What makes a game a simulation or a simulation a game or are they the same thing? Is it all just marketing or is there a real difference?

WoWTo me there are a few distinct differences between a game and a simulation. First and most importantly to be a simulation the title must be replicating something that takes place in the real world (sorry World of Warcraft fans, living your life as an elf doesn’t count).

Second, to be a simulation the title must require the same or at least very similar inputs or controls as what the real world activity requires. For example, the Madden Football franchise gets excluded from simulation status because wiggling your thumbs around and pressing a series of buttons to control your players bears no resemblance to what you would do if playing football in the real world.

The third thing that qualifies a title as a simulation vs. a game is that the ‘player’ should be able to learn skills that will transfer to the real world if and when they participate in the real world version of said simulation – the space shuttle simulator is used by astronauts to prepare for space travel for example.

So here is where the differences can get cloudy. For the sake of brevity I’m going to stick with racing titles. I chose some titles that I enjoy playing and feel comfortable ‘driving’.

mario kartMario Kart for the Wii – This is a really fun family game. Game play involves navigating various vehicles around racing circuits with a hand held controller. Yes it is true that you can place the controller in a special Wii racing wheel to ‘simulate’ driving a real racecar, but that is where the similarities between the real world activity of racing ends. Acceleration and deceleration are controlled by pressing buttons and there are no real car physics to speak of, that is to say the cars in Mario Kart don’t react to driver inputs the same way a real racecar would react to the same inputs. The special boxes that provide extra speed or lightning strikes against opponents take a way from the simulation factor as well.

dirt2Dirt 2 for XBOX 360 – Another really fun game. Great graphics. Spectacular crashes, a good selection of vehicles but most gamers play this title using a game pad which immediately disqualifies the title from simulation status. Some hardcore fans of this title may be using a wheel and pedal set but that is not enough to bring it back to simulation status in my book. The car physics are so far from reality I can’t use any of my real world racing skills to help me master the game, in fact these long practiced skills can be a hindrance to success in games like Dirt 2 as the cars often react in opposite ways compared to the real world counterparts, not to mention in this particular title you are actually rewarded for passing opponents by running them off the road. If you have done any real world racing you will note this is not how your fellow competitors or the race steward would react!

iRacing for PC – iRacing is definitely a simulation. It fulfills all three major requirements for being a simulation – it replicates a real world activity, user inputs/controls are nearly identical to the real world counterpart and the skills learned by using iRacing translate back into a real racecar.

Sounds serious doesn’t it? While I call iRacing a simulation the truth of the matter is that most iRacers race because it is fun, even professional drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Justin Wilson, Marcos Ambrose and Alex Gurney will tell you how much fun they have racing on iRacing. The very things that make it a simulation are what iRacing members enjoy most – uber realistic driving physics and track replications that call for real racing skills. If you choose to play iRacing with a joystick or game pad you can do so as well, you might classify iRacing a little differently than I do then. As long as you are having fun you can call it whatever you want!

I guess I’ll change my answer for iRacing and call it both a simulation AND a game!

Game or sim, it is really up to the user. What say you?

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iRacing is what you put into it. I see it and treat it as a simulation. The vehicles for the most part behave like their real life counterparts and achieving respectable lap times requires hard work and lots of practice.

Bob Beach
February 11th, 2010 at 5:43 pm

This is also provides good reasoning as to why games like Forza or GT 5 aren’t technically sims. They have very accurate models and tracks, but the handling is far from realistic, especially when you’re using a joystick.

And btw, I live my life as a gnome, not an elf 🙂

February 11th, 2010 at 4:59 pm

I’ve tried my hand at a few different racing games and most of them are quite fun to play and I can play them for hours on end. But simulation? No way!

iRacing is the only sim that is easily available to the public in my eyes. If you want real racing get iRacing! 🙂

Mitch McLeod
February 11th, 2010 at 5:38 pm

How do “skills learned by using iRacing translate back into a real racecar” when in iRacing you can reset your race car after a crash and drive through other cars

George Kuyumji
February 11th, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Most people are intelligent enough to realise they can’t do that in real-life, but not you…

Patrick Kildare
February 11th, 2010 at 10:11 pm

There are a few distinct differences between a game and a simulation. Resetting your car in a race to a new one after you have destroyed it and beeing able to drive through the other cars are clear and fundamental racing arcade genre game features.

