “Narrative”, we are told, is a deterministic process that leads to a predetermined outcome; simulation is an open model made of a variety of rules which produce various situations, depending on the input. (But there are also deterministic simulations, where all the possibilities lead to the same result, as Frasca’s game demonstrates.)

    To me narrative is a cognitive structure that can be activated in several ways: through re-presentation (novels); through presentation (drama), and through simulation (games). Furthermore, I believe that the reader of a novel does assume the looking-forward stance of a simulation system; reading is the activity of envisioning several possible future developments of the plot and of guessing what will happen. In other words, the anticipating reader simulates mentally the future development of the story world by taking into consideration the various choices that face the characters. These various choices are like the possible inputs to a simulation system. A good example of this simulative activity in the genre of “Virtual History” popularized by Niall Ferguson. In this genre, the historian changes some inputs to history, and follows the development of a given situation, assuming that the other rules have not been changed. For instance: what would have happened in Viet Nam if JFK had not been assassinated ? What if Grouchy had arrived before Blucher at Waterloo ? A game may do exactly the same thing.

    The plots of novels, like the design of games, are state-transition systems, where certain events lead to certain states. In novels, the events are determined by the author; in games, the author gives the player a choice of event-producing actions. But in both cases, the result is (or can be, in the case of games) a story.

  15. andrew Says:

    Aki Järvinen discusses these issues in depth in a new paper, The Elements of Simulation in Digital Games: System, representation and interface in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In the current issue of dichtung-digital.

  16. miscellany is the largest category Says:
    Defining Simulation?
    [This is in response to a great discussion on GTA specifically about newsgamings’ September 12th (which I reviewed here and more broadly about reactions to calling the game a “simulation”. I would post it in GTA’s comments section, except that…

  17. andrew Says:

    A related discussion on simulation, realism and believability is underway over at Terra Nova.

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