external image dc_motor_simulation.gifexternal image games-animated-gif-002.gifexternal image age-of-empires-iii-the-asian-dynasties-demo.jpeg


Simulations and games attempt to replicate real life scenarios, activities, and other situations for either entertainment or educational purposes. Simulation can allow for individuals to witness the consequences or outcomes of their decisions and actions without real-world consequences. Simulation is also used when real life situations cannot be accessed either safely or practically. For example, a fighter pilot may "fly" in a simulator in which she can try different flying maneuvers or react to certain situations that she may not otherwise try or encounter in real life. Scientific modeling of chemical compounds can allow students to see what the structures look like in order to gain insight. Certain computer games allow students to use problem solving skills and implement strategies in historical contexts.

With the advancement of technologies there are a large number of simulations and games available. Usually these simulations fall into three categories:

Live Simulation: Real people use simulated equipment in the real world.
For example, the use of simulated Automated External Defibrillators (AED's) allow individuals to practice using the equipment on dummies or real people without actually using the equipment. The American Red Cross offers AED training courses nationwide that implement these simulated devices.

Students Use Simulated AED's for practice
Students Use Simulated AED's for practice

Virtual Simulation: Real people use simulated equipment in a simulated world.
For example, pilots can practice flying inside a simulator.

Other virtual simulators can be found in theme parks, the Kennedy Space Center, financial institutions, hospitals, and schools. There are robotic simulators, medical device simulators, automobile simulators, biomechanics simulators, and military simulators.

Constructive Simulation: Simulated people use simulated equipment in a simulated environment. The simulated person may be externally controlled by a real person.
For example, the United States Military offers a free game as a recruitment tool. The game, paid by U.S. tax dollars, allows players to enlist, go through basic training, and be deployed into simulated military situations. The game is both remarkably realistic and equally as controversial.

Constructive simulations are the most popular--especially in school aged children. The video game industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry. There are so many games in fact, that there are numerous different categories of games and several different old and new platforms. The following are types of game genres:
  • Action Adventure: Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil.
  • Puzzle: Tetris, World of Goo.
  • First Person Shooters: Call of Duty, Halo.
  • Tactical Shooters: Americas Army, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon.
  • Other Shooters: Gears of War.
  • Role Playing: Fallout, Fable.
  • Massive Multiplayer: World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2.
  • Real Time Strategy: Company of Heroes, Age of Empires.
  • Turn Based Strategy: Civilization IV.
  • Other Strategy: Spore, Sim City 4.
  • Racing: Need for Speed, MarioKart.
  • Car Combat: Twisted Metal, Crasher.
  • Sports: Madden NFL, FIFA Soccer.
  • Fighting: Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter.
  • Simulation: The Sims, Police Simulator.
  • Combat Simulation: Ship Simulator Extremes, Flight Simulator.
  • Rhythm Games: Guitar Hero, Audiosurf.
  • Party Games: Truth or Lies, Game Party: In Motion.
  • Card Games: Magic, Solitaire.
  • Virtual Life: The Sims, Galactic Aquarium.

One genre that is of particular interest to the field of education is known as serious games. Serious games are designed with a purpose other than entertainment. They are designed for the user to problem solve or to develop and refine their skills in areas of education, scientific exploration, health care, emergency management, city planning, engineering, religion, and politics. Examples of serious games include Microsoft Flight Simulator, Sim City, Age of Empires, Food Force, and Genomics Digital Lab.

Related Theory

The implementation of simulations and games withing an academic setting can have Constructivism attributes. Because many games and simulations rely on user input, students can construct their knowledge on a particular subject by navigating through it at their own pace and at no risk of failure. Using simulators such as WISE, students can be involved in inquiry based activities:

Behaviorism attributes can be found in the idea that games often provide instant feedback to a user's response of action. These responses are either positive or negative and they reinforce learning. Students in essence are conditioned to implement certain strategies as they play the game.

