1. What is a Simulation?

One of the most frequent concerns that is voiced about simulations is simply one of definitions: what is a simulation? Is it the same as a game, or a role play? Is it problem- or enquiry-based learning? Does it imply something particular?

In simple terms, a simulation is a recreation of a real-world situation, designed to explore key elements of that situation. It is a simplification and essentialisation of some object or process that allows participants to experience that object or process.

However, beyond that very broad definition, simulations are what you make of them. As this website is intended to demonstrate, simulations can cover a vast range of activities, from the very simple and brief, to the deeply involved and extended.

The enormous flexibility that simulations offer gives instructors a world of opportunity to explore materials in new, engaging and memorable ways. It is no coincidence that many of those who use simulations in their teaching are people who have experienced them at first hand: it is no exaggeration to say that most of the very few specific learning experiences this author has from his education came in simulations. Moreover, it is an approach that carries over well between disciplines across the social sciences.

A simulation offers the opportunity to ‘live the world’ of the phenomenon that we are studying, and it is in this ‘living’ that learning occurs in a profound way that engages students by requiring them to develop a personal model of that ‘world’ and how to engage with it: if I have to pretend to be the head of the Albanian unit responsible for property rights, and I have to then engage in a simulated interaction with officials from the European Commission, then I can get a much more nuanced understanding of the importance of that issue to Albania’s efforts to join the European Union (EU) than I can from a lecture on the same subject.

However, simulations go beyond the active-learning assumption.  In particular, we could argue that they embody two core ideas.  The first of this is the notion that the world (or at least the specific phenomenon in which we are interested) can be modelled, by which we understand that a set of relatively simple rules can encapsulate the fundamentals of a given situation.  Those rules might take the form of some kind of decision-making architecture (e.g. voting rights, structural relationships between actors, etc.), or of personal or institutional characteristics (e.g. peoples’ intrinsic desire for power, or for optimisation of gains), or indeed of random events (e.g. using dice to generate chaotic situations).  Thus, a simple simulation to explore negotiation dynamics variously assumes variously that large groups of actors find it hard to make decisions efficiently, that actors will bring personal worldviews into negotiations and that time management is not a primary concern in negotiations.  Put together, they inform a scenario that allows students to experience them in a very direct way that has direct meaning for each of them.

The second assumption is that the world is complex, by which we understand that despite such simple rules, the results are intrinsically uncertain and non-linear, because of the chaotic nature of human interaction.  Put differently, when we run a simulation then we do so in the knowledge that both the process and the outcome will vary from iteration to iteration, and indeed it is precisely that uncertainty that we wish to convey to students.  To return to the simple game mentioned in the previous paragraph, each instance of it being played has thrown up a different set of approaches, ideas, practices and outcomes.  This has ranged from protecting the threatened town, to pretending to be unaware of the attack, to taking your soldiers out of the town to assassinate the president!

Games tend to fall at the simpler end of the spectrum – e.g. in creating very stylised environments – but also shade into the related worlds of video-gaming and serious games. Role-plays are effectively coterminous with simulations, albeit with the emphasis more explicitly on the adoption of a particular role or person. To try to reduce confusion, ‘simulation’ is used in this Guide to cover all of these. While simulations do share many common features with problem- and enquiry-based learning, the latter do not have the same basic conceit of recreating real-world situations and so fall into a somewhat category.

What ties together all of these pedagogical approaches is the notion that the world can be brought into the classroom in a way that allows participants to actively engage with - and immerse themselves in - the material.  In short, they offer an excellent way for students to build knowledge and skills in a learning environment that they control. For the educator, it opens up new spaces for interaction and moves the focus on to student-led learning. This has been most simply captured by the proverb quoted in Hertel & Millis (2002, pp. ix): “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Before moving on to consider when simulations might best be used, it is helpful to set out some terms that will be used throughout the rest of the website. A game-designer is the person (or people) who sets up the simulation’s objectives and rules. The game-leader is the person on the ground for the actual running of the simulation (the game-play): this is often the same person as the game-designer. The game-play might also be observed by assessors, who play a purely passive role. We refer to participants here as students simply because that is the primary audience.

Subpages (1): Definitions