This is Faith in Play #19: Simulationism, for June 2019.
One of the complications of discussing whether what’s called “simulationism” in Ron Edwards’ Big Model is that even Ron Edwards has had trouble figuring out what it is. We have looked at gamism and narrativism, and decided that there are Christian values in those approaches to play, even if there are also pitfalls. Yet if we’re going to consider simulationism, we’re going to have to understand what it is.
As I covered in the third part of Theory 101 for Places to Go, People to Be some years back, Creative Agenda (or the French translation Théorie 101 – 3e partie : Les propositions créatives), simulationism is driven by the desire to learn, to know, to experiment and understand. That’s why it seems to have so many expressions–from the players who have their characters leap off cliffs because they have calculated that the fall won’t be fatal to those who become involved in the minutiae of combat to those who explore geography and culture. Simulationism is expressed in other activities, in participating in war reenactments, watching travelogues and cooking shows, even taking college courses as a recreational activity. For many people, the drive to know is what controls the way they play their games. It is something of a vicarious experience, the feeling of being there, and so coming away with some notion of what it would be like to be there.
Simulationism is walking a mile in the other man’s shoes. It is exploring what life would be like in another time or place. It is learning, gaining knowledge.
I once had a debate with my brother in which he put forward as a premise that knowledge was inherently good, and that it was always good for knowledge to be disseminated to as many people as possible. I objected to the premise. Knowledge, I asserted, was a useful tool which could be used for good. I think that is where this discussion ultimately takes us: how will we use the knowledge we gain from our play, our experimentation, our vicarious experience?
That doesn’t mean that such play, such motivation, is wrong if we can’t identify the benefit before we play. Scientists (and there’s a simulationist motivation if ever there was one) speak of the importance of “basic research”, that is, experimenting in directions with no immediate obvious value because when you don’t know what you might learn you can’t predict how it might be useful. Many of our modern conveniences have their roots in someone simply wanting to know what would happen if, and then asking how that could be used. Learning has value, even when we don’t always see the value immediately. The high school student who challenges that he’s never going to need to know the math or science or history lessons he is forced to learn is short-sighted, and life will probably surprise him at some point. Not everything we learn is useful, but it is often the case that we learn useful things from unexpected sources.
There are pitfalls in this. Sometimes we want to know some things that it is better not to know. We have all heard the idea that you “can’t unsee” something, and there are undoubtedly things you wish you’d never learned. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have learned them–only that sometimes what we know is not always an encouragement to us. We would like to keep our minds always on the good, pure, honorable, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise, but then, we are also to be wise as serpents while being innocent as doves. Maybe there are things you don’t need to know, that would tear down rather than build up–I am persuaded that I don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of horror movies, although I do need a working knowledge of some of the important ones (Poe, Shelley, Stoker, Alien, Terminator) just to do my job. Maybe you need to know more; maybe you don’t need to know as much. Yet learning is valuable, and simulationism is about wanting to learn.
So we find once again that Christians can find value in all three of the “creative agenda” that drive our play. It’s just a matter of understanding how to do this to the glory of God and the edification of ourselves and others.