What is a simulation anyway?
I say a lot of games I like have a simulation aspect to them, but often people don’t get what I mean. When I say simulation, most people think complicated war games, with lots of specific rules for shooting, hitting, damage, plenty of dice, etc. But, I think that kind of superficial simulation–seeking to replicate real world events in the most direct ways possible–is not very interesting to me. What I do like is psychological simulation.
The game Acquire is the kind of simulation I enjoy. You won’t really learn anything about the stock market or running a business you can readily apply to the real world, but it captures something higher order, the feel of being a big shot, deciding the fates of lessers. It models this core anxiety of being usurped, of having the rug pulled out from under you, of having your investments rendered valueless. Agricola isn’t really about farming. It’s about scarcity. It’s about doing what you can when you have very little. In that way, it’s a simulation, but of feelings, not of situations.
I think the best art captures some aspect of the human experience. I am not sure if games are art. To me, most games are systems in which creativity can take place. The artists are the players, the game the medium. If this is true, then the “art” of game design is creating a system that allows players to experience and express something fundamental. Because games are often about a problem, about obstacles that players must overcome, they often really about worry or doubt, rather than farming, the stock market, power companies, or whatever other subject the game seems to be about. I’m not sure it makes sense to try to design games from a psychological perspective, but it might help revise and improve games to reflect on the experience of the players. It also might help to be ok with making players uncomfortable at times. If you want players to have a satisfying experience, you might need to allow them to wade into something worrying or difficult.