Simulations-An Overview

  • SumoMe

This is an article written for my Trends and Issues course this past semester for my Doctoral program at NSU. We were meant to look at simulations and provide an overview and a definition for them. Here is my piece.


Simulations have been around since early humans existed on earth (Barnett, 2010). They hunted and gathered and in between these events they played games and practiced the skills that were tests of the skills necessary to survive in the harsh environments where they found themselves. Children, not being old enough to participate in hunts would have played games to hone their skills as hunters, simulating the skills and organization to participate in group hunts. As these hominids evolved into humans they carried out rituals and dances that were representations of battles that had been fought or ones that they anticipated in the future. In the most simplistic forms, these are the origins of simulations.  Much work has been done in the field of simulations and the breadth of work spans just about every imaginable discipline including vocational education (Jossberger, 2010), surgical and patient care simulations in health care, educational simulations for pre-service teachers, and medical students (Bradley, March 2006), pilot training simulations, environmental modeling (Ganopolski, Rahmstorf, Petoukhov, & Claussen, 1998), military exercise simulations, and “end of the world scenarios”. Simulations at their heart are a confluence of many different fields. Searches on the subject lead to other fields such as learning theory, cognition and psychology, instructional design and training, computer software, artificial intelligence, and virtual worlds to name a few.


Defining simulation is an important component in understanding their purpose and relevance. The literature suggests that there are some commonalities between definitions but some subtle differences exist. Murphy and Saal define them as “complex performance tasks carried out in realistic or lifelike settings (1990).” Others define simulations artificial representations of processes, systems or events that use another process, system, or event to model the one it is intending to represent (Hahn, 2010). As technologies have evolved so to have simulations that afford users experiences that are highly realistic and engaging. More importantly simulations allow users to experience events they way they are perceived by someone else (Lindgren, 2009).

Games, and virtual worlds are often seen in the current literature of simulations and it seems that there is an attempt to further define and categorize these. The literature seems to have some agreement that games all contain rules and are generally for the purpose of entertainment. Simulations in contrast are symbol representations that employ other symbols (Squire & Patterson, 2010). Clark sees all three as points on a continuum, all sharing characteristics of Highly Interactive Virtual Environments (Clark, 2009). Squire and Patterson also differentiate between the two most common forms of simulations-predictive and idea. Predictive simulations aim to answer “what if…” questions and scenarios in the hopes of making preemptive adjustments and solutions. Such is the case with much of the environmental and climatology modeling of today. Idea simulations offer insights into specific ideas but differ in their success criteria (2010).

Simulations have endless possibilities in that they allow users to experience, first hand, situations, environments, theoretical problems and ideas in a safe setting. Furthermore, simulations allow for the variables to be modified examining their effects on different systems. This makes simulations obvious pedagogical tools for fields such as military exercises, surgical training, climate change, and in fields where large numbers of civilian injuries or deaths could result in user errors or misjudgments (i.e. commercial flight simulations).

Simulations do have their limitations. Namely, that they are just that simulations and for many scenarios there is little substitute for the real thing. Simulations cannot totally predict how human cognition and decision-making will be affected under similar circumstances in a real scenario. However, research in the field of cognitive behaviors within the context of 3D virtual simulations is now being done to “…[interpret] what a player’s actions and decisions mean in the broader context of cognitive readiness for a particular job function or task.” (Koenig, Lee, Iseli, & Wainess, 2010, p. 3). Davis and Eisenhardt also see external validity as a major weakness to simulation. Since simulation aims to focus on the core aspects of a scenario or circumstance, they often eliminate complexity and can make false assumptions that become overly simplistic and fail to “capture critical aspects of reality.” (2007, p. 496). Finally, Axelrod believes that the major flaw of simulations is that they have little identity in their own right and deserve to be a field of their own (Axelrod, 2005).


Aldrich, C. (2009, June). Virtual Worlds, Simulations, and Games for Education: A Unifying View. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 5(5).

Axelrod, R. (2005). Handbook of Research on Nature Inspired Computing for Economy and Management. Hersey, PA: Idea Group.

Barnett, J., & Archambault, L. (2010, November). How Massive Multiplayer Online Games Incorporate Principles of Economics . Tech Trends: Linking Research and Practice to Improve Learning, 54, 29-35.

Bradley, P. (2006, March). The history of simulation in medical education and possible future directions. Medical Education, 40(3), 254–262.

Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. (2010, January). What Are the Learning Affordances of 3-D Virtual Environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(1), 10-32.

Davis, J., & Eisenhardt, K. (2007). Developing theory through simulation methods. Academy of Management Review, 32(2), 480–499.

Ganopolski, A., Rahmstorf, S., Petoukhov, V., & Claussen, M. (1998, January 22). Simulation of modern and glacial climates with a coupled global model of intermediate complexity. Nature, 391, 351-356. doi:0.1038/‌34839

Hahn, S. (2010). Transfer of training from simulations in civilian and military workforces: Perspectives from the current body of literature. Unpublished manuscript.

Jossberger, H., Brand-Gruwe, S., Boshuizen, H., & Van de Wie, M. (2010, December). The Challenge of Self-Directed and Self-Regulated Learning in Vocational Education: A Theoretical Analysis and Synthesis of Requirements. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 62(4), 415-440.

Koenig, A., Lee, J., Iseli, M., & Wainess, R. (2010). A conceptual framework for assessing performance in games and simulation (Monograph No. 771). Los Angeles, CA.: University of California .

Lindgren, R. (2009). Perspective-Based Learning in Virtual Environments [Abstract] (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Stanford University, California.

Squire, K., & Patterson, N. (2010). Games and simulations in informal science education (Center for Education Research, Ed.) (Monograph). Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin.

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