George Kuyumji
February 12th, 2010 at 4:45 am

I believe, that according to the above argument, because a car can be reset instantly makes it a game not a sim, should be communicated to the US Dept of Defense. After having spent $36.5 million to provide the Navy with F/A-18E/F Super Hornet flight simulators, I’m sure taxpayers may take objection that all they got for their money was a bunch of games. You see, the F18 SuperHornet Simulator and iRacing share the same feature of resetting after a crash/collision and you can drive through other aircraft by the way. So that makes it a game ,eh?
Rolfe and Staples, in their 1986 book Flight Simulation, note that “the object of flight simulation is to reproduce on the ground the behavior of an aircraft in flight.” One could equally argue that the object of iRacing is to reproduce, in a static and/or physical (motion cockpit) environment, the behaviour of a race car in motion. Of course the added feature of iRacing is that its also fun…..but then again I had fun when flying Real flight sims back in the day in the Airforce too. At least back then I could wreck’em then reset ’em and not die. Oh sorry….it was just a game…….

Mark Mcrae
February 12th, 2010 at 7:55 am

The reset concept is easy to translate to the real world. It so happens that your race team has the money to have a second car all ready to go in the pits should you stuff your first one into the wall.

Mark Swick
February 12th, 2010 at 7:57 am

“If you want real racing get iRacing! ”

…if you want real racing, get a “real” race car…. Besides, we have a heck of a Software here ! 😉

February 12th, 2010 at 7:58 am

Reset is as a “TRAINING” feature not an “ARCADE” feature. Reset does not give you a new car in the higher level cars in iRacing anyway when in an actual race. Also, please scan Mr. Bobbit’s Porsche 944S2 into the SIM!

Chris Brinson
February 12th, 2010 at 8:07 am

I used to play consle games and all the race games were GAMES. I had always been looking for a simulator and iRacing has allowed me to accomplish my goal. I don’t have the money to race but I have the next best thing which is pretty darn close which is iRacing. iRacing can put a realm life race car in your own home.

February 12th, 2010 at 8:36 am

@Mark McRae

Whilst I fully accept the argument that being able to reset does not mean a given environment is disqualified from being a sim, I do feel there’s an important difference between the environment you describe and iRacing. Commercial simulators (fight, rail, nautical, whatever) are used under conditions that have significant real world consequences when it comes to failure. I doubt very much whether a pilot who repeatedly fails to complete the assigned task in the FA-18 sim is going to be allowed to play with the real thing for long. Likewise, if an airline pilot’s record when it comes to handling emergency situations in the simulator consists of “He crashed, repeatedly” then he’s more than likely going to be looking for alternative employment sooner rather than later (and the rest of us can breath a grateful sigh of relief as a consequence). Contrast that with the conditions under which iRacing is used and things are very different indeed. No matter how many times I stuff up the last couple of corners at ViR in testing I’m not going to lose anything real. No-one’s going to invite me in for an Interview Without Coffee and suggest that maybe I ought to find alternative means of making a living.

Of course, having said all that, iRacing’s still fundamentally a sim for a whole raft of reasons, albeit one where the focus is, for most of us at least, on enjoying the simulated environment rather than actually learning from, or being graded by, it.

Mark Craft
February 12th, 2010 at 8:59 am

I dont believe it was ever iRacings intention to be classed as a “game”. The clue is in the logo…
silly pundits.

February 12th, 2010 at 9:27 am

Ya, “For the sake of brevity I’m going to stick with racing titles.” Reason being, by your definition of a simulation game, there are no simulation games other than driving games or simulators that the military/NASA use. By your definition if say Entropia Universe http://www.planetcalypso.com/home/ was promoted as a simulation you would say it isn’t because you don’t have to actually walk to play it. The only other simulations I can think of are games on the Wii that would fit with your definition. Just because you don’t do the exact thing that the sim is trying to SIMULATE, doesn’t make it NOT a simulation game.

February 12th, 2010 at 9:43 am

Actually with Flight Simulation, the goal isn’t really to “fly around” so much as to introduce emergencies and how you handle them, so that when it happens for real, you are prepared. Therefore, you will encounter bird strikes, engine failures, loss of systems, etc.

I see iRacing as “as real as it gets” for the PC at the moment. Is it perfect? No. Will it get better? I think so. I do think though that if you had to exit the practice session because you whacked your car and your backup, that it would be a little more interesting, and cause people to be a bit more cautious when learning new cars/tracks.

