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Reward Systems, An Excerpt From Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice
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Reward Systems, An Excerpt From Level Design: Concept, Theory, and Practice

June 24, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next


A completely different approach to escapism and wish fulfillment is found in simulations, and before we discuss level design theory and simulations, we should actually look at what is meant by the word.

Simulation and imitation

Normally, when we speak of simulation, we are talking about modeling a realworld system or situation in order to learn something new.

This could be for scientific reasons; for example, a simulation and study of hunter predator cycles could be used to warn when a particular species becomes overhunted and may become endangered.

It could also be for financial reasons; a simulation of a particular economic system may predict which factors contribute to inflation. In any of the examples we can find of simulations, it is generally the case that there is a need for accuracy in order to correctly extrapolate from the data that the simulation produces:

[A] simulation results when the equations of the underlying dynamic model are solved. This model is designed to imitate the time-evolution of a real system.[4] (Emphasis mine.)

Most games are not like that at all. (The exceptions will be noted shortly.) Games are all about enjoyment. When we play games, we play them for all kinds of enjoyable reasons: to have fun, to exercise our brains, to have a meaningful artistic experience, and so forth.

Simulation games are no different and exist to provide an enjoyable experience, in most cases by providing players with a chance to engage in a real-life activity they normally would not be able to enjoy. A game can offer a player a chance to be a soccer manager or a train conductor or a theme park operator.

These are great examples of games based upon wish fulfillment as a reward system. If we look closer, we find that they aren't games of simulation at all, but games of illusion and imitation. The game imitates real-world activities only to the degree that their fun aspects are replicated for the enjoyment of the player.

This kind of imitation is, unlike practical simulations, not concerned with accuracy at all, but with the appearance of accuracy. The games would quickly become extremely tedious if they tried to accurately simulate all aspects of the activity in question.

Accuracy only needs to be observed as long as it supports enjoyable gameplay. An actual racing game simulator (SIM) would be far too difficult for most gamers to enjoy. And what is the point of playing a grand prix SIM if the player cannot win? It would be accurate and realistic, but not much fun, especially because it fails at the first hurdle and doesn't provide the wish fulfillment element of the game's reward system.

Strangely, although the use of the word simulation is suspect, I still advise that we adhere to its usage in games. It is simply too confusing to do otherwise, because as a description of genre, it is too widespread to change. It is essential, however, that level designers know what simulation games are really about: enjoyable imitation.

This is not semantic nitpicking, but a fundamentally profound difference that causes much debate and conflict. Almost every level designer, on a regular basis, will have to argue this point against somebody who insists on making gameplay decisions that fail this test of enjoyable imitation, solely based on the argument that the game needs to correctly simulate a real world event.

There are times when simulation and imitation go hand in hand, perhaps when a particular sport's league is implemented, or when the correct dimensions of a vehicle need to be followed. But even in those circumstances, it needs to be clear that these implementations still serve an enjoyable imitation of a real world activity.

This has tremendous impact for the level design of these games. Instead of being at the mercy of real-life rules and physics, the level designer now has the role of illusionist. The tracks in a realistic racing SIM now only have to feel like they are correct; as long as they are fun, the job is well done. The lack of accuracy in a wildlife photography game's terrain means nothing as long as it produces expected results that don't break immersion. It is all smoke and mirrors.

"Serious games"

There are only few exceptions to this rule, mainly in the area of so-called serious games and educational games. They are noteworthy because although they can display many of the characteristics of other video games, they are fundamentally different. There is no formal definition of what exactly constitutes "serious games", but it is fair to say that their main focus is that of teaching some real world application or education.

This can be a commercial focus, for example a driving game for a driving school, or a scientific one, for example a game that lets students identify certain plants as part of a biology lesson.[5]

As already noted in Chapter 2, games are extremely suitable as a teaching tool, since we are already trained at a very young age to engage in gameplay in to learn all kinds of diverse skills. This and the ever-improving technological sophistication of commercial video games have led to a proliferation of serious and educational games that recognize this principle.

For example, see the Serious Games Initiative, which has done much work in this arena:

The Serious Games Initiative is focused on uses for games in exploring management and leadership challenges facing the public sector. Part of its overall charter is to help forge productive links between the electronic game industry and projects involving the use of games in education, training, health, and public policy.[6]

Because the defining aspect of these games is that of real-world application, they are always expected to produce tangible results, or they will have failed in their basic function. And this result has to be realistic or accurate at all times, or its real-world application will be ruined.

Because of this, the player has to be able to trust the game to produce teaching material that is trustworthy and cannot just be an imitation or an illusion. A serious game teaching somebody how to fly an airplane in real life has some serious responsibilities in real life to live up to.

[4] Stephan Hartmann, "The World as a Process: Simulations in the Natural and Social Sciences," , 2005.

[5] Serious games are nearly always educational games.

[6] The Serious Games Initiative," The Serious Games Initiative,

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