Dear Archaeologists, Simulation Doesn’t Equal Game

When I saw that archaeologists were using Second Life for the creation of meaningful archaeological games I was of two mindsets. My first thought was how awesome it would be to play an adult version of an archaeological game. As seen from my previous post on gaming in archaeology, most are made for children or young adults. My second thought was how much it was going to hurt having to actually down load Second Life, an act I promised I would never do. I’m not saying Second life is a bad platform, but its just not for me, a girl whose favorite games are all in the first person shooter or action adventure genres.

Luckily for me, and sadly for the archaeological games created using Second Life, there appears to be a lack of understanding about the use of the term ‘game’ in an educational context. I know that ‘game’ can be a fairly vague description, but for purposes of this post I’m going to define it as including a bounded space, rules, rewards, goals and competition. Competition and goals create motivation, rules constrain the player and provide a source of challenge, and choice provides the player with control over the results of their gameplay (Charsky 2010:193). To be educational, the primary outcome of the game is to provide students with a visual and immersive experience to learn by doing, in which the definition of a game still stands.

The ‘game’ I’m going to focus on is the Laconia Acropolis Virtual Archaeology project (LAVA). LAVA was designed by the University of St. Andrews as “an environment which enables students to gain an understanding of the skills and techniques required in order to successfully undertake an archaeological excavation project.” The project leveraged technology from Second Life and Quake 2 to construct both a third person and first person element. Students must find the site, propose an excavation, draft a plan for excavation, compete for funding, manage their resources, and properly excavate the site to reveal as much information as possible. At the end, they must present their findings at a virtual museum.

This project has been touted as being at the forefront of archaeological gaming, appearing as a prime example of serious gaming and meaningful play in archaeology. it does use video gaming technology, but is it a game, or is it simply a simulation?

Serious games easily become conflated with simulations, and while the two do have some overlap in learning objectives, there are important difference. When serious games first became popular, there was a tendency for the difference between simulation and game to be almost non-existent. Early forms of educational games were military based, using the game platforms to simulate battles and combat situations. These simulations were designed by gamers, who injected the simulation with gaming elements like competition, engagement, playability and clear win situations (Zyda 2005). Definitions for simulations vary as widely as definitions of games, but for this analysis simulations are artificial creations, which approximate real world ones (Prensky 2001). Educational simulations allow for students to learn by doing, but can lack features like competition, explicit rules, and collaboration.Games, simulations lack any form of engaging challenges, entertainment, and there is no obvious end-state.

Second Life itself is not a gaming platform; it is a simulation. Second Life is a virtual world that lacks a designated objective, traditional game play mechanics and rules. So is the LAVA project a game or a simulation? It does have an element of competition, as the teams must compete against one another for funding, however this is not directly linked into the program but is done outside of it by the professor or facilitator. Other than that, the only competition or challenge comes from the drive of the student to get a good grade on the assignment. Students are rewarded with better information if they procede through the excavation with a good strategy, but the model then doesn’t allow for experimentation but rather forces the player to either pick the correct way or lose information. There is no room for play and creativity in ‘game’. While there is random chance and strategy involved, it is fairly limited and from the descriptions appears controlled. Prensky (2001) argues that simluations require goals, explicit rules and challenges, often backed by a narrative, in order to become games. “Goals can be either be built-in to the game or self-or instructor imposed, but as soon as you add them, suddenly there is more engagement, whether or not there is actually a score” (Prensky 2001:3).

Bringing this back to the original question, is LAVA a game? Its difficult to answer without actually playing the game, but I would argue that yes the simulation does have some game elements, but it is primarily a simulation. In order to be a full fledged game, LAVA needs to introduce more game features including increases the number of challenges that are directly linked into the game, allowing for flexibility, and creating a greater sense of competition. LAVA isn’t gaming archaeology, rather it is simulating it and adding in some game like elements. Semantics, yes, but it is still an important distinction.

Works Cited

Prensky 2001. Digital Game Based Learning. McGraw-Hill.

