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Do Videogames Simulate? Virtuality and Imitation in the Philosophy of Simulation



Simulation. The concept of simulation has been contested in academia since its proliferation in the 1960s. This is hardly the case in videogame research, the subject of which is commonly discussed as a simulation or something that simulates with little analytical consideration of the term’s other scientific roles. Comparison. The article compares the simulation of videogame research to the ways in which other scientific sectors utilize the term. Problematic science communication. It turns out that videogame research has found an eccentric use for simulation with none or little relation to the term’s scientific (knowledge-driven) and etymological (imitational) predecessors. This becomes a problem in cross-scientific communication. Intentional philosophy. In order to overcome the problem, the article encourages scholars to adopt an intentional philosophy of simulation according to which videogames and their components may be structured as computerized simulators or simulations if functional evidence for a reference system exists. For those cases that lack functional evidence, the article (re)proposes the conceptual framework of virtuality.
Simulation & Gaming
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DOI: 10.1177/1046878115616219
Do Videogames Simulate?
Virtuality and Imitation in the
Philosophy of Simulation
Veli-Matti Karhulahti1
Simulation. The concept of simulation has been contested in academia since its
proliferation in the 1960s. This is hardly the case in videogame research,
the subject of which is commonly discussed as a simulation or something that
simulates with little analytical consideration of the term’s other scientific roles.
Comparison. The article compares the simulation of videogame research to the
ways in which other scientific sectors utilize the term.
Problematic science communication. It turns out that videogame research has
found an eccentric use for simulation with none or little relation to the
term’s scientific (knowledge-driven) and etymological (imitational) predecessors.
This becomes a problem in cross-scientific communication.
Intentional philosophy. In order to overcome the problem, the article encourages
scholars to adopt an intentional philosophy of simulation according to
which videogames and their components may be structured as computerized
simulators or simulations if functional evidence for a reference system
exists. For those cases that lack functional evidence, the article (re)proposes
the conceptual framework of virtuality.
animation, experiment, material ontology, materialism, metaphor, model, non-
disciplinarity, ontology, philosophy, reference system, rules of correspondence,
science, videogames, virtuality, videogame research
1University of Turku, Finland
Corresponding Author:
Veli-Matti Karhulahti, University of Turku, Lenkkipolku 1 J 931, 20520, Turku, Finland.
616219SAGXXX10.1177/1046878115616219Simulation & GamingKarhulahti
This is the final manuscript. The published version can be found here: DOI: 10.1177/1046878115616219
Simulation & Gaming, 1046878115616219, First published online on December 6, 2015
This is the final manuscript. The published version can be found here: DOI: 10.1177/1046878115616219
Simulation & Gaming, 1046878115616219, First published online on December 6, 2015
2 Simulation & Gaming
Philosophers have enjoyed a heap of problems with simulation (Crookall, 2011; Fox-
Keller, 2002; Frigg & Reiss, 2008/2009; Galison, 1996; Grüne-Yanoff, 2011; Grüne-
Yanoff & Weirich, 2010; Guala, 2002; Hartmann, 1996; Humphreys, 1991, 2009;
Morgan, 2004; Parker, 2008a, 2008b/2009; Pias, 2011; Rohrlich, 1991; Schweber &
Waechter, 2000; Stöckler, 2000; Vallverdúl, 2014; Winsberg, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2009,
2014; see Bostrom, 2003; Vidal, 2008). On the other hand, in the academic discourse
of videogames the concept appears rather trouble-free. More often than not, for a
videogame scholar “All computer games are simulations” (Parker & Becker, 2013, 1).
A brief justification of this rhetorical impeachment is in order.
If the conceptual role of simulation in videogame research is something that video-
game scholars widely agree with, one must be careful in its criticism. Consensus of
terminology is often a positive state, and an attempt to unbalance it might easily do
more harm than good. Once in a while, nevertheless, it so happens that discourse-
sharing people end up borrowing words from other discourses uncritically. In such
duty free interdisciplinarity (see Livingston & Sauchelli, 2011) terminologies get stan-
dardized not via circumspect analytical examination, but via early access language
games. That is what could have happened to the videogame as a narrative, and as most
of us know, that is what has actually happened to the videogame as a simulation. This
chain of events—which seriously undermines cross-scientific discussion—is signifi-
cant also for simulation research (or s/g research) that has so far relied on the broad
notions of gaming and modeling.
The humble goal of this article is to show how several scholars practicing video-
game research (also referred to as game studies) have ended up theorizing with the
concept of simulation in ways that conflict with its relatively stabilized meanings in
related and potentially collaborative scientific sectors; such as philosophy of simula-
tion, simulation research, and educational gaming. While I do happily respect the right
of videogame research (and all other sectors of research) to build their terminology in
exclusive ways, my belief is that the confusion at hand hinders the conceivably fruitful
communication between it and other simulation-related scientific discourses. Thus, I
will not claim that we have a right way to talk about simulation; rather, I will claim that
in the current situation the ways that most videogame researchers have chosen are less
useful than those presented here.
