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What type of simulation to use? Thinking about taxonomy…

What is a simulation?Deanna Hutchinson and I have been working on a research project about simulations and we have been chatting about the underpinning concepts that we are working with. On one hand, we have worked with a set of definitions and assumptions. On the other, we also reflected… what is the perception of our readers.

For example, Simulation Australia defines simulation as the act of exercising a model (a physical, graphical, mathematical or conceptual representation of a device, event or scenario) over time.

Often, there is a perception of a simulation as being a high end, high investment and high fidelity. However, if you are faking reality to learn something; you are probably using simulation. This ranges from sitting under a table with a tablecloth (to replicate a confined space), through to doing a role play (live, online or in a webinar) to the high-end simulations used in flight simulators.

To be a simulation you need to have the components of a simulation. A simulation has:

  • A model; that is a physical, graphical, mathematical or conceptual representation.
  • A scenario, context or story; this is the setting the simulation plays out, within this, there are rules. The rules outline what happens if something happens.
  • User input; the person in the simulation makes decisions and interacts with the model (as opposed to watching something happen).

Simulation expert, Elyssebeth Leigh (2003) has noted there is a “futility [in] trying to establish a single definitive categorisation system for all simulations and games. Understanding how they can be arranged in a variety of different relationships provides insight into their general features and helps in making decisions about when and how to use specific activities.”

So with this in mind and to try to understand the relationships, we have collated some concepts to help navigate this area and assist in making decisions about what to simulations use in your learning and development activities.

We will start with Duke’s (1974) starting point to think about simulations, Ask yourself:

  1. Who are your learners
  2. What is the problem
  3. What are they to do or learn
  4. What materials are available.

So, how do you make decisions about when and how to use them? We have put together some theories to assist you with this process in deciding what type of simulation to use.

My advice is to read through the descriptions first, spoiler alert – we will bring it together at the end of the blog with examples.

Step 1: Identify the level of immersion

First, think about your learning outcomes. What do you want the participants to achieve? This is to think about the way the participants are immersed in the simulation. Immersion is the depth of experience that a person immerses themselves into the simulation. Adams (2004) describes three types of immersion:

  • Tactical immersion: This when there is a tactile response to the simulation. For example, something you can feel and touch. When using a tactical immersion, then you are going to need to have some equipment to assist with this (eg a manikin or dashboard).
  • Strategic immersion: This is more cerebral and associated with mental challenges.
  • Narrative immersion: This is when people become invested in a story, like when you are reading a book or playing a game.

Step 2: Consider the complexity of the simulation

Now, think about how complex the simulation is. Think of this on a continuum from simple to complex.

There are two factors to consider:

  • The Level of problem-solving (Variables/outcomes and participants): Do you have a finite number of variables to cover (unintended consequences can be controlled) or is there an almost infinite number of variables (with all the unintended consequences). Imagine you are training someone to disarm a bomb, there are a finite number of choices (red wire, blue wire, green wire) and you can control the outcome (the bomb explodes or it doesn’t). Compare this with having a participant talk someone holding a bomb (with the objective to disarm it). There are an almost infinite number of variables and unintended consequences.
  • The Relationship between participants: When the participant starts the simulation, consider if they are alone or if they interact with others. If they interact with others, chances are it is a more complex simulation (the networked iteration of the simulated event involves synchronous interactions between heterogeneous entities). If there is no relationship to other participants (the simulated event has no co-dependencies with other participants), this best supports homogeneous learning outcomes. One way of thinking about this is the difference between a single player game or Xbox live.

If you are interested in technology enhanced simulations, less problem solving (the fewer variables), the easier it is to put online. The more variables, the harder it is to put online and the more complex the simulation is.

Step 3: Consider the degree of abstraction

A simulation can sit along a continuum from real (or concrete) to abstract. As a simulation becomes more abstract, the participant needs to ‘suspend their belief’ in the simulation and they start to fill in the gaps of missing cues (visual, auditory etc).

Step 4: Identify the model of simulation

Finally, is to think about the type of simulation you want to use. Searle and Brennan (2007) identify three simulation models:

  • Live: Live simulations involve real people, real equipment and simulated effects. An example of this would be a simulated emergency situation with real people, real equipment and fake blood and injuries (simulated effects).
  • Virtual: Virtual simulations involve real people in a simulated environment and simulated equipment.
  • Constructive: Constructive simulations involve simulated people, simulated equipment and a simulated environment which is stimulated by real people.

This is originally a defence taxonomy but has application here. So let’s put it all together.

Pulling it together

Once you have worked out how simple/complex the simulation is, let’s pair it up with the level of immersion and bring in the type of simulation.

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Thinking about your simulation

This is our first pass at a taxonomy or way of helping in making decisions about what to use in your learning and development activities. We are writing a white paper about simulations generally and will make it available as soon as possible.

If you have feedback, we welcome your thoughts – email me at

You can find out more about Deanna’s work here.


Adams, E, 2004, ‘Postmodernism and the three types of immersion’ in Gamasutra, pp 12-26.

Duke, R, 1974, Gaming: The Future’s Language, SAGE Publications.

Leigh, E, 2003, A Practitioner Researcher Perspective on Facilitating an Open, Infinite, Chaordic Simulation. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Technology, Sydney,

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