George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sims vs. Games: The Difference Defined

Ever wondered? Here's your answer.
By Marc Prensky
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Credit: Edutopia

The difference between computer simulations and computer games is subtle but important. At the core, the distinction is that simulations are about things (or systems) and how they behave, and games are about a fun user experience.

That distinction may be a bit too rigid, however. Because pure simulations are often quite dry and unpalatable, and the simulations we know and love are often quite fun, a category known as the rong>simulation game, which combines the best features of both, has evolved. When game features are combined with a simulation, the results can be powerful. Games such as Civilization III (and now IV) and Rise of Nations have such a strong educational hold on players that they spend years playing these games, in school or out. In the meantime, they're also learning a lot.

Unfortunately, the word game often has such a negative connotation for educators that it is difficult to get them to look past their prejudices. But those who dismiss today's games as an educational tool do so at their peril. For one thing, games have changed. Good games are now both teachers and motivators. The newest "complex" games offer scores of hours of challenging problems of great complexity and sophistication -- often much harder than schoolwork -- that a player typically has to learn many skills to solve.

Games, unlike traditional school study, also offer students be-a-hero goals that encourage players to persist in their efforts. In addition, games offer "leveling up" with rewards that encourage players to practice extensively. Finally, games offer second-by-second decision making that takes players over and over through the loop of decision, action, feedback, and reflection that is the basis for all learning. Complex games also adapt on the fly to each player's ability, making them feel like they want to continue and struggle, because they feel like they can win despite the challenges.

Kids derive many benefits from playing such games. They include learning how to:

  • cooperate, collaborate, and work in teams
  • make effective decisions under stress
  • take prudent risks in pursuit of objectives
  • make ethical and moral decisions
  • employ scientific deduction
  • quickly master and apply new skills and information
  • think laterally and strategically
  • persist and solve difficult problems
  • understand and deal with foreign environments and cultures
  • manage businesses and people

Important skills all. But wait -- there's more! In addition to being great teachers, games are extremely powerful motivators for today's kids. As a result of this combination, more and more education, both curricular and non-curricular (but important), is becoming available in game form. This wealth includes games for art, music, English, social studies, history, current events, financial literacy, math, science, health care, nutrition, exercise, planning, business, military strategy, and even relaxation and stress reduction.

It is important for teachers to take their students' gaming seriously, rather than disrespectfully dismiss their playing as a waste of time, and to respect both the time that goes into game playing and the learning that comes out of it. After all, the short attention spans that teachers often lament in their students somehow disappear when the kids get in front of their games -- that is, in front of learning that is more their style.

How can we, as teachers, show respect for our students' games? We might begin by asking questions such as "Who plays a game that relates to what we are discussing?" "Can you think of an example of this in your games?" and "How would we design a game like this?"

Today's game designers have figured out something today's educators are still searching for: how to make learning engaging for today's kids. It would be a shame not to employ this knowledge in our classrooms.

Marc Prensky ( is an internationally recognized writer and speaker who focuses on education and learning, and the founder and CEO of Games2train.

Comments (3) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

A Macdonald's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been researching simulations and gaming in education for a grad class I am taking. The problem I am finding is that their are a lot of claims made but no hard evidence. I am hoping to do a study with students with pre-tests and post-tests that can validate these claims. I have seen a few such studies but not many. Difficult to take to principal or school board and ask for permission and money without evidence. Otherwise it appears that you are letting students play "games" instead of preparing them for high stakes NCLB testing that is the reality of every teachers daily experience.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, am working on developing my thesis which is looking at exploring whether hands-on labs or simulated labs are better to use to teach middle school students. My initial research showed me that student's prefer hands-on labs to virtual ones. I was shocked by this. I am now working on a research question to further look at this, but, I , too am having a hard time finding any information from which to develop a foundation.

David's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You may find this journal provides some useful leads in your rsearch: "Simulation & Gaming: An Interdisciplinary Journal"

Good luck. They are tough, but important, questions that you are researching.

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