Throughout the first two sections I compare the simulation of videogame research
to the ways in which simulation research and science in general utilize simulation. The
primary observation is that videogame research has come to use the term in a unique
way that hinders cross-scientific discussion. In the third section I aim to reconcile the
situation by endorsing virtualization as an alternative for simulation when evidenced
reference systems are lacking or functionless. In the fourth and final section I prob-
lematize the notion of reference systems and conclude that an intentional philosophy
of simulation appears to offer the most useful framework for its comprehension. This
leads to a final suggestion: simulation research should pursue non-disciplinarity by
identifying its subject of study as a cross-scientific concept.
Karhulahti 3
1. Simulation Outside Videogame Research
The steady scientific use of the term simulation commenced in the 1960s. It started as
an umbrella term (Morgan, 2004), yet soon began to gain foothold as a concept that
deals with certain ways of imitating or mimicking systems—that is, as a specific type
of model. In Jan Klabbers’ (2009) formal terms:
If M is used as an image (substitute) of Rs, then M is by definition a model of Rs. … The
connotation of the term simulation implies that the related models imitate or mimic
reference systems through valid rules of correspondence. (455–456)
Perhaps the most known modern philosophical definition for simulation was given
in 1991 by Paul Humphreys, whose particular object of interest was computer simula-
tion. In simulation research computer simulation has settled to indicate a certain pro-
cessual model that does not involve human or other intelligent agents. The term
computerized simulation, in turn, has standardized into a more open processual model
that may involve intelligent agents. While for most people computer simulation and
computerized simulation may be somewhat synonymous, in the scientific discourses
the difference is important.1
What I find more interesting in Humphreys’ contribution than its working defini-
tion (which he revised in 2004) is the list of what he considers, based on previous
simulation research, the central usages of computer simulations. Instead of the defini-
tion, let me cite those usages:
1. To provide solution methods for mathematical models where analytical meth-
ods are presently unavailable.
2. To provide numerical experiments in situations where natural experimentation
is inappropriate (for practical reasons) or unattainable (for physical reasons)
3. To generate and explore theoretical models of natural phenomena. (1991, 502)
The full significance of the above will be unveiled later on, but for now it is enough to
see the essential: the generic functions of computer simulation are first and foremost
instrumental. In other words, computer simulations are normally tools that are used to
pursue methodological solutions, perform experimental data processing, or test the theo-
retical validity of an empirical phenomenon, currently existing or envisioned in the future.
The (cor)relation between computer simulation and empirical2 phenomena is sig-
nificant here; for instance, the mathematical models of the topmost listing cannot be
mere abstract equations but they must always “be applied to a specific scientific prob-
lem in order to be part of a computational simulation” (502). That remark well respects
the word’s etymological origins from Latin simulāre (imitate, counterfeit). To reiter-
ate, one cannot simulate without a counterpart that is being simulated.
In an extensive literary review on the scholarly use of the term simulation since
1998, Louise Sauvé, Renaud, Kaufman, and Marquis (2007) went through 1063
4 Simulation & Gaming
academic articles (98 of which were given an in-depth analysis) within simulation and
educational gaming research. Their results cohere perfectly with the empirically imi-
tational understating of simulation held by philosophers of simulation, such as
Humphreys. Sauvé et al. conclude as follows:
the literature allowed us to reassert that simulation is a simplified, dynamic and precise
representation of reality defined as a system … Through its model, judged by its fidelity
and its similarity to the reality it represents, a simulation is distinguished from a game
that makes absolutely no reference to reality (although a simulation game combines
these) (252–253)
It is notable that a large share of the reviewed literature was indeed from the studies
of educational gaming, which appears to have a closer relationship to simulation
research than to videogame research (due the evident needs of imitation in education).
This is why I mention the above results here, as part of simulation research.
The empirical nature of the counterpart—the reference system, source system, or
target system—that is being simulated is likewise the first point of departure in the
vast literature on the philosophical enigmas of simulation (recall earlier citations). The
basic recipe of those enigmas goes like this: simulations are models that function as
tools for gaining knowledge about their (existing or possibly existing) empirical refer-
ence systems, but since simulations are imitative counterfeits by definition, how can
they offer any significant knowledge?
While I do not have the need nor space to tackle those epistemological dilemmas
here,3 they do lead me to the counter-view that videogame researchers have taken as
their founding premise, viz, that the reference system of a simulation need not be
empirical. It may, this is the claim, also be fantastic, imaginary, or fictional. A propo-
nent of this view is regularly found consulting the second pioneering philosopher of
modern simulation, Stephan Hartmann (1996), whose oft-cited definition of simula-
tion is fairly open for such applications: “a simulation imitates one process by another
process” (5). While for Hartmann the term process refers broadly “to some object or
system whose state changes in time” (5), he too, nonetheless, emphasizes “the function
of a simulation to investigate real dynamic system” (5–6, my emphasis).
To wrap up the deep-rooted mantra of simulation research: the functions of com-
puter (and computerized) simulations are to operate as knowledge machines that pro-
vide empirically significant knowledge for practical (education and training) or
research (scientific) purposes. Let me also remind the reader of the useful distinction
between simulators and simulations:
A simulator is the structural basis of a simulation. It is the machine and the program, the
form and the content, existing in latent state … A simulation is the actualization of the
simulator, the operation or experience of it, the on-going, live performance (Crookall,
Oxford, & Saunders, 1987, 153)
After these remarks, let me move to explore the simulation of videogame research.
