October 11, 2003

Defining Simulation?

[This is in response to a great discussion on GTA specifically about newsgamings' September 12th (which I reviewed here) and more broadly about reactions to calling the game a "simulation". I would post it in GTA's comments section, except that I always hesitate to clog the narrow comments column with overly lengthy posts... this follows Noah's comment on October 11, 2003 10:02 AM ]

Manovich has some great stuff about simulation - although he is also very clear about distinctions he draws in its use. When talking about frescos, for example, he is distinguishing between "representation on a screen" and "simulation" as immersion. The key difference for him in that distinction (which is focused in this case on Virtual Reality and screens) is the relationship of the material body to the object of study - is it fixed (sitting in front of a computer) or mobile (walking around a wax museum). Manovich also goes to great length to situate simulation within a variety of historical contexts. Finally, his definition of computational simulation cites "visual fidelity" as just "one" aspect. He writes "Besides visual appearance, simulation in new media aims to model realistically how objects and humans act, react, move, grow, evolve, think, and feel" (LoNM 182, emphasis mine). The paragraph at the top of that same page is equally usefully is seeing how Manovich draws distinctions and associations in different types of simulation in "old" and "new" media.

So, to clarify, I wasn't quite asking "how do we define simulation" - which, as this fascinating conversation is pointing out, might not be such a bad question to revisit. My question really was: Does Gonzalo's definition of simulation successfully distinguish narratives and games (which is its stated purpose)?

I'm not sure it does.

I think Andrew and Noah are both totally right - each, in a different way, seems to argue that when defining a term (and creating a 'new' use for it), you must also take into account its historical and cultural heritage (after all, words aren't fixed, but nor are they unhinged). But the 'new' use in this case - functioning as a distinguishing characteristic between games and narratives - strikes me as suspect. By stating "Narrative is based on semiotic representation, while videogames also rely on simulation,[1] understood as the modeling of a dynamic system through another system," Gonzalo essentially argues that narrative is not simulation. And that makes me want to revisit the definitions of simulation in its various historical contexts...

The longer excerpt of Gonzalo's essay was very helpful - he has some really rich ideas, and I'm looking forward to the entire essay. It also brought to mind a few more questions about how he attempts to distinguish games. He writes: "Unlike narrative, which is constituted by a fixed series of actions and descriptions, videogames need the active participation of the user not just for interpretational matters, but also for accessing its content." When I read that, I mentally ask the following questions:

1. How do we define "active participation"?
2. Is narrative fixed? In what way? Are we talking about print narrative, such as a novel? Film narrative? Hypertext?
3. If a game has a narrative element (such as a RPG), how does this definition's distinction between the two reconcile itself?

Gonzalo's definition of simulation also serves an important political function in the long-standing debate that is broadly about the 'nature' of games but so often is cited as the ludology-narratology debate (a name that is, in my mind, an unfair reduction of a fascinating conundrum in the study of media into a dichotomy battle between methodologies). I also think that using this definition of "simulation" as the distinguishing characteristic of games does not successfully accommodate all types of games. Nor does it recognize that the category of 'games' encompasses a vastly diverse population of media objects. Absalom, Absalom and Webster's Dictionary are both books, but that doesn't really help to really define either of them beyond their surface material trappings.

(To be clear - I'm not saying that Gonzalo hasn't considered these things himself, but am rather just arguing against what I believe are the implications of his assertion. I realize that zeal for a subject matter can sometimes come across oddly in a textual environment, so pardon the self-conscious and well-intentioned aside...).

Bringing this back to the specific example of September 12th - I thought a few passages from Gonzalo's essay were striking and maybe speaks to why calling his game/political cartoon a 'simulation' struck some as problematic (as evidenced by Greg's colorful reaction):

"On the other hand, simulation is dynamic and its essence is change: it produces different outcomes."

"This also explains why videogames are not a good realm for historic events or characters or for making moral statements."

"The potential of simulation is not as a conveyor of values, but as a way to explore the mechanics of dynamic systems."

"Simulations also have particularities and referents, but their main characteristic is that they allow tweaking and changing the original model."

"Simulation is an ideal medium for exposing rules rather than particular events."

If we take these assertions as given, would we call September 12th a successful simulation? Or even a simulation at all?

Posted by Jason at October 11, 2003 5:12 PM | TrackBack
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