Simulation versus Representation
© 2001by Gonzalo
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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 otherswho 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
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.
Lets start by taking a look at representation
through a simple example. Here is Magrittes La
Trahison Des Images (The treachery of images). Its
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
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
Ok. Until now, we have reviewed semiotics 101, pretty
basic stuff. Lets 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
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