February 12th, 2010 at 9:51 am

Perfect explanation of Sim and game. Now whenever any of my friends question me, I’ll just link them to this article. Thanks 🙂

Michael Barnett
February 12th, 2010 at 10:09 am

FYI, your CSS for the blog specifies Helvetica first which renders horribly under Windows XP, especially in Firefox.

February 12th, 2010 at 10:17 am

To me, Iracing is a racing simulator. It simulates what it would be like racing against other real humans (not cpu’s) with almost identical cars and tracks as those of the real world. I have flown a C-130 simulator at an airbase and it too had some qualities that weren’t as they would be if you were actually flying a real one. Not everything about Iracing makes it perfect, but its pretty close and i enjoy it!

February 12th, 2010 at 10:19 am

@Chris Brinson you are allowed to reset your car after you destroyed it in a race in iRacings special event races. And driving through opponent cars is possible across all license levels.

@Mark Mcrae I also had direct access to military flight simulations when I was in the Austrian Army. It is not possible, and I’m sure its not possible in the US military flight simulations either to fly through other air crafts or buildings and continue the flight after your plane has been destroyed. If you have destroyed the plane you have to restart the mission.

George Kuyumji
February 12th, 2010 at 10:20 am

Written by the marketing guy. ‘Nuff said.

February 12th, 2010 at 10:22 am

i cannot believe we are talking about reset bottons here. I Thought this was about the accuracy of physics, movement reproductions, car behaviour, algorithms etc etc… reset buttons?

Fernando Pelegrin
February 12th, 2010 at 10:44 am

i cannot believe we are talking about reset bottons here. I Thought this was about the accuracy of physics, movement reproductions, car behaviour, algorithms etc etc… reset buttons?

Fernando Pelegrin
February 12th, 2010 at 10:44 am

I think “reset” is vital for the non-caution events, because the yellow won’t come out and a damaged car is on the track. Personally, not sure why there are no cautions for ALL races, since this would more closely simulate real world racing – not sure how many real world races don’t throw cautions out when there are accidents…

February 12th, 2010 at 10:57 am

According to Webster :

Game – 1. Amusement or sport with competing players.
2. An activity engaged for amusement.

Simulation – 1. (computer science) the technique of representing the real world by a computer program; “a simulation should imitate the internal processes and not merely the results of the thing being simulated”.
2. Representation of something (sometimes on a smaller scale).

IMO that means racing PROGRAMS are and can be both but at very different levels of quality. Then comes the catagories we tend to put them in as being Arcade or Simulation which is ONLY a PERSONAL PREFERENCE in reality and we ALL know how we differ in that area.
All programs have their good and bad points. For me I love the format that iRacing has set up because it lets you race on your time schedule.
I agree with George that it is not perfect and it will get better because they continue to improve on it and in terms of cost it is the cheapest hobby I have. LOL !

Joel Watkins
February 12th, 2010 at 11:10 am

I wonder what your take on games like Forza Motorsport III and the latest Gran Turismo would be (assuming you’ve played them), as those games are very much separated from games like Mario Kart or Dirt, and are probably more similar to iRacing than other video games.

February 12th, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Gee guys – why bother even responding to such an uneducated comment about reset buttons; George Kuyumji obviously has never driven above Rookie level by the sound of it, and his argument is like saying that it’s not worth practicing your batting unless their are fielders to catch you out, or practicing your golfing drive unless there are roughs and fairways to aim for.

Ben Styles
February 12th, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Tom I’m not sure if you were asking me but here goes anyway. 😉

Nowdays I only run PC programs because I never bought the Xbox 360 or the PS3. I stopped buying consoles when I got a big enough PC that made it look better. Not that I don’t like them because I do.
I had Forza2 and all the Gran Turismo games except 5 and I liked them ALL. I’ve even played Mario Kart LOL. I currently race all PC games that I can find and I use each one depending on the mood I’m in. I even edit and make tracks for some of them.
For me to say which ones are Games or Simulators is mute because they are ALL Games and Simulators of their own level of enjoyment and everyone would have their own opinion of which is best and I like them ALL. That’s why having such a GREAT variety of “PROGRAMS” availible is good because there should be one to satisfy ALOMOST any racer.

