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Games & Simulations for Historians

This is the only topic that seems to be speaking to me at the moment (that could just be a lack of sleep finally showing itself), but it does pose an interesting question. What is the purpose of a simulation? Looking at this question as scholars and historians, the most obvious answer seems to be that it allows the past to be manipulated and experimented with in order to test hypotheses. Dr Graham has mentioned several times his experimentation with Roman peasants (there seem to be quite a few plagues in his version of Rome), and yet it seems that this only scratches the purpose of why simulations can be so engrossing for people.

A number of games seem to incorporate a simulation element (I’m looking at you, Civilization), but these serve a different purpose than simulations that have strictly academic applications. Whenever a new version of Civilization comes out it sells millions of copies, and it seems unlikely that a majority of these buyers are using it for academic purposes. Simulation-based games create alternate worlds that allow a player to exercise god-like power over certain aspects of the game. If players aren’t playing it to explore historical theories, what makes these simulations so engrossing? I believe that for a large group of people, the attractiveness of simulations like Civilization come from omnipotence of the god-like powers that the game gives you as well as providing a means of being declared a winner. I know personally that I wouldn’t enjoy Civilization nearly as much if there was no end-game victory objective.

There is also a third aspect of simulations that can be linked to the growth of social networks. Large groups of people play games on Facebook, and often these games provide neither of the aspects discussed in my first two paragraphs. These games are distractions that people can spend a few minutes on, and offers the opportunity to connect with their online friends. Games like Farmville or Mafia Wars (where a person controls their own mob family and they can assist/be assisted by friends that play the game) have enjoyed large amounts of popularity within the Facebook community. There is a social aspect to these simulations, and it could be that people play these games in order to connect more with their friends.

In conclusion, there seems to be a number of reasons that people use/play with simulations. These reasons might extend beyond the ones that I’ve discussed, and so I leave you with the question: what purposes do simulations serve in your opinion?

-Phillip Wallner