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?
To 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 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.
Dirt 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?