Toys, Simulations and Stories I. Simulations
One of the most noticeable and surprising problems with the study of video games (and interactive media in general) is the difficulty to describe their place in society. In general, there are three broad approaches to this question. Some proponents consider games to be toys and judge their quality as such, others judge them as simulations of real world possibilities and yet others judge them by the quality of the stories they tell – when, of course, they are telling stories (this is not always the case).
Each concept is valid but also fundamentally flawed. There are very few games which one could qualify simply as a digital toy, that number shrinks even further if a phenomena known as emergent narrative is considered. There are, however, a few “true” examples of digital toys such as Garry’s Mod and it is easy to include most multiplayer games in this category as well. Likening Counter-Strike or World Of Warcraft to a game of pretend that could occur in anyone’s mind is more accurate and direct than attempting to compare it to an equivalent film or military simulation. Laterally, many story-based games seem to present themselves similar to toys, such as Grand Theft Auto IV or The Elder Scrolls series but they are not necessarily toys or pretend games in the same sense. Offering multiple solutions to a story-based problem still involves a linear path, no matter how well camouflaged by the illusion of choice.
The ability to simulate concepts, mathematics, and physical phenomena form the basis of the video and computer gaming industry today. Mankind came to the rightful conclusion that electronic computer could be used to calculate the positions of planets, atoms, soldiers, planes or anything else with speed, accuracy and efficiency unavailable by any purely human means. Simple programs replaced slide rulers and chalkboards. In their attempts to simulate the cosmos – or the war – our forefathers inadvertently laid down the groundwork for the modern entertainment industry.
The ability to simulate reality became the necessity of simulating reality. The majority of modern scientific and military achievements would likely be impossible without the aid of complex software. Some of which have even been adapted to civilian markets as digital toys. One could argue Will Wright, developer of Sim City, Spore, and The Sims, works exclusively with simulations (although, he himself has called his work “digital toys” on numerous occasions).
The Sims 3 is a notable example. It allows the users to manipulate small towns. People are given the opportunity to imagine, create and set in motion entire communities down to the preferences of individual citizens. It certainly is a toy (Will Wright said so himself); but it is also a complex simulation of social dynamics, allowing its users to create circumstances and view the results, thus creating predictions about how various combinations of personality traits affect the interaction of individuals. What makes the Sims a toy, rather than a genuine simulation are the many excluded variables and phenomena. It lacks a working economy and doesn’t allow for certain unpleasant personalities such as sexism, or racism (unjustified evil is included, however). Despite these limitations, the game is not too far from calling itself a simulation. If we were also given the option to view not only social dynamics on an interpersonal level but the way people work together in societies, it could go so far as to enable us to realize how companies, governments or community projects work with each individual unit (person) playing a part in a larger mechanization of society. In the game, however, these parts are localized, if your current Sim is the President or a Flight Officer or the Emperor Of Evil, it does not preclude other Sims from filling the same role, nor does it require your Flight Officer to rely on dozens of technicians or your Emperor Of Evil to employ countless henchmen. If it did, then it would be a simulation. For the time being, we have to think of it as a toy (although it could still be a pretty good simulation of a semi-Utopian Phineas and Ferb-esque universe, I suppose).
If the Sims is a game pretending to be a simulation then Fate of the World is a simulation pretending to be a game. The game from the Oxford-based developer Red Redemption allows the players to make decisions (or “play cards”) on behalf of a mostly fictitious global environmental agency and over time view the results via several graphs and news headlines. It keeps track of the carbon emissions, population, the human development index, public opinion and political stability of several regions. The policies one can enact are a bit limited but all realistic in nature and the game seems impossible to win at times. Failure is an option and that may be the earmark of a proper simulation even if you can just rewind time and try again.
The largest issue anyone finds with Fate of the World is that it does not feel much like a game, failing to engage the user in a meaningful way or make the user feel directly involved in what is going on. As a teaching tool, this seems to be a crippling problem but it does teach an important lesson in game design.
Some of the aspects of simulations should be included in most, if not all, games. To build a physics engine, the designer must first comprehend physics and the programmers must be able to, for lack of a better way of saying it, teach the engine physics (either realistic physics or imagined physics). If there is a nonlinear narrative, the game should allow players to make meaningful decisions and observe how they play out over a set time frame. Many developers seem to be catching on to this idea and perhaps we will see many games become indistinguishable from simulations in the coming years as physics engines become more complex, memory more inexpensive and processors more powerful.
David Deutsch (a particle physicist at Oxford University’s Clarendon Laboratory), in his book The Fabric Of Reality, spends a chapter on the scientific problems of virtual reality. He even goes so far to claim that any world that can be simulated must be physically possible even if the laws of physics in that world differ significantly from our own. As a many-worlds interpretation supporter, he indirectly claims that any physically possible world probably exists somewhere in the multiverse. So maybe there’s some validity in the inaccurate or intentionally unrealistic “simulations” we encounter in video games.