Simulation versus Representation
© 2001by Gonzalo Frasca

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I am now going to explain the mechanics of a pipe by using a different rhetorical tool: simulation. In this Flash piece, we have the pipe and a button. If you press the button without releasing it, you will see the smoke coming through the small end of the pipe. After releasing it, smoke will come up through the other end. At first sight, representation and simulation seem quite similar: after all, they are describing the same behavior. Well, they say the devil is in the details, so let’s pay attention to them.

The Flash simulation is modeling the mechanics of the pipe through a mechanical rule: “if you suck from one end, you will get some smoke, and later more smoke will come up through the other end”. Basically, the same rule that we narrated on the previous example. The difference, as I said, is that here the rule is shown through a model. Nothing happens if you don’t press the button.

The difference between this Flash movie and a comic-book style narration of the action of smoking seems to be very subtle. After all, we could see the Flash simulation simply as a hypermedia example, where the button is basically doing the equivalent of flipping through pages or images. Actually, this is how one of the most popular games ever, Myst, was built (by using a hypermedia environment called Hypercard).

A comic-book style narration of smoking

Let's now return to our pipe example, by now taking a look at a more complex simulation.

While this example could have been theoretically built as a hypertext -by crafting all the possible varitions of size and density of smoke- it would have taken an awful lot of work. This simulation shows thousands of different kinds of smoke, depending on how the user manipulates two variables ("Sucking" and "Tobacco Quality").

Certainly, each outcome could be considered as a narrative, just like any videogame session of Super Mario Bros. could also be viewed as a story (even if most would be quite strange by traditional narrative standards). And this is the reason why so many people insist to call videogames and simulations "interactive narrative": for an external observer, the outcome of a simulation is a narration. But the simulation itself is something bigger than narrative. It is a dynamic system that yes, contains thousands of potential "stories", but it is larger than the sum of its parts. The simulation itself is not a narrative, it is something different, in the same way that a kaleidoscope should not be understood as a collection of possible images but instead as a device that produces images according to certain mechanics.

Notice that I said that the outcome of a simulation is a narration "for an external observer". This is because in many simulations, particularly in videogames, the player does not feel like she is being told a story by a narrator, but rather experiencing events as a personal experience. Unlike what happens in theater, these events are not just being enacted, but the player has a certain degree of control over them. Phenomenologically, the player generally experiences videogames more as an alternative reality where she has certain freedom to act than as a story.

Sure, we could say, as some people do, that simulations are a different flavor of narrative, but by doing this we risk to turn "narrative" into a very vague term that could be applied to almost everthing (because, after all, for an observer ANY mediated event could be considered as a narrative). Besides, based on the examples that I just gave, it seems that they are certain differences between narrative and simulation that justify their distinction.

For these reasons, I think that studying simulations and videogames as narratives does not allow us to fully understand the potential of the medium. Certainly, my oven "produces" cakes and I can infer some characteristics of the oven by analyzing those cakes. But if I really want to understand its mechanics, I would definitively chose to study the oven itself. I view simulations as dynamic systems that produce outcomes, and in order to understand dynamic systems we can use tools as cybernetics and simulation theory.

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