Joel Watkins
February 12th, 2010 at 9:36 pm

I’ve been looking for a game like this in years; something that brings a more serious level to a driving game. I’ve had enough of timed checkpoints, 90 degree turns taken at over 100 mph, firework, vinyls or whatever stickers for “pimping a ride”. Seems that most games are targetting the teen-agers these days, and I feel relieved that I can finally play a game/simulation close to my liking (I am 29 years old). There are a couple of things that I think make this software a simulation:
– it’s the only time that I saw working the concept of starting slow and gradually becoming better; usually for a driving game, you go out, and almost immediately you can push at the maximum and you’ll remain at that level for the remainder of the game. I find amazingly rewarding a gain of a tenth of a second on a lap time, a perfect clean pass in a race or a no-incident session.
– the trust that you’re gaining in yourself as you make progresses, get a new license, and compete with better drivers than you. The trust that you put in the other competitors and the unpredictability of every moment of a race.
– the feeling of no longer being the best on the track (well, some of you are) is a real motivator; I think at every driving game, almost everybody reaches the number 1 position at some point, at least driving against AI, and (s)he remains there – the games are designed that way, even the hardest levels aren’t invincible.
I like the fact the software keeps developing; may I suggest bringing in some more European tracks? Playing in the past some F1 or MotoGP games, I kind of got used to tracks like Barcelona, Monza, Jerez, Spa-Francorchamps. Would love to see these from an iRacing cockpit.
Keep up the good work, and greetings from an iRacing driver and fan from Romania.
Oh, definitely a simulation, to answer the topic.

Mihai Mesesan
February 13th, 2010 at 4:03 am

Separating “games” from “sims” using the controller you can use is something that should never be done, in my opinion. You can have a sim and use it with a pad, if the developer does a good job in testing it and found the best settings for a pad too. For sure, you’ll probably need some filters in order to make the pad behave like a steering wheel (not linear steering and similar things) and avoiding the car from being impossible to drive, but that depends only on the developer. 😉

February 13th, 2010 at 7:08 am

My introduction to “racing” in a digital environment was Gran Turismo 3 on the PS2. I had such a great experience that I threw out the completed game save and replayed the game four times. My only disappointment with it, and subsequently all the other racing “games” I’ve played on the PS3 (Grid, GT4, Need for Speed Shift, etc.) is that the AI was annoyingly unrealistic. My experiences when I played GT5 Prologue online was even more frightening…enough so that I stopped playing online completely. It was Carmageddon: i.e. knuckheads using your car to make corners, purposely trying to wreck you, etc. If iRacing can somehow get the licence to offer F1 racing, I’ll never leave the house again. I believe I will eventually sign up for this service as I’m overjoyed at the prospect of being part of a community of other drivers who also believe there should real consequences and penalties for being a butt head. That’s the part of iRacing being a sim that really entices me.

February 14th, 2010 at 1:48 pm

My thoughts are that iracing is much more than a simulation, it has been a teacher for me. I also see it as a great socal networking tool, where I have made many friends. But what it really has done for me it has changed my life. I am a disabled vet whom can no longer work, and this has given me a feeling of worth and goals to accomplish. I guess you can say it has given me a great hobby to pursue. Thank you iracing for that, you have added to the joy in my life.

Scott L. Hunt
February 15th, 2010 at 1:59 pm

There’s no AI in iRacing. You are racing REAL people. You gain and lose REAL irating and safety rating. That’s REAL racing…virtual perhaps but real none the less! For those of us that could never afford a race car…or even dream of racing in the Daytona 500…or driving at the same track with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and others). Call it what you want…it’s the best one there is!

George Stratton
February 16th, 2010 at 10:16 am

That goes without saying, Mr. Stratton. The discussion topic is whether iRacing is or is not a “game.” My attraction to this service is precisely because I’m not interacting with a preprogrammed set of numerical algorithms, but real people interacting in realtime in an environment that penalizes borish behavior. I’m retiring in September and I’m really looking forward to being able to finally have to the time to pursue this seriously. Perhaps you and I can trade a little paint sometime.

February 16th, 2010 at 5:15 pm

I played Gran Turismo 5 Prologue before iRacing, and based on the definition provided in the article, why is GT5P not a simulation? It simulates real world activity, inputs/controls are similar to real life (for those who use a wheel and pedals) and the cars respond in a similar fashion to the cars in real life and in iRacing. Obviously, iRacing has gone to much greater lengths to model the tracks and physics, but if one takes GT5P as seriously as they take iRacing, it is also a sim.

I say this in part because I still believe that of all the millions and millions of GT5 and Forza players who have purchaed those games, there are tens of thousands if not 100,000 that would be absolutely astounded by and love iRacing…if they only knew about it and had an opportunity to try it.

iRacing is fantastic!