Games and simulations can also help to organize information, an aspect of cognition. Simulations can also bridge information together and form new connections between real and simulated topics and concerns.

Modeling based instruction, like those implemented at Arizona State University, are teaching theories with a heavy reliance on modeling concepts within the classroom to develop understanding. This modeling is usually an inquiry based activity that involves both the teacher and students modeling the information to develop understanding. Because simulations and games have such an emphasis on visual representation, they can and often play a large role in this type of learning theory.


Simulations and games can harness a person's spatial learning and perceptual systems in a way that text and verbal interactions cannot. Simulations can be stopped, restarted, altered under different conditions in ways that may be impossible in real life. Scientific phenomena that may otherwise be inaccessible can be brought to visual and interactive life. Things such as cell biology, electrical conduction, and matter--things that are too small for humans to witness. In addition, it can make sense out of experiences that people encounter everyday but cannot necessarily explain. Things such as gravity, force, and friction can be brought to life. Interactive simulators such as PhET can aide in these processes:

Targeted simulations minimize the need for training of both teachers and students, allow for inquiry based activities in a rather short amount of time, focus users into a particular aspect of the topic in an engaging way, and are highly flexible and often easy to implement.

Games and simulations also aid in model based teaching and learning. Students can engage in behavior based modeling. For example, a student may be able to construct a model of a mitochondria to aide her thinking and understanding of its complexities. Researchers have shown that visual representations from simulations and games have been shown to create statistically significant gains in conceptual knowledge on topics.

Simulation based learning environments have also been shown to produce high levels of intrinsic motivation within students. They also encourage self directed, learner controlled exploration as well as immediate feedback.

Games like Resilient Planet, from Jason Science, allow students to explore what its like to be a scientist out in the field conducting research:

Others have argued that simulations can eliminate the boundary between education and research:


Incorrect implementation of simulations and games within the classroom environment can cause obvious problems. Primarily, for example, students may not be learning anything at all from a given game or simulation--they may simply be entertained by it. Classroom management is another issue. How does one monitor the needs of 25 students who may be all engaged in separate technological simulations and games? Some games may have only a slight connection with the content found within the curriculum. Other students may find educational games and simulations to be unexciting in comparison to their entertainment games found at home.

The cost and access of these types of games and simulations can be burdensome for some school districts. Like with any sort of technological device, maintenance and updates are required. Even with proper maintenance and training, games and simulations often become laughably obsolete in less than half a decade. Resistance and controversy surrounding games and simulations will always make implementing them into the curriculum difficult in certain districts. The number of games and simulations available is enormous--knowing which games and simulations to use can be a overwhelming task.

Special Guidance

Training on how to use the technology is required. Teachers need special training in order to not only be able to use the game or simulation, but also to know how to teach and implement it within the curriculum effectively. Often games have a learning curve and therefore students need lots of time to work with the game; this can take away from class time.

Current Research

Detailed Analysis of the role games and simulations have in the science curriculum. Advocate for games and simulations with several examples and evidence of the benefits:

Average Age and Male to Female Ratio of Game Users. Found that the average age of users is 35 and the male to female ratio is 60/40:

Video Game Usage May Increase Acheivement:

Video Games and Impact on Education. Can they change education?

Lesson Ideas

  • Bridge Building: Sponsored by the United States Military Academy at West Point, engage students in a national contest designing, constructing, and testing a virtual bridge. Students learn about general introductory principles of engineering. The students work together in teams to create the least expensive bridge that will hold the weight of the truck. National winners receive academic scholarships and other prizes. Options to set up a local contest as well.

West Point Bridge Building Contest
West Point Bridge Building Contest

  • Game Designing: Allow students to design their own games using the game Kodu. Have the students make the game relevant to the curriculum.
Kodu in Action
Kodu in Action

  • Darfur is Dying: After learning about the Darfur Genocide, have students experience it for themselves in the game Darfur is Dying. Have students watch the documentary that accompanies the game and have a group discussion to formulate ideas to help bring awareness of the problem to their community.