Simulated Fun

Today, I want to talk a little about the relationship between games and simulations.

You’re probably already aware that all games have at least a little bit of simulation going on. On the one hand, you have games that are very tightly connected to simulations, so much so that they start to lose some of their gaminess. SimCity is a great example of this. The game is actually something closer to a digital toy, since there are no explicit goals. The fun comes from exploring and building. It gives you the opportunity to get creative with a complex system that mimics something we’re all familiar with.

But what does it mean!?

On the other end of the spectrum you have games like Go or Tic-Tac-Toe. These games are extremely abstract, but you can still interpret them as simulations of warring kingdoms or struggles for territory. While I’m sure that there are games that are even more challenging to interpret as simulations, I doubt the rule systems of any games are completely void of metaphorical meaning.

As you might expect, I think this is a good thing! The simulation quality of games allows them to mean something in a unique and powerful way that other art forms lack. By creating a game that simulates something in the real world, you have the opportunity to give your players a new perspective on what you’re simulating.

The simulation quality of games is also very important for communicating how the game works. If you see pictures of a soldier on the box cover, you’ll have a fairly good idea of how the game will differ from a game with a chef on the cover. Either way, the player will leverage his or her existing understanding of the system being simulated to get an intuitive idea of how the game works. This is a huge asset in making the game easier to learn.

However, the main point I want to make today is that it’s possible to go too far when it comes to games being simulations. Specifically, I want to refute the comment I hear all the time about all sorts of games, which goes something like this: “this game would be better if it was more realistic”. I think that often this is not the case for two reasons.

First, all simulations are imperfect. It’s actually good to keep this point in mind in general as simulations are being used to justify business and policy decisions more and more. I’m not saying that simulations are not useful, but it’s important to remember that they are all abstractions of reality that leave out a lot of details, and almost always contain some of the biases their creators hold. Just because a computer says so, doesn’t mean it’s true.

For the specific purposes of games, this basically means that a game simulation could always be more accurate, so it’s a little futile to say it should be more realistic in the first place. Take SimCity. Does the game simulate the cost or the time it takes to clear away old structures when you rezone an area or decide to create a jail in the middle of a neighborhood? Does it simulate the party politics and bickering that goes on in city councils that would slow down every decision you make? Does it feature the complex and often ugly class structures built on race or religion in your city? It sure doesn’t. Why not?

That brings me to the second point: reality often isn’t that fun. One of the reasons people play games is to escape the boring and frustrating drudgery of everyday life. Players want to experience the excitement of the high points and big achievements we only get infrequently in reality. By making the game more realistic, you’ll add complications that will detract from what makes the game fun.

Let’s look at a few examples. In Diner Dash, do you think the game would be more fun if it simulated the messes that toddlers leave for you to clean up? In Call of Duty, do you think the more realistic option of never being able to play again if you die would make the game better? How about if random vehicle and weapon malfunctions left you totally helpless in the middle of a war zone for no particular reason? Would it really be fun if a city council blocked your master plans in SimCity for the sake of reality?

I hope you’ll agree with me when I say these more realistic features would not improve these games. Admittedly, there is probably a small subset of the population that cares so much about accuracy that they would prefer the less fun but more realistic alternative, but believe me, these people are in the minority. As I’ve discussed before, your game will have much more of an impact if it’s fun so people actually play it. No matter how realistic it is, it won’t make a difference if it’s too difficult to understand or get into.

A quote by Josh Holmes in Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop sums it up best: “Whenever you have the choice between realism and fun, go with fun. Anybody who chooses realism at the expense of fun needs a smack upside the head.”


Let’s look at some examples from my own experience about how realism can detract from a game. I’d also like to mention a recent game that did a great job of being a simulation first and foremost.

First, I would like to discuss my first game, Arachnophilia. In many ways, Arachnophilia defies genres, but at its core, it might best be described as a spider simulator. In the game, you’re a spider. You make a web, catch bugs, and eat them. And… that’s it. Sounds like a spider, right?

I've never seen a web with that many bugs. Or gold strands. And why is a DRAGONFLY out at NIGHT? Don't you know they use their vision to navigate!? This game is unrealistic and therefore sucks.

If you look at the game and then look at an actual spider, though, you’ll see that the game is very unrealistic. The game is very fast paced, especially towards the end, with bugs flying all over the place and the spider running from one side of the web to the other to quickly eat huge numbers of them. Plus, the bugs have wacky qualities, like fire flies attracting hordes of moths to your web.

Why didn’t I make it more realistic? Because it would have been boring. Try watching a spider on a web for five minutes sometime. I bet you won’t be able to do it, unless you get lucky and see a hapless fly wander into the web. Most of a spider’s life is spent sitting around waiting. That’s boring. I wanted my game to be fun, so I took a theme I thought would be interesting and then focused on the highlights of that theme for the game. Realism was not my priority, and I’m very happy I made that decision.

Actually, if most of a spider’s life is spent sitting around waiting… it would make an excellent facebook game, am I right???

Corporate America

If you’ve been keeping up with my work, you know that Corporate America is currently my main project. It is a political satire board game, putting players in the role of the 1% to manipulate the population and government to maximize their profits. The whole game is a simulation of our society, focusing on our political system. My hope is that people will have a great time playing the game, but afterwards will take a look at how the game works, think about how it matches reality, and then question the wisdom of that reality.

While working on the game, I’ve playtested it countless times with a lot of smart and creative people, and many of them have given me great suggestions on directions to go with it. I often get suggestions like allowing players to upgrade their businesses to make them more powerful. I think this idea is great and would make the simulation more realistic, since businesses don’t just start out at their full potential–they take time to grow and develop.

However, I have had to abstain from adding this idea (among many other great ones), not because it would make the game less fun, but because it would make the game more complex. The system it is simulating is already pushing its limits on complexity, and I have had to scale it back a lot over the course of development. Even if it would make the game more interesting or realistic, it would make the game more difficult to learn and take longer to play, and for that reason the more realistic option has not been the right one.

Prom Week

I wanted to end this post with an example of an excellent, new simulation based game you may not have heard of before. It was developed by my friends at the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz, and it’s called Prom Week. It’s a game about the turbulent social lives of high school seniors in the week that leads up to the most important night of their lives: the prom.

Prom Week tackles important real world issues using an elegant and fun simulation.

The game is unlike any other, allowing players to explore the social space among high drama teenagers. While most video games allow you to move, jump, and shoot, in Prom Week you tell jokes, insult, and deliver pick up lines. A complex simulation behind the scenes decides how different characters will react to different types of actions. If you play a campaign, your goal is to navigate these stormy social waters to accomplish your character’s goal, whether it’s gathering the courage to ask out the girl he likes, becoming the prom queen, or creating social chaos by turning former friends against each other.

So, what makes this heavy simulation game good? In my opinion, it is the game’s focus. It doesn’t worry about your characters having to eat or use the bathroom or do homework, all things that are important parts of real seniors’ lives. Instead, it focuses on high drama social interactions, meaning that every game move you make results in something interesting and exciting. Prom Week doesn’t distract its players with details to make the game more realistic. Instead, it deeply delves into the interesting part of high school the game simulates: social drama.

Alright, that’s all I have for today. I’ll probably cover this topic more in future posts–I’m beginning to realize that many of the topics I want to discuss are a bit too big for a single blog post, and the simulation quality of games seems to fit quite nicely in that category.

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