February 17th, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Hi Kevin,

Great post.. But disagree with your assessment of Dirt 2. Not saying it’s a sim, but the physics are pretty good. If you’re driving it with a gamepad, I could understand. I also don’t know where in the game it gives extra points for running a driver off the road.

To the posters that say GT5 and Forza are not sims , I disagree.. I consider them good track day simulations and not games at all.. Dirt 2 = game, Gt5 and Forza 3 = sims..

Just because it’s on a console, it doesn’t make it an arcade title..

Lastly.. Sim / game.. whatever you want to call it.. It’s a video game… Yes you can learn tracks, etc.. but.. it will never replace the seat of the pants.

I can play Tiger Woods to get familiar with courses.. Sim or game ?? Or a video game that simulates real world sports ? I also swing the club on my Wii version, not just button mash..

Darin Gangi

By the way Kevin.. You can run iRacing with a gamepad too 😉

Darin Gangi
February 21st, 2010 at 11:36 am

Why do you have to pay more $ to get more tracks and newer cars…. that doesn’t fit well with me.
Do you have to pay more $ to get the newer cars and tracks as they are developed or its it pay as you go based on how well you do and complete all the trackes and cars youe are given when you sign up. I’m not going to pay as you go!!!

February 21st, 2010 at 11:43 am

I saw that in a Iracing thread on the forum (from a Williams F1 team guy), and it fits my beliefs perfectly… let’s call that an “Entertainment Simulation”… Probably the best available around for us mortals, but nowhere close to what Top F1 teams (or other top racing teams) can build on their own… Still lots on improvement to come for tire models and realistic environement ( wheater, track condition, aero vs damage models…), but it’s the top as for entertaining purpose…

February 22nd, 2010 at 1:11 am

” For those of us that could never afford a race car…or even dream of racing in the Daytona 500…or driving at the same track with Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and others). Call it what you want…it’s the best one there is!”

I’ve driven on the same track as Dale Earnhardt Jr on numerous occassions in Iracing!

Johan Arlebrink
February 22nd, 2010 at 8:16 pm

This food for thought, not directed at anyone…..they are always skeptics and critics in everything (games, simulators, movies, tv, books, politics….etc, etc) funny how the major nay sayers congregate around what they seeming despise? I’ve always though of iRacing (and a few other titles) to be both, after all isn’t what we are simulating a “game” itself? Racing can cause bodily injury and lose of life, is it not a “game” because of the serious of the possible injuries or the cost of involvement? Cant we be injured playing Soccer, Football, Skiing? Aren’t these things considered Games? What about the “Olympics”? not a “Game? It seems all forums of competition can be considered “games”, it doesn’t mean they’re not “real” ….so what are we really discussing? the fact we do or don’t like certain aspect of something we all seem to enjoy as a “pastime” have we ever agreed in whole on anything?…not! Game or Sim? what difference does it make? and who really cares? It is what it is to to “YOU”.

For what it’s worth :(was 2 cents before inflation) I think we are “Simulating” a “Game” 😉


Rick Hogue
March 19th, 2010 at 9:53 pm

@George Kuyumji
what on earth does having a reset button or being able to drive through other cars have to do with anything? iRacing isnt trying to simulate your ENTIRE REAL LIFE or the entire real world. it simulates fairly well what its like to drive a car on a racetrack. it helped me learn the Summit Point main track and when i went there for a track day in my real car i felt much more comfortable and was faster straight away.

basically youre saying it isnt a sim because I’m not paying $500,000 instead of $12 for a race car or when i crash a giant hammer isnt popping out of the computer and breaking my arm- any reasonable person understands there is a difference between the complete and total experience of owning, driving, and crashing a real racecar and iRacing.

David Grip
April 18th, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Be very careful of what you read. A wheel and pedals is literally the tip of the proverbial ice berg in iRacing. Most of the top dogs out there have thousands into a rig. Spend alot of cash or get in with one of the good old boys to get a fair shake in iRacing. Plug and play is not reality here.

May 4th, 2010 at 12:08 am

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January 7th, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Good stuff.

Bob Simmerman
March 8th, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I search for good flghit simulation video game?My favorite flghit sim video game was IL2 Forgotten Battles and Pacific Fighters, those games are wrom second world war (WW2) I trying to find good flghit simulation game from first world war (WW1)Any proposition ?

October 29th, 2012 at 3:08 am

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