by Gonzalo Frasca
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simulations are not narratives nor "interactive
narratives", what are they? The provisionary definition
that I am most happy with goes like this:
is act of modeling a system A by a less complex system
B, which retains some of A's original behavior".
put together this definition by slighty modifying several
definitions of "computer simulation". The
reason why I do not here give a more traditional "simulation
theory" definition is because, generally, that
discipline is more concerned with the prediction of
the behavior of the simulated system than with representational
issues. If you want more details on this, you should
check Chapters III and IV of my
example, Sim City 2000 (system B) simulates a city (system
A). As a system, Sim City is less complex than an actual
city (i.e. there is not graffitti on the walls in Sim
City, nor advertisements on the streets), but it retains
some of its behaviors (i.e. buildings need electricty
and roads cost money to build).
a better way to understand the difference between simulation
and representation is to compare their characteristics.
Since I just have used the example of a city, let's
compare a representation of a city (London, by Monet)
and a simulation (Sim City 3000). Obviously, I just
used an image of Sim City 3000 since I can not embed
the whole simulation into this text, so use your imagination
and pretend that the first one is an image while the
second one is a simulation).
start by pointing out their similitudes. Both show the
city graphically (even if Sim City also includes sounds).
Both include one of the biggest characteristics of cities:
buildings -and those buildings follow a certain order.
Both can be interpreted or misinterpreted: some people
may recognize London on the paiting, while other may
recognize NY or any other city on the other example.Both
are also partial: they do not show the whole city, but
a fragment of it from a certain perspective.
is where the differences start to arise. Actually, Sim
City could be a 3D model of the city, allowing us to
see it from every possible perspective (something that
Picasso tried to achieve within paiting) through time.
However, we should agree that since the model can not
be perfect -otherwise it would be a real city!- the
representation is always fragmentary.
could say that the difference between Monet and Sim
City is time: you need time to play the simulation.
True, but representation can also be time-based: music
and films, for example. Still, we could say that Monet
is representing a very particular (foggy, in this case)
day in London, while a simulation could show the city
under sun, fog, rain, snow, etc. Actually, Monet tried
in a different series of pictures to show the Rouen
Cathedral under different kinds of light. Each one of
these paintings is a particular image. If Monet had
a 3D package like Lightwave or Maya, he could have modeled
the Rouen Cathedral and then have access to infinite
variations on how the light reflects on it. That model
would have to include certain rules. In this
case, these rules are rules of optics, that can model
how light reflects on different surfaces.
City is a model that also includes rules. The user can
add and remove buildings, create roads, etc. Those objects
also have certain rules: i.e. a factory will produce
goods only if you connect it to the power station through
power lines. The key concept here is behavioral rules.
Sim City is a dynamic system that behaves like
a city and also has many characteristics of a city,
while the painting only provides the characteristics.
instead of using a painting as an example, we could
have used a film documentary that showed the mechanics
of the city. This film would show narrated events: i.e.
a technician connecting the factory to the power station
through power lines. Through that story we can infer
that factories need electricity, but that rule was interpreted
by whoever is watching the film. In other words, the
rule can not be dynamically applied to the film: I cannot
disconnect the cables on the factory in scene 3 to see
if it shuts down. Usually, narrative works in a bottom-up
sequence: it describes a particular event from which
we can generalize and infer rules (this is why narrative
is used so much in education). On the other hand, simulation
is usually top-down: it focus on general rules, which
then we can apply to particular cases (this is why simulation
also works great as a tool for teaching complex rules
because, unlike narrative, it allows experimentation).
systems are not very complex, it is usually better to
use representation and narrative to describe its mechanics
(remember our first pipe example, the one with the button).
But as systems get more complex, simulations become
a more attractive tool because they can model the rules
that govern the system. If you don't believe me, try
to teach somebody to use the gears of a car just showing
him a movie or a book. A simulator (as an actual car)
can definitively do a better job, because the simulation
can portray certain rules like "if you release
the shift very quickly, the car will shake and the engine
will probably stop" with first-hand experience
of the actual relationship between the shift, gear and
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