By R. Garry Shirts

I developed the following schema to help me think more accurately about “gaming and simulation” activities. The basis of this classification system is three kinds of very different but related activities: simulations, games, contests.

If we combine these three activities into all possible combinations, we get the following categories:

  • Simulations
  • Games
  • Contests
  • Simulation Contests
  • Simulation Games
  • Game Contest
  • Simulation Games Contests

These seven categories can account for most of the activities that pass for “simulation” type activities. Let’s examine them one by one.

Pure Simulations (Non-contest, Non-game)

Much of the confusion around the word “simulation” occurs because we want to differentiate between the noun “simulation” and the infinitive “to simulate.” In the simulation gaming field, a simulation is something more than that which simulates; the term “simulation” has been reserved for the modeling or simulation of systems which can be represented in part by mathematical or quasi-mathematical formulas.

In the taxonomy proposed here, however, that distinction is not recognized. A simulation, rather, is anything that simulates or models reality. Listing representative examples of “simulations” from the very abstract to the concrete, we arrive at a surprisingly varied array of activities:

  • Mathematical formulas
  • Models of:
    • Physical systems
    • Military, industrial, and economic systems
    • Social systems
  • Role Playing
  • Film Making
  • Literature
  • Painting
  • Sculpture

The first four items unquestionably qualify as simulations in the traditional sense. Role-playing, however, is generally regarded as a lower class cousin, and film making, art, and sculpture as members of unrelated though honorable families. They are included here as “simulations” because:

  1. The Sculptor, artist, filmmaker, and writer, are, in fact, simulating reality much of the time.
  2. Recognition of the similarity of the artist-as-simulator and the engineer/social/scientist educator-as-simulator may serve as a means of bridging the communication gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures: the technocrats and the artists.
  3. It is possible that we can learn something about modeling form the artists. After all, they have been wrestling with such questions as validity, the relationship of the model to reality (abstract vs. representational art), the role of criticism, the effect of the medium on the message, and a myriad of mutual problems for several centuries.

Contest (Non-Simulation, Non-Game)

The essence of this kind of activity is competition. The competition involving humans falls into four categories:

  • man against man (man is used in the generic sense to include women),
  • man against himself,
  • man against nature,
  • man against animal.

Examples of contests are: competition between businesses (man against man); a person trying to overcome an addiction (man against him or herself); a person climbing mount Everest (man against nature); a tiger hunt (man against animal); Sometimes there are formal rules and sometimes the only rules are those determined by the act of trying to win.

The contest and the game are frequently confused. Many contests are games but not all; neither are all games contests. The difference between the contest and the contest-game is discussed below under the Game-Contest category.

Games (Non-Contest, Non-simulation)

Bernard Suits, in the American Philosophy of Science (XXXIV, 1967, 148-156) has in my opinion, done an excellent job of defining a game. He says several things in the article but the three most critical ideas are: 1, a game is an activity in which people agree to abide by a set of conditions (not necessarily rules) in order to create a desired state or end and 2,the conditions that the participants agree to abide by may well involve inefficient ways of accomplishing the desired state or ends. For example, rather than getting a golf ball in the cup by the most efficient method, which is probably walking over and placing it in the cup, we agree to get it into the cup by hitting it with a metal stick with a small flattened surface on the end. We agree to run around a track to cross a line instead of running directly toward the line. We knock down bowling pins by rolling a heavy ball down a narrow wooden lane instead of just walking over and knocking them down. The notion of inefficiency is extremely important in the definition of a game. Not that every game has to use inefficient means to accomplish its end but that inefficiency is a meaningful possibility. Inefficiencies may occur in a pure contest, but it’s not a desired element.