Karhulahti 5
2. Simulation in Videogame Research
I begin with Seth Giddings (2014), who has recently listed three popular answers for
the question “What do simulation games simulate?” in videogame research. These
answers reflect the conceptual disorder quite well:
Answer 1 is “not always what we might first think”;
Answer 2 is “nothing” – or rather something imaginary and hence “nothing actual”;
Answer 3 is simply “they simulate themselves” (264)
While the first answer points at those previously hinted cases in which the refer-
ence of a simulation is not an actually existing system but a system that could exist
(cf. Wolf, 1999), the self-explanatory second and third answers stand as somewhat
disobliging views when compared to the notions of simulation above. In what fol-
lows, I will go through those problematic answers in order to show how they conflict
with other discourses in science. This will hopefully clarify the state of affairs: if
videogame scholars wish to share their results with simulation-related research, it
would be a good idea to adapt their conceptual framework with respect to other
Gaming has been closely tied to simulation since the latter’s academic emergence.
Already a decade before Simulation & Gaming instigated its long-lasting line of pub-
lication in 1970, games were discussed as an allied topic with simulation next to
experiments, models, and computers (see Galison, 1996). In that historical context the
notion of game operates mainly as a representative of game theoretical (von Neumann
& Morgenstern, 1944) standpoints, which has little to do with the videogame research
of today. I might as well recycle videogame scholar Gonzalo Frasca’s (1999) encyclo-
pedic finding, originally written by Lloyd Shapley:
Although the terminology of players, moves, rules, and payoffs might suggest a
preoccupation with sports or recreation, the theory of games has seldom been of practical
use in playing real games (n.p.)
While I do not believe that videogames really have much in common with many
real games (either), the dissimilarity between videogame research and game theory is
evident. Thus, to discuss simulation in videogame research, I need to move from the
first steps of scientific simulations to the 1980s and Chris Crawford’s (1984/1997)
still-cooperative opus:
A simulation is a serious attempt to accurately represent a real phenomenon in another,
more malleable form. A [video] game is an artistically simplified representation of a
phenomenon. ... The fundamental difference between the two lies in their purposes. A
simulation is created for computational or evaluative purposes; a [video] game is created
for educational or entertainment purposes. (8)
6 Simulation & Gaming
Two points of possible contradiction need to be noted before going further. First,
Crawford uses the term representation in place of model. Second, videogames (let
alone games) need not always be representations or models. Crawford’s comparison
thus concerns only those instances in which the videogame represents or models an
empirical reference system. As such, Crawford’s purpose-based outline is somewhat
fitting with the general view of science. Klabbers’ (2009) study concerning the grounds
of simulation research (reflecting on First International Conference on Simulation and
Gaming) confirms:
The key question was whether [game and simulation] were using the same techniques
while pursuing different goals or using different techniques while having similar goals in
mind. (447)
The instrumentally determined contrast—that simulations and simulators are struc-
tured for knowledge-driven purposes (Crawford’s “computation or evaluation”) and
that videogames are structured for self-contained ludic purposes (Crawford’s “enter-
tainment”)—could still be taken as the cornerstone of ludo-philosophical discussion
on simulation. If simulations “are arguments, not experiences” (Stöckler, 2000, 369),
then videogames function first and foremost as experiences.
By adding education as the second purpose for videogames, Crawford reveals the
fundamental problem of the educational videogame: since the videogame is indeed
designed to serve experiential functions, an educational videogame is always a com-
promise in proportion to the delivery of its referential, educative message. David
Myers (1984) observed this not a year later to Crawford: “whatever is learned from
games [is] how to understand, and not, in the strictest sense, how to know” (182) (see
also Myers, 1999, 2003, 2005; cf. Gee, 2003; Law-Yone, 1996). While the act of play-
ing is always educative as a learning process, an intentional delivery of information
through it as a videogame turns out as a paradox, “a bastard child of [real] simulators”
(Atkins, 2003, 139).4
Notwithstanding, one does not need to fully reject the simulative potential of enter-
tainment artifacts. An artifact like a videogame may be designed for entertainment
purposes and at the same time model a reference system. The duty free theoretical
misstep (if you may) surfaces when the concept of simulation is applied in the absence
of the latter, that is, in the absence of the intention to model a reference system. For the
proliferation of those applications it is not least to thank for Jean Baudrillard’s philoso-
phy of the hyperreal, the appropriation of which, in videogame research, “has today
become almost a cliché” (Kingsepp, 2007, 366; see also Coulter, 2007; Galloway,
2007; Simon, 2007).
