LNLP - Nations at War

Battle Lab: Games and Sims for Training and Learning, II

Continuing the long-running discussion ~

Dr James Sterrett, 12 December 2017

Previously published back at GrogNews, we have a guest article written by Dr James Sterrett, an instructor at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College. Please note that these are his ideas and are not reflective of official US Army policy, doctrine, canon, religion, or other official imprimatur.

the objective of an activity [is] more important that the software (or paper rule set) being used

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Brant and I have cheerfully sparred over the distinction between games and simulations over the years.  What follows is my take, focused on training & education, in two different variants.  The first is useful as a snappy comment, while the second works better analytically.  In the end, both point to the objective of an activity as more important that the software (or paper rule set) being used, and neither variant is perfect.

Variant 1: The only difference between a game and a simulation is the presence of a training objective.

You and I can sit down with JCATS, an official Army training simulation, and play it for the sheer fun of blowing up each others’ tanks – which sounds rather like a game.  Or, we could use the exact same software to conduct a staff training exercise.  We could also take Battlefield 2, a first-person shooter marketed as a game, and use it to conduct crawl-level training on basic techniques for an infantry squad.  In each case, the tool is the same, while the objective is different.
This definition makes a decent amount of intuitive sense – games are fun, simulations are for training.  It’s also a means of turning pointless complaints about an exercise driver – “we should use a simulation instead of a game” – turned into a fruitful discussion of what the exercise requires, regardless of the label attached to the driver.  However, this variant is not a useful analytic tool.

Sid Meier said that a game is “a series of interesting choices”. That’s great design guidance, but not so useful as a definition.  Greg Costikyan defined a game as “a form of art in which participants, termed players, make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal.”  Costikyan’s is a good definition of a game (as opposed to a sport); see the full article explaining the statement.  However, Costikyan’s definition doesn’t help us make the distinction from simulations – but Costikyan and Meier, both brilliant game designers, have a close focus on decision-making.
Both of their definitions imply that Candyland and the rest of the Snakes & Ladders genre are not games, because there are no decisions in them – though they can serve as good training on how to play a game: obey the rules, take your turn, good gamesmanship, and so on.
So Candyland isn’t a game, but it is a simulation.  Of what? Candyland is a simplified variant of Snakes and Ladders, which originates from India, where it was a morality lesson on life, with the ladders being virtues, the snakes being vices, and the endpoint being Enlightenment.  This brings us to…

Variant 2: A game is a simulation with decisions and goals.
Per the Defense Modeling and Simulations Office, a model is a mathematical description, and a simulation is a model iterated over time.  Thus, I can have math that describes how a missile launches from an aircraft.  As a single series of equations, it is a model. Translated into a series of iterated steps, it is a simulation.
Equally, Candyland simulates a particular model of life.  Neither the missile simulation nor the Candyland simulation involve any decisions. Thus, per Costikyan, they are not games.

When we add decisions and goals to a simulation, it becomes a game.

That means that, not only is Candyland a simulation… and an NTC rotation is a game.

Oddly enough, we called such exercises “war games”, once upon a time.


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