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Playing With Reality: What Makes a Simulation Game?

Posted on Oct 27, 2016 | Articles & Reviews
Simulation games

I played the first installment in The Sims until my wrists hurt. I hunched over a little blue Apple iBook and created stories about all of these characters who served as my pawns in an infinitely expanding, complex tale of infidelity, magic, and horror. While other games might have frustrated a younger, more impatient me, The Sims let me sink hours upon hours into it without ever losing its charm; a hallmark of the popular simulation game genre.

But The Sims is only one facet of the genre. Simulation games have existed since the 1980s, captivating players and causing them to promise, “just one more turn!” for over thirty years. The genre’s long history and increasing number of games means that what actually makes a simulation game has become a bit watered down over time—how can one genre encompass games as diverse as Madden, Pokemon Snap, and Hatoful Boyfriend?


Recreation Defines Simulation Games

Simulation games

Goat Simulator counts as a simulation game because its gameplay focuses on simulating something, even if it’s absurd. Image Source: Coffee Stain Studios.

At its most basic, a simulation game is—as the name implies—one that simulates an experience, whether the subject is fictional or realistic. With such a broad definition, it’s no wonder so many different games fall under the same category, even if representing reality isn’t their focus.

The simulation involved can be of just about anything, whether it’s playing pro football or living life as an ant. Neither the simulation nor the experience being recreated needs to be realistic—games like Goat Simulator, for instance, are deliberately ridiculous. The fun, in Goat Simulator’s case, is in its intentional failure to replicate reality through broken physics and bizarre gameplay.

In other words, simulations don’t have to be faithful representations of reality as it is; they merely have to be faithful to their own reality. Games like Pokemon Snap and Hatoful Boyfriend aren’t grounded in reality in the slightest, but they are still considered part of the simulation genre because they both mirror something, even if the reflections are highly distorted.

Management and Strategy in Early Sim Games

Many people credit Will Wright with the creation of the simulation genre in 1989 with SimCity, but one of the first games that fit the genre was 1984’s Fortune Builder. Rather than focusing on creating a productive city, the object was to amass as great a fortune as you could by constructing a city around what buildings work best next to one another, such as putting residential neighborhoods next to factories.

Simulation games

The original SimCity refined the mechanics of Utopia, popularizing the simulation genre.

SimCity and its spinoffs kickstarted the popularity of the genre beginning in 1989. Though the origin of the community and management simulation genre, which is one of the largest and most enduring simulation subgenres, actually begins earlier in the 1980s with Utopia, Maxis’ games are credited with refining and popularizing the early mechanics. The popularity of games like SimCity inspired derivative subgenres like business and government management games, which use similar planning skills and random events to challenge players to strategize for long-term success.

The success of these games and the fun of micromanaging big systems led to the growth of the life simulation genre. While life simulation games go all the way back to the 1970s with Conway’s Game of Life, the genre took off a little bit later as artificial intelligence grew to be more sophisticated. It’s from early titles like Little Computer People that we get The Sims franchise, easily one of the most popular simulation game titles in history, and a catalyst for the popularity explosion of simulation games.

Modern Variations and Subgenres

Because simulation games have such a vague definition, it’s not surprising that there are so many subgenres. Just as improved artificial intelligence led to the expansion of the life simulation genre, other technological advances have facilitated the development of even more divergences from the originals.

Genres like god games, social simulations, and sports games eventually began to appear, all of them allowing players to exert control over game elements to influence outcomes, whether that control is direct—as in a sports game, where you control a player—or indirect, as in god games, where you oversee and give orders without fully controlling the characters.

Simulation games

Games like Farming Simulator provide a serenely satisfying alternative to more absurd or fast-paced entries in the genre.

Modern simulation games build on the games that came before, sometimes improving their predecessors, other times taking them in strange new directions. Goat Simulator and Surgeon Simulator are two originators of the absurdist simulation trend, where odd physics and silly gameplay, rather than realism, are part of the fun.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the quieter, more thoughtful simulators—titles like Farming Simulator, which puts you in charge of a farm’s growth and production over time. Alongside driving simulators like Euro Truck Simulator or the largely realistic space game Universe Sandbox, games like Farming Simulator are relaxing, immensely satisfying experiences.

Rather than having the frenetic pace of something like Surgeon Simulator, these games are popular because they’re soothing and have an element of realism, allowing players to live their virtual lives in ways that may not be available to them in real life. While they differ greatly from the calculated fun of something like SimCity, they’re no less simulation games for their pacing and unique attributes, and they stand as a popular and enjoyable alternative to many of today’s faster-paced simulations.

Unique, Imaginative Gameplay

Simulation games are one of the most popular genres precisely because of their versatility. More loosely defined than genres like shooters or puzzle games, simulations capture a sense of control and strategy in a way that many other genres do not. Simulation games are the only place where you can build a farming empire or perform brain surgery in space; with a genre that boasts such unique gameplay elements, it’s no surprise simulation games have remained popular since the 1980s.

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Image Source: LostinRiverview via Wikia.