While Baudrillard’s treatment of simulation and simulacrum as self-reflective anti-
concepts was done with an indubitable awareness of the terms’ historical and scientific
forerunners, his sardonic rejection of imitational aspects was first and foremost
It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of
substituting the signs of the real for the real (Baudrillard, 1994/2010, 2)
Karhulahti 7
Rearticulating Baudrillard’s politically charged theory (see Crogan, 2007; Gane,
2006; Giddings, 2007b; cf. Deleuze, 1983), in videogame research the original idea of
simulation as imitation and counterfeiting are replaced with the idea of simulation as
self-ruled structuring of dynamic systems; a designation that has little in common with
the consistent notion of simulation as an imitational and counterfeiting act.5
While Anthony Niesz and Norman Holland (1984), in their seminal analysis of text-
based videogames, were still careful to employ simulation only in the imitational sense to
the artifacts themselves, it seems that Richard Ziegfeld’s (1989) ambitious ludo-ontology
becomes the breaking point after which the term starts to appear frequently in its twisted
hyperreal form: first as a general design strategy of dynamic systems; and then—not
pointing only at videogames themselves but also at the materiality of their components6
as self-simulating substance (see self-referential meanings in Klabbers, 1996). One of the
most sophisticated advocates of this perspective has since been Espen Aarseth (2006):
Simulation should here be understood as dynamic modeling in general, rather than the
faithful mapping of real phenomena: we may simulate a dragon in a computer game, and
even if no real-world counterpart exists, the dragon is still a simulated dragon and not a
fictional dragon. (846)
Similar reasoning has been plied by numerous other competent scholars; not least
Giddings (2007a), for whom the videogame is “an automaton [and] all automata are
simulacra” (427). In the theories of these scholars, videogames and their components
may well simulate even if the representational relationship between them and empiri-
cal phenomena has completely withered away.
One way to defend such theoretical views (as does Aarseth, 2006) is to claim that the
entities of videogames like dynamic dragon automata have always been made to resem-
ble at least its designer’s thought processes (of a dragon). In this reasoning, even if a
simulation or simulator derives from something that has never existed or will never
exist, it could be said to imitate its designer’s thinking. Yet a serious problem material-
izes if one accepts thought processes as reference systems: if thought processes are
accepted as valid reference systems, one must also accept that all simulations and simu-
lators are imitations of thought processes by essence. It is, after all, the very thoughts of
phenomena that designers are working with, not the empirical phenomena from which
the thoughts derive. To accept immaterial reference systems is to deny material reference
systems; which also means the denial of testing as a means of simulation validation.
While I do not want to disavow the design of entertaining systems like videogames
and their dragons, theorizing them and their components as simulations or simulators
does lead into an epistemological predicament that was already revealed earlier: does
one still talk about simulation if the defining relation between it and its presumed ref-
erence system is irrelevant?
3. Simulation and Virtualization
My guess is that philosophers of simulation will eventually answer the preceding
question negatively. Many have already done that in fact; for instance, one of the
8 Simulation & Gaming
leading figures, Eric Winsberg, has recently (2009, 2014) analyzed the “useful ways of
thinking about what the term means” (2009, 835) and none of his submissions fits the
dragons of videogames. Just as the critical interrogation of narrative taught videogame
researchers not to redefine but to take advantage of their borrowed terms (in order to
be able to share cross-scientific results), a proper handling of the topic at issue should
encourage videogame researchers to treat simulation with equal respect.
To probe the concept of simulation that has developed in the hands of scientists
who employ it to gain knowledge for heuristic, predictive, and research purposes, I
appropriate an alternative concept, virtual, from one of the founders of artificial life
research, Christopher Langton (1986). Deriving from Latin virtualis (potency to pro-
duce an effect) and French virtuel (relating to a faculty of the soul), Langton employs
virtuality as an ontological category; a realm in which models can be “so life-like that
they cease to be models of life and become examples of life themselves” (147). This
realm is not a singular space or place, for it is possible for scientists to build there
several “artificial universes within which we can embed artificial molecules in the
form of virtual automata” (148).
Being aware that the notion of virtuality has its own contested history (see
Karhulahti, 2012, 2015), I think Langton’s virtual realm (ontological macro category),
virtual universe (ontological micro category),7 and virtual automaton (dynamic com-
ponent in those categories)8 are, more often than not, healthier terms for ontological
videogame research than simulation. This suggestion is, of course, not a totally new
one; for instance, Aarseth (2003) (differing with his previously cited positions) has
made this point once:
[Virtual worlds] could also be called (computer) simulations [sic], but sometimes (e.g., a
fantasy world) there exists no real counterpart that is being simulated, and so it cannot be
called a simulation, although simulation techniques are indeed used. Let us call these
systems virtual worlds (431)
Interestingly again, Giddings (2007a) has entertained similar possibilities by
remarking how “videogames both model and generate new, virtual worlds” (424). He
does not, however, try to solve the conceptual contradiction that emerges from simula-
tions and simulators being potentially both; imitations of empirical phenomena and
non-imitational virtual automata. He calls it a “mistake” to define computer simula-
tions as “representational or mimetic” with the help of a 1980s Predator-Prey simula-
tion in which
declining rabbit population meant restrictions on food supply for the foxes, and so their
population began to fall … But what was being simulated here? … the boundless
complexity of the natural world was reduced to a relationship between the population size
of two species (423)
For Giddings, the problem with imitative simulations in general and Predator-Prey
simulation in particular seems to be that they do not always reference specific
Karhulahti 9
empirical entities (in this case a specific population of rabbits and foxes), but they
might also reference generic empirical phenomena that are immaterial entities (cf.
