Simulations are future of education

Virtual Worlds, Simulations, and Games for Education: A Unifying View

I wrote this article for Innovate magazine a few months ago, to coincide with the release of Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds. While pieces have have been excerpted, many have asked for the complete article, which I am reprinting here.

Many practitioners have been struck by a paradox. They sense an overlap between virtual worlds, games, and simulations, and but they know that one is not synonymous with the other. The three often look similar; they all often take place in three-dimensional worlds that are populated by three-dimensional avatars.

ProtoSphere Virtual World
ProtoSphere Virtual World (Image courtesy Clark Aldrich.)

Yet as I have argued elsewhere (Aldrich 2009), the differences are profound. Games are fun, engaging activities usually used purely for entertainment, but they may also allow people to gain exposure to a particular set of tools, motions, or ideas. In contrast, simulations use rigorously structured scenarios carefully designed to develop specific competencies that can be directly transferred into the real world. Finally, virtual worlds are multiplayer (and often massively multiplayer), three-dimensional, persistent social environments with easy-to-access building capabilities. They share with games and simulations the three-dimensional environment, but they do not have the focus on a particular goal, such as advancing to the next level or successfully navigating the scenario.

It is not enough, however, to categorize virtual worlds, games, and simulations as either entirely synonymous or utterly different. It is more useful, and perhaps more complete, to see virtual worlds, games, and simulations as points along a continuum, all instances of highly interactive virtual environments (HIVEs).

 Virtual Worlds, Games, and Educational Simulations as a Continuum (Image courtesy Clark Aldrich.)

This framework recognizes the relationships among virtual worlds, games, and simulations:

  • All games take place in some kind of virtual world—and not solely a Second Life-style, massively multiplayer online environment. Even physical games are played in a synthetic world structured by specific rules, feedback mechanisms, and requisite tools to support them. Children playing stickball on the curb create a play world structured by the broad requirements of the game and overlaid by its rules. Those rules become stricter in more intricate games and in simulations.
  • Simulations share key characteristics with games, including the use of a virtual world (that is, to some extent, also structured by the rules and constraints of the simulation) and the focus on a particular goal, but simulations use a more highly refined set of rules, challenges, and strategies to guide participants in developing particular behaviors and competencies that are highly transferable.
  • Participants often shift subtly between the various modes, moving from undirected exploration of a virtual world then to games and then to more structured simulation as they become comfortable in the environment.

The Swimming Pool

One of the most natural examples to show how participants move across the different uses of a HIVE while staying in the same virtual environment is the process by which children are introduced to the swimming pool. The pool is a synthetic, albeit not a virtual, environment. Some of the rules associated with dry land are the same in this new environment, and some rules are different. From the moment they first approach the pool, children naturally move from treating the pool as a virtual world, to seeing it as a place for more-structured games, and then to using it as a venue where they practice the skills they will need to swim well.

Their behavior and expectations as well as the expectations of those around them change at each stage. At first, new young swimmers perceive the pool as a scary, foreign environment. The challenge at this stage is simply to get them to enter and move around in this strange world. A parent or swim teacher may force them to get in or coax them in, or the novices may dip their toes in while watching other people or they may just jump straight in. Similarly, when introducing students to a virtual environment, an instructor’s first goal is to get students into the environment and practicing basic tasks of navigation, manipulation, and communication. In a third environment, a would-be pilot experiencing a flight simulator for the first time begins by looking around and perhaps trying to move the plane a bit. The goal is to get comfortable simply existing in this new environment.

Once children get comfortable in the pool itself, they start to play. They see how long they can hold their breath; they do flips in the water or sit on the bottom of the pool. They invent small games or their swim teachers give them broad rules for light games, such as tag or undersea kingdom. These games start off very casually and tend to become more structured and more complex. Likewise, as students get more comfortable in the virtual world to which their instructor has introduced them, they begin to mess around. They build crazy objects; they change their clothes and hair and body; they visit places they are not supposed to. In the same vein, the new pilot may try to see what the virtual airplane can do, perhaps by trying to fly it under a bridge or into similarly unlikely situations.

Finally, the children begin to test themselves (either on their own or because their swim teachers or parents push them) through increasingly rigorous rules and specific challenges. They go into the deep end, sometimes getting unwelcome mouthfuls of water. They practice new strokes. They try to swim the entire length of the pool underwater. They go from open-ended tag to racing each other. This is the educational simulation part of the experience; these exercises force them to learn skills that they can transfer to other bodies of water, such as lakes or oceans. Meanwhile, the students in the virtual world, having demonstrated their comfort