Simulations vs Games

Simulations vs games banner image featuring flight simulator

This article was originally published at UniversityXP and is re-published in Ludogogy by permission of the author.

Games and simulations are two things that seem talked about in the same circles. Sometimes they even get misinterpreted for one another. They do share some of the same characteristics; but games and simulations are different from one another.

Before we jump into what those differences are, let’s first define what we mean by games.

What are games?

Games are activities that have an explicit goal. There is a clear structure that guides players’ choices and experiences. Games allow players to interact with the environment, other players, or both. Finally, games have feedback mechanisms that provide players with a gauge for how their interaction affects their play.

One reason why players find games so engaging and addictive is because they create an emotional reaction in players.  This visceral sense of accomplishment, triumph, or fiero, that players get when they play great games is what keeps them coming back for more.

, that players get when they play great games is what keeps them coming back for more.

What are simulations?

So how do simulations compare to games? Simulations can also be games. Games such as The Sims or Sim City even have simulation in the title.  Simulations can also be serious games. Serious games are games that have been designed from the ground up for learning.

So what are some examples of simulations? Microsoft Flight Simulator qualifies for its ability to accurately recreate how one would operate an aircraft.  Cytosis is a serious game in its ability to teach players cell biology. Chess is a serious game based on its ability to show insights on how strategies might play out on a battlefield.

Simulations – unlike games – are supposed to be representative. They are supposed to be replications of what can be or has been.  If you’ve ever seen Civil War reenactors, played the Stock Market Game in your high school economics class, or participated in a case study, then you know what simulations can be used for.

Simulations, unlike games, are based on the recreation of a situation. Those can be historical or theoretical situations.  But all simulations require the player to problem solve and make decisions that one might make in the real world. Debate Club, Mock Trial Team, and Model United Nations are all examples of how simulations have been applied for co-curricular learning.

Simulations are often engaging forms of experiential learning because they provide a means for players to practice. Simulations give participants a safe means for them to play, experiment, and experience what this would be like in a real world situation.  Flight simulators or historical reenactments provides a way for players to experience something that would be too costly, dangerous, or otherwise impossible.

The Sims game
Image of The Sims by Rosenfield Media

Returning to simulations versus games

So how are simulations like games? Many gamers can see that simulations share some characteristics in common like a scaled difficulty level that progresses with players. Flight simulators can be as graphically rich as the latest PC games.  Both games and simulations also provide rich feedback for the player in the form of engagements, interactions, and unfolding consequences as a result of players’ decisions.

Unlike games, simulations don’t have a specific win/loss state. Games contain structures of specific conditions where the game ends. Typically this results in unequal outcomes for players. “I win and you lose” conditions for war games, “We both earned points, but I earned more points than you” in board games, or “I finished the race the fastest” in sports or athletics contests.

Simulations don’t have a typical win/loss state. They continue to exist after players have left and can continue to be played over time. Simulations, like their real world experiences, continue to be. They are an unending interpretation of a state of affairs from which players played a small role.

Closing thoughts

Now you should be able to tell the differences and similarities between games and simulations. Both can be used to meet your learning, education, and training needs. Though they both provide different outcomes for your students based on what you want them to learn and takeaway.

Simulations are based on a re-creation of scenarios and require problem solving from players for them to succeed in surmounting them. Games on the other hand don’t necessarily rely on problem solving for players to engage and finish them. Rather, they can use feedback mechanisms that incentivize them to continue playing.

Both simulations and games provide experiences for your players and learners to engage with material that you have created. You can consider simulations and games both vehicles for bringing your audience where you intend for them to go.


If you have enjoyed this article – consider getting yourself lifetime access to his Games-Based Learning Digital Library containing all of the content from the past two Games-Based Learning Virtual Conferences; past webinars and courses he’s created; as well as his complete back catalogue of articles; podcast episodes; and videos. And more content is being added all the time.

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References and further reading:

Boller, S. (2017, March 13). Games vs Simulations: Choosing the Right Approach for Learning. Retrieved June 20, 2019, from

Eng, D. (2019, May 07). What are serious games? Retrieved June 21, 2019, from

Eng, D. (2019, June 18). Feedback Loops in Games Based Learning. Retrieved from

How is Chess Strategy Linked to the Master Principle of Warfare? | Chess Blog of iChess.NET. (2017, October 22). Retrieved June 25, 2019, from

Kramer, W. (2000, December). What is a Game? Retrieved June 21, 2019, from

Liberty, S. (2016, December 15). For User Engagement, Forget Flow. It’s All About Fiero. Retrieved June 21, 2019, from

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Educator / Designer / Researcher at Dave Eng Design
Dr. Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who focuses on games, theory, and technology.

Dave studies applied games and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies (

Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points ( and consults at University XP ( on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development.

Dave is a founder of Banditos Gaming ( a registered 501(c)(3) social and educational non-profit organization that promotes play, community development, and learning through games. His interests include learning theory, technology, and games.

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