Doležel, 1998; Fullerton, 2008). Nonetheless, a crucial difference exists between
empirically observable generic phenomena, like rabbit-fox relationships and, say,
imaginary zombie-alien relationships. While both can be presented via software as
virtual ecologies, only the former have functions as simulations with clear empirical
interest and reference.
To provide another illustrative case, the distinction between functional simulation
and imaginary imitation also explains those well-founded criticisms given to US
Senator Tom Coburn (2012) after his official government report that revealed how
taxpayers’ dollars had been spent “to put on a zombie-driven show designed to simu-
late a real-life terrorism event” (25). In any case, using imaginary entities for any
functional imitation of empirical phenomena is dubious.
Thus, despite some already existing remarks that could have been used to clarify
issues, it seems fair to state that ontological theories concerning the simulation-virtual
setting are far from finished and clear. In videogame research, the monopoly of simu-
lation as the onto-theoretical framework is so great that further references would read
tasteless here. I shall hence dedicate the rest of this section to the differences (and
similarities) between simulation and virtualization (as I see them).9
First, let me note how in videogame research the videogame artifact is almost never
referred to as a simulator (except as a genre), but always as a simulation or computer
simulation. To repeat, this seems to be in conflict with the terminology of simulation
research (recall first endnote and Crookall et al., 1987). Yet what is perhaps even more
scientifically crucial than the simulative status of the videogame artifacts themselves
is the material-ontic status of their components: the substance of dragons, butterflies,
stones, and other existents that belong to the realms of videogames. Predictably, in
videogame research, such components are also called simulations or simulated objects,
whether they had a reference system or not.
It is true that once in a while simulations and simulated objects are defined in terms
of imitation by videogame scholars too (see Bogost, 2006; Dormans, 2011; Juul, 2005;
Klevjer, 2002; Montfort, 2007; Mosca, 2013; Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). That, how-
ever, does not negate the increasing tendencies in videogame research to identify all
dynamic models as simulations; usually in contrast to static models that are typically
labeled representations (see Frasca, 2003) or fictions (see Aarseth, 2007). Although
the way things have been is never an argument for the way things should be, let me
remind you that science has so far associated simulation as well as representation with
both dynamic and static models (see Grüne-Yanoff & Weirich, 2010).
To clarify the above ambiguities of videogame research, it seems reasonable to
identify all dynamically behaving components of videogames (and other virtual envi-
ronments) simply as virtual components; with the caveat that in those specific condi-
tions under which a functional reference system exists, as in historical, documentary,
and educational videogames, the virtual component in question can be identified also
via simulation. Simulated components of videogames (and other virtual environments)
are thus a category of the large group of different virtual components.
10 Simulation & Gaming
In sum, videogames and their components can and should be discussed as (comput-
erized) simulations or simulators in cases where they can be given a functional role as
a model of a valid reference system. The problem addressed by this article concerns
cases in which simulation is associated with videogames and their dynamic
i. without admitting any imitative functions to it; and as it happens in the worst
ii. when their counterfeiting status is additionally rejected in the advocacy of
ontic autonomy.
The idea of videogames and their components as ontically autonomous real sys-
tems with self-governing dynamic behaviors is starting to gain a footing in academia
(see Giddings, 2005; Klabbers, 2003; Lofgren & Fefferman, 2007; Myers, 2010;
Zimmerman, 2009), and I see no reason to question that significant finding. Videogames
and their components should certainly be discussed as ontically autonomous (mate-
rial) entities rather than replicas or make-believe. Importantly, however, an entity may
be ontically distinct from reality or some other realm, yet still be designed to imitate
that other realm to which it does not belong (or to which it belongs in a way that is
worth an ontic distinction).
Thus, employing the fake-related term simulation for an ontically autonomous vid-
eogame or its component is not incorrect, but manifestly misleading. As Brian
Massumi (2014) points out in his ontological analysis, the virtual must be understood
“as a dimension of reality, not its illusionary opponent or artificial overcoming” (55).
Yet, if some videogames and components thereof have reference systems and oth-
ers do not, how does one know whether they simulate (imitate) or not? One way to
answer the question is to claim that sometimes an object resembles, that is, has recog-
nizable correspondence with a reference system, in which case it can be considered a
simulation. This answer is not, however, a very solid basis for a theory. As Nelson
Goodman (1968) pointed out some while ago, any picture may represent any object,
for which the finding of correspondences without predetermined reference is merely a
matter of interpretive skill (and endless debate):
whether an object is really fixed or a picture is realistic depends at any time entirely upon
what frame or mode is then standard … If representation is a matter of choice and
correctness a matter of information, realism is a matter of habit. (38)
Epistemologists have wrestled with the dilemma of mimetic legitimacy for ages
and in several philosophical contexts. Nevertheless, the principle of representation as
a matter of choice seems like the most resourceful one for a theory of simulation.
Having said that, I certainly do not wish to deny that some systems can be empirically
proven more correct or more recognizable imitations than others. In the below section
I offer my argument concerning the next logical question: whose matter of choice is
the reference system of a simulation?