A third important idea is that the condition the game is created to produce may be something other than winning, such as body movement, laughter, creativity, embarrassment, etc. My children play a game called “Truth or Dare”: you ask another person a question and he must either tell the truth or do some daring or ridiculous stunt; either way it produces laughter and fun, no competition is involved. The point is that many people want to limit games to the notion of competition, but games have been created for many other reasons. Opie, in Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969), points out that when children are confined to school grounds, they tend to play competitive games with winners and losers (what we are calling here “contest games”). However, when they are not confined by the school boundaries and can roam at will on streets and in the fields, they tend to play non-competitive games, which create laughter, physical exercise, and body contact.

Examples of non-competition, non-simulation games include many of the encounter games where the purpose is to create an open climate of trust, many of the theater games by Viola Spolin. Much of what we generally classify as “play” are non-competitive, non-simulation games.

Contest Game (Non-Simulation)

Many people limit their definition of games to this category. However, this is only one type of game – a game in which the conditions one agrees to abide by are designed to create competition and winning. Educational game publishers receive many games to be considered for publication. Most are straight role-playing situations that generally are not published because almost any teacher can build them with very little effort. The second most popular type of game received is contests, which are frequently called simulations incorrectly by their authors. For example, there is a game that purports to be a simulation of the Electoral College. What it consists of is a series of questions which participants answer and if they answer correctly, they are given so many electoral votes. The process of the game is in no way simulating the process of the Electoral College. It is a game contest pure and simple.

Sports, gambling, mathematical games, and word games are all examples of non-simulation contest games. The difference between a pure contest and a contest game is the relative importance of the conditions under which the contest is conducted. In a pure contest, inefficiency in the rules is not a possible alternative. In other words, in the pure contest whenever possible the rules or conditions of the contest must be related to what is won as efficiently as possible. For example, a businessperson would not consider setting up a business next to his competition in order to make the competition keener and more enjoyable. He might move next to his competitor for other reasons, but not to create more competition.

Another way to differentiate between the game contest and pure contest is to realize that in the pure contest the participants will always be seeking ways to reduce the competitive aspects of the situation and at the same time increase their chances of winning, regardless of whether it makes the competition fairer.

Still a third way is to realize that in the pure contest the participant may want to impose rules or conditions which would give him an unfair advantage over his opponent, whereas in a game contest a participant would not seek to establish such rules since that would destroy the purpose of the game.

Non-Contest Simulation Games

In this category are those activities that are games designed to simulate reality but are not contests. For example, that harmless activity known as “Ring Around the Rosies” is really a non-contest simulation game having to do with the Black Plague. The ring around the rosies is a pustule; the pocketful of posies refers to the pus; “ashes, ashes” means that the pustule goes black; and “All fall down” means that everyone dies. The child’s game of “Store” and “Assembly line” are other examples.

Non-Game Simulation Contest

In this category are activities, which are contests and simulations but not games. For instance, suppose an industrial engineer were interested in determining which of two methods for warehousing a product was most efficient. He might simulate a contest between the two methods to determine which one to adopt.

Simulation Game Contest

This is the category in which most of the experiences that are generally called “Educational Simulations” and “Simulation Games” belong — for example, SIMSOC, StarPower, INS, etc. These experiences are contests because they are concerned with the allocation of scarce resources such as money, influence, time, space, etc. They are simulations because they model reality and games because (1) the participants agree to abide by a set of conditions in order to create an experience, and (2) inefficient means such as communicating by written message rather than through talking are frequently incorporated into the rules.


There are three ideas in this article that are especially important to me as a designer of “simulations”. One is the notion that the activity of artists, sculptors, filmmakers and the designer of educational simulations are engaged in essentially the same activity. This means that the simulation designer may gain insights into the designing process from studying these artists and how they work. The second notion is Suit’s definition of a game. I heartily recommend his article on games for anyone interested in the topic. Third, is the recognition that games are not always designed to create competition; they are often designed to create such conditions as laughter, physical contact, and trust.

Thanks to Ted Rogers of The Hawaii Department of Education for this piece of information.

Most of this article originally appeared in the book: Gaming-Simulations: Rationale, Design and Applications by Cathy S. Greenblat and Richard D. Duke. Sage Publications, 1975