Simulation versus Representation

© 2001by Gonzalo Frasca
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Here is the first in a series of articles where I will deal with the issue of simulation as the basic tool for understanding videogames. I will focus on the particular characteristics of simulation as an alternative to representation and narrative. These articles will be “illustrated” with small web-based simulations.

My objective is to reach the broader possible audience and this is why I will try to omit technicalities while attempting to remain rigorous and clear in my explanations. While I am definitively dealing here with theory, I do want both game designers, artists and academic researchers to feel at home.

If you have read some of my previous writings, you may know that I am part of a rather small group of theorists –including Espen Aarseth, Markku Eskelinen, Jesper Juul, among others–who claim that videogames should not be viewed as an extension of narrative, literature, theater or cinema. Nevertheless, the majority of theorists see no problem in linking games with narratives. The idea that videogames and other interactive software is an extension of narrative is very strong in our culture and has been developed both by academia and the industry. Recent games such as Metal Gear 2 do really try to look and behave like an “interactive movie”. I find that "interactive fiction", "interactive theater" and other "interactive" flavored inventions do miss the point by trying to force games into something that they are not. Respected theorists such as Janet Murray, Lev Manovich, Brenda Laurel and Henry Jenkins insist on explaining games by analyzing their similitude with previously existing media forms. While I do not necessarily discard these approaches, I think that games are ontologically different from narrative because they are not just based on representation. Instead, they rely on simulation, which is a way of portraying reality that essentially differs from narrative. My main goal in these series of articles is to explain these differences.

Simulation 101

Historically, we have relied on representation to portray both reality and fiction, generaly articulating it under the form of narrative. However, the introduction of the computer has unleashed a new way of communicating and understanding our world and thoughts: simulation. Simulation does not simply represents objects and systems, but it also models their behaviors.

Let’s start by taking a look at representation through a simple example. Here is Magritte’s La Trahison Des Images (The treachery of images). It’s a famous painting and many things have been said about it. I will simply mention that the image portrays a pipe but, as the text explains, the image itself is not an actual pipe but a representation. The word “pipe” is also a textual representation. In other words, it is not a real pipe, but an image with words.

Representation has been the way of choice for humanity for depicting, explaining and understanding reality. The image of the pipe tells us a lot about the actual object. We can learn about its shape, its colors, its materials and maybe even its size. The painting describes the pipe: it shows us some of its characteristics. Obviously, representation is never exhaustive: there will always be some characteristics that will not fit into the painting. In other words, representation is always an incomplete task.

Ok. Until now, we have reviewed semiotics 101, pretty basic stuff. Let’s imagine that now we want to explain to somebody that never saw a pipe how the pipe works. The traditional way of doing this has always been through narrative. We can, for example, make a film about somebody smoking or, even better, to create a series of comic-book style, serialized illustrations. So, here is how our story goes: you suck on one end of the pipe and you will be able to get your fix of smoke. In addition to this, more smoke will come up through the other end. This, of course, is a fairly basic description of how a pipe works. It mainly focuses on the mechanics of the pipe, but for the sake of simplicity, it leaves out of the equation several elements (i.e. you have to pour tobacco in it and then light it up). Voila! I have just explained how a pipe works by using narrative.


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