Karhulahti 11
4. A Simulation and to Simulate
In a timely analysis on what its author calls the metaphor-simulation dilemma, Sebastian
Möring (2012) poses the question whether some videogames are better understood as
metaphors rather than simulations. He speculates whether “any procedural object or phe-
nomenon can simulate another procedural object or phenomenon” (12), and in a later
article continues by saying that “simulations as such also have to persuade the user—
namely that they successfully simulate what they pretend to simulate” (2013, 53).
Statements like the ones given by Möring seem to repeat a confusing notion. The
majority of conceptual difficulties concerning the question whether a phenomenon is
to be taken as a simulation or something else derive from perceiving the videogame
itself as an intentional entity that simulates and persuades. Imitation, as Walter
Benjamin (1999/2005) wisely put it, “is at home in the playing, not in the plaything
(116). Artifacts never simulate or persuade by themselves; however, people may well
see them as instruments of simulative and persuasive intentions. To make this and
other related perplexities manageable, I adopt a view according to which the video-
game and its components cannot simulate anything by themselves, but their designers
may choose to structure them as simulators or simulations of something that they wish
to simulate (see Möring, 2013, 64-66).
Like metaphorization, “the action or process of treating something metaphorically,
or making a metaphor of something” (OED, metaphorization, n.), the simulative pro-
cedure appears to be most rationally understood as an intentional act, just as it has been
understood in the history of science. Yet unlike in metaphorization, in the act of simu-
lation the projection of intention needs to be (as it generally has been) connected to the
designer of the entity, not to its interpreter. Simulation is not in the eye of the beholder,
but in the eye of the architect.
It is important to stress that in the present context intention has a very concrete,
material role. By intention I do no refer to those thought processes that some scholars,
as discussed earlier, have proposed as reference systems for simulations. Here inten-
tions derive from empirically existing textual, verbal, or suchlike evidence, which
provide good reasons to believe that the artifact in question has been designed to imi-
tate a phenomenon for a reason. Only after such evidence can one validate and esti-
mate correspondence.
According to this intentional philosophy of simulation, the processes of computer
and computerized simulation are not related to interpreters treating them as such, but
to designers producing them as such, intentionally. This philosophy is supported by
practical reasons that are in fact pretty obvious: because simulations and simulators
(outside videogame research) are tools that are employed to gain knowledge of empiri-
cal phenomena, interpretive liberalism is out of question. If someone has designed a
simulation of Western economy and you interpret it as a simulation of Eastern popu-
lace, the aftermath is eroding for all parties concerned. Likewise, you would not want
to take a plane that is flown by a pilot trained in a submarine simulator.10
In (non-educational) videogames, on the contrary, interpretive and intentional falla-
cies are hardly an issue. If you interpret TETRIS (Pajitnov, 1984) as a simulation of the
12 Simulation & Gaming
“overtasked lives of Americans in the 1990s” (Murray, 1997, 144), the worst that can
happen is someone stamping down your interpretation as reckless. The only setback
here seems to be a theoretical one: if players can freely choose the reference systems for
what videogames and their components are simulations of, the concept of simulation
loses its theoretical value as a knowledge-driven, functionally intended model. So why
not just let literary theorists have their metaphors as readers’ free interpretations, and
simulation theorists have their simulations as designers’ practical intentions?
In this frame, what is left for videogame researchers are the videogame as a dynamic
virtual universe (or world) and its dynamically behavioral components as virtualiza-
tions (virtual dragons, virtual characters, virtual florae, etc.). It does not matter who
has designed what and how it is interpreted: the virtual status is determined solely by
the ontic presence of dynamic behavior; a concept that future research needs to define
more accurately. This approach finally enables also the conceptual accommodation of
those videogames and videogame components that have not been constructed to
resemble any reference systems. I am sure something like abstract expressionism hap-
pens in videogame design too.11
I have offered reasons for considering the videogame and its components virtual rather
than simulated in order to strengthen (or perhaps restructure) a communication rela-
tionship between videogame research and other simulation-related scientific sectors.
The formerly argued reasons are these:
i. Most videogames do not seem to be very good computerized simulations (or
simulators) in the sense that non-videogame research conceives of the term.
ii. Most videogame components do not seem to be very good (computer) simula-
tions in the sense that non-videogame research conceives of the term.
I recommend videogame scholars not to pass the word simulation through duty free
interdisciplinarity, but to reserve the word simulation for those already-numerous,
well-established purposes that have been recognized above.
David Crookall (2000, 2010) has called for a discussion of interdisciplinarity in
simulation research. He suggests non-disciplinarity (2000, 18) as a more descriptive
term for the present journal, but is afraid of the term’s negative element. This article
can hence be read as a support piece for non-disciplinarity in simulation research: one
must not disavow videogames as potential computerized simulations or simulators in
cases in which they appear as such, but neither must one do the opposite and study all
videogames automatically as simulations just because they relate to computers and
gaming (that relate to simulation).
I end with Myers (1999), yet by associating his words with a meaning that probably
differs from the one that he had in mind: “Simulation may be truly valuable and unique
only insofar as it is about the otherwise hidden reality of the semiotic process” (159).
Not all videogames are simulations or simulators, and not all videogame components
are simulated. Videogames may not contain simulation at all.