Zyda 2005. From Visual Simulation to Virtual Reality to Games,” IEEE Computer, September 2005, pp. 25-32.

Charsky 2010. From Edutainment to Serious Games. Games and Culture 2010 5: 177

Getchell et al. 2009 Exploring Second Life of Byzantine Basilica. In Serious Games on the Move. Springer.



  1. Hi Katy,

    I think I might be splitting hairs here, but I don’t think LAVA at any point ever actually calls itself a game; it’s always ‘simulation’. I’d argue that all game-based learning is a subset of simulation, but simulation does not necessarily have to have ‘gameful’ elements to it.

    I built an excavation in Second Life once. I designed a very simple site where each context was represented by a single primitive (into which I put objects linked to items in I put a script into each context that caused it to disappear when the user touched it. For me, Second Life and its relatives are good for archaeological learning because we can make the metaphors of archaeology tangible in a way otherwise impossible without real excavation. Sure, my wee avatar didn’t ‘dig’ per se, but the simulation allowed the visitors to understand and construct for themselves something of the ways horizontal and vertical relationships are read to create a narrative…

    Simulation does not equal game, but games can be used to build simulations. My big problem with the archaeological content in Second Life is that it is static, show and tell. Here is a trench. This is a theodolite. Here’s a Roman villa. This misses the big opportunity that Second Life and its brethren offer us.

  2. Thanks for the comment Shawn. Your comment about LAVA is very true. They don’t ever explicitly say that they are a game on their website, however they are being written about as a game and are publishing under game journals.

    So the post was less a criticism of LAVA and more a clarification of simulation and game brought about by my research into Second Life and archaeology. I think that projects like this are a great start for making meaningful games for archaeology.

    I’m all for making simulations, I just think the general public needs to know the difference between it and games. I do agree that simulations aren’t enough for interacting with archaeology. We need engagement along with immersion.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  3. I’d add that SL is more comparable to a tennis court, or a chess board than a first person shooter type of video game. It could be viewed more as a platform or space in which games can take place. Without the people, or the ‘players’ it less goal focused and game-like as you point out.

    A case in point is Colleen Morgan’s recreation of Catalhoyuk. I attended a tour of the site Colleen did as part of her dissertation and thought it was a very good use of SL as an educational platform. I visited the site by myself before the tour and while it was interesting it was not engaging, actually it was quite boring. But as part of the tour it was very engaging and educational. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I also enjoyed visiting Shawn’s (AKA “Canadensis Yellowjacket”) excavation and a few others I found while exploring archaeological uses of SL a few years ago.

    Coincidentally, a group of us had a long discussion about 3D virtual recreations of archaeological sites in Second Life this morning on Google Hangouts. We hold weekly archaeology hangouts every Friday night and would be great if both of you could make it to the next one.

    See for more information.

    1. One distinction that’s pretty important to me, Vincent, is that Second Life seems to me to be not a tennis-court or a chess-board but a stretch of asphalt on which one might draw lines for a court, or a piece of wood on which one might paint a chess-board. I think we also have to be careful in calling “game” a subset of “simulation” as long as people are thinking of simulations as having realism as their telos. But that’s just my Plato showing.

  4. I’m guessing this means that you did not play the mini “game” at Roma where you could excavate for stuff. We also had a treasure hunt active at Okapi Island for a while.

    I also think that you’ve created an unnecessary dichotomy between gaming and simulation, whereas they are in truth more of a spectrum.

    1. Author

      I never actually tested Roma or Okapi Island (which is why I didn’t include them in the analysis), although I would argue that the inclusion of a mini game doesn’t make the whole thing a game. Its true that there is no clear division between games and simulations, but there are differences we need to be aware of. Roma and Okapi are simulations that (if they have mini games) include some game features, but their overall design is not a game. I’m not arguing that this makes them any lesser as a form of education, but rather they fill a different educational niche. Simply- simulations are not necessarily games and we shouldn’t be advertising them as such.

  5. Nice article. I myself write for video games and find it very fulfilling. It’s also great to let go with a tank or tactical nuke once in a while.

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