Karhulahti 13
I presented this article in Philosophy of Computer Games Conference 2014. The feedback that
I received there was more than valuable; special thanks go to Andreas Gregersen. After the blind
peer-review round, this article went also through an additional coaching peer-review round. Let
me express my gratitude to all anonymous reviewers as well as to the three non-anonymous
ones: David Myers, Seth Giddings, and Emil Winsberg. It was one of the most productive
reviews that I have ever been through. The critical comments from Gordon Calleja and Jonas
Linderoth were likewise essential for making the piece readable. It is awesome to have you as
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/
or publication of this article: This research was funded by University of Turku Foundation post-
doctoral grant.
1. The guidelines of Simulation & Gaming instruct:
Use the term computer-mediated simulation or computerized simulation for simula-
tions involving human participants (other terms are computer-assisted, computer-
based, computer-controlled, computer-dependent). Use the term computer simula-
tion for computer programs that operate with insignificant or no human participant
Ergo, videogames, with intelligent players, should not be discussed as computer simu-
lations to begin with. As artifacts, the proper way to address videogames in simulation
research seems to be computerized simulator. This might also be a good place to stress that
simulations (according to most theories) need not be computer-related at all.
2. I prefer the term empirical to natural, although it does not do much better in its job of
signifying the reality for which English-speaking philosophers have not yet been able to
find a proper word. Note that empirical does not equal material, for which our economical,
social, and other immateria phenomena exist in the empirical sphere as well. Also, while
simulations always require an empirical reference system with an imitational function,
fantasy-themed virtual environments are empirical phenomena too and can thus be objects
of simulation; for instance, it is possible to construct a simulation of a virtual environment
like WORLD OF WARCRAFT if one day such need occurs.
3. I cannot resist the temptation to give a perspective on the quandary between computer
simulation and experimentation, which is often (see especially Fox-Keller, 2002; Frigg &
Reiss, 2008/2009; Guala, 2002; Parker, 2008b/2009; Rohrlich, 1991 ) at the center of simu-
lation epistemology: in computer simulation one knows almost all functional behaviors of
the components that are dealt with (the designer has programmed them her- or himself),
but less about their relation to the targeted system (the targeted system normally consists
of a different material matter than the computer simulated component); in experimentation
14 Simulation & Gaming
one knows almost all about the relationship between the experimented components and the
targeted system (the targeted system normally consists of the same or alike material matter
than the experimented component) but less about their functional behaviors (the material
matter of experimented components is usually biological or chemical and thus subject to an
increased unpredictability in comparison to algorithmic components). Things get (more)
complex when computerized simulators (e.g. flight simulators) are used for experimental
purposes (e.g. to test human pilots).
4. I believe one of the reviewers of this article knows why such paradoxes still exist: “I cyni-
cally suspect that many have remained vague and indecisive about declaring games
something entirely different from simulations because of various benefits accruing from
justifying the use (and marketing) of games in educational contexts as education tools.”
5. The notion of dynamic as an element of simulation is fairly ambiguous within both simulation
and videogame research. Whereas in the former, dynamic tends to be described through tem-
porality as the “development of the simulated system” (Grüne-Yanoff & Weirich, 2010, 23),
in the latter, the defining feature is often configurative: “static relations can only be interpreted
but dynamic relations allow manipulation” (Eskelinen, 2001; see also Bateman, 2014).
6. Component is my word choice for all the existents, entities, and elements in the virtual
worlds of videogames. The behavioral variety of these components is great. Dragons in
the videogame SKYRIM are components with multiple interaction options; e.g. you can
interact with them by talking and battling. Some flowers in SKYRIM are components with
multiple interaction options; e.g. you can pick them up and sell them. The sun in SKYRIM
is a component without obvious interaction options, but it does still cast a shadow on your
avatar and many other components in the virtual continent of Tamriel. Also, of course,
some of the rocks on the ground do not seem to behave in any way at all; call them orna-
ments if you will. See the eleventh endnote.
7. I would not mind replacing the perhaps-too-flamboyant universe with something earthier
like world.
8. As my criticisms should make clear, one must weigh carefully how faithful to be to
the consulted context. See Langton’s (1986) distinctions between physical automata,
virtual automata, first-order automata, second-order automata, finite automata, virtual
finite automata, Turing machines, virtual Turing machines, and virtual state machines
(130–131). I believe the term virtual has not conventionalized academically or colloqui-
ally to any extent that would disallow videogame (and related) scholars from appropriat-
ing the term in the currently proposed way (see Lehdonvirta, 2008; Ryan, 1999; Shields,
9. You might want to take a look at Clément Vidal’s (2008) distinction between real-world
modelling and artificial-world modelling. It is a pity that moving pictures emerged before
videogames and reserved the term animation for their less animate images.
10. The condition of acknowledging authorial intent is why Winsberg (2003) calls simulations
not autonomous, but semiautonomous.
11. In future research it will be important to identify the degrees, types, and modes of virtual-
ity. These considerations go naturally way beyond the inspirational text of Langton (1986)
whose main concern was the self-sustaining (128) and self-regulating (133) vitality of vir-
tuality. Again, Aarseth (2012) has already shared a few ideas about the distinctions at issue
(noninteractable, usable, destructible, changeable, creatable, and inventible objects), but in
their current undefined state it is hard to tell how much use those categories will come to be.
Karhulahti 15
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Author Biography
Veli-Matti Karhulahti is postdoctoral researcher in University of Turku, Finland. His back-
ground is in media philosophy, literary theory, and aesthetics. He has been researching video-
games and other ludic phenomena since 2010, and he is currently working on the ecologies of
MOBA esports.
... Players do not passively consume these components but interact with them by providing input to a computer; in doing so games frame their players as powerful, creative, and performative agents. Player input is reacted to and evaluated by the computer or, in the case of social games, the computer and other players (Karhulahti 2015). ...
Virtual heritage has been explained as virtual reality applied to cultural heritage, but this definition only scratches the surface of the fascinating applications, tools and challenges of this fast-changing interdisciplinary field. This book provides an accessible but concise edited coverage of the main topics, tools and issues in virtual heritage. Leading international scholars have provided chapters to explain current issues in accuracy and precision; challenges in adopting advanced animation techniques; shows how archaeological learning can be developed in Minecraft; they propose mixed reality is conceptual rather than just technical; they explore how useful Linked Open Data can be for art history; explain how accessible photogrammetry can be but also ethical and practical issues for applying at scale; provide insight into how to provide interaction in museums involving the wider public; and describe issues in evaluating virtual heritage projects not often addressed even in scholarly papers. The book will be of particular interest to students and scholars in museum studies, digital archaeology, heritage studies, architectural history and modelling, virtual environments.
... Unlike other media, games can both represent and simulate (see Juul (2005, pp. 170-7) and Karhulahti (2015)). Representations of the material objects of thought, like a particular artwork, such as a sculpture, novel or film, exist as one, shared thing, with a form and content that will be the same for everyone even if we experience them differently. ...
... Unlike other media, games can both represent and simulate (see Juul (2005, pp. 170-7) and Karhulahti (2015)). Representations of the material objects of thought, like a particular artwork, such as a sculpture, novel or film, exist as one, shared thing, with a form and content that will be the same for everyone even if we experience them differently. ...
... Unlike other media, games can both represent and simulate (see Juul (2005, pp. 170-7) and Karhulahti (2015)). Representations of the material objects of thought, like a particular artwork, such as a sculpture, novel or film, exist as one, shared thing, with a form and content that will be the same for everyone even if we experience them differently. ...
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This article introduces multiverse ethnography as a systematic team-based qualitative method for studying the mechanical, structural and experiential properties of video games and other technological artefacts. Instead of applying the ethnographic method to produce a single in-depth account, multiverse ethnography includes multiple researchers carrying out coordinated synergetic ethnographic work on the same research object, thus producing a multiverse of interpretations and perspectives. To test the method, 41 scholars carried out a multiverse ethnography on two video games, Cyberpunk 2077 and Among Us . Explorative thematic findings regarding both titles are reported and methodological implications of multiverse ethnography are discussed.
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Redefines some of the central concepts related to simulation in relation to two perspectives, i.e., representation and reality. Highlights include discussions of systems, models, rules, simulators, simulation, role play, and games. Error consequence and the nature of rules and strategy are discussed to draw distinctions between various concepts. (Author/LRW)
Computational science, especially computer simulations, is now the dominant procedure in many areas of science. This book contains the first systematic philosophical account of this new scientific method, and draws a parallel between the ways in which such computational methods have enhanced our abilities to mathematically model the world, and the more familiar ways in which scientific instruments have expanded our access to the empirical world. This expansion forms the basis for a new kind of empiricism better suited to the needs of science than the older anthropocentric forms of empiricism. Human abilities are no longer the ultimate standard of correctness within epistemology. The book includes arguments for the primacy of properties rather than objects, for how technology interacts with scientific methods, and a detailed account of how the path from a computational template or model to a scientific application is constructed and revised. This last feature allows us to hold a form of selective realism in which anti-realist arguments based on abstract reconstructions of theories can be avoided. One important consequence of the rise of computational methods is that the traditional organization of the sciences is being replaced by an organization founded on computational templates.
"Like Dewey, he has revolted against the empiricist dogma and the Kantian dualisms which have compartmentalized philosophical thought. . . . Unlike Dewey, he has provided detailed incisive argumentation, and has shown just where the dogmas and dualisms break down." --Richard Rorty, The Yale Review
Simulation techniques, especially those implemented on a computer, are frequently employed in natural as well as in social sciences with considerable success. There is mounting evidence that the “model-building era” (J. Niehans) that dominated the theoretical activities of the sciences for a long time is about to be succeeded or at least lastingly supplemented by the “simulation era” . But what exactly are models? What is a simulation and what is the difference and the relation between a model and a simulation? These are some of the questions addressed in this article. I maintain that the most significant feature of a simulation is that it allows scientists to imitate one process by another process. “Process” here refers solely to a temporal sequence of states of a system. Given the observation that processes are dealt with by all sorts of scientists, it is apparent that simulations prove to be a powerful interdisciplinarily acknowledged tool. Accordingly, simulations are best suited to investigate the various research strategies in different sciences more carefully. To this end, I focus on the function of simulations in the research process. Finally, a somewhat detailed case-study from nuclear physics is presented which, in my view, illustrates elements of a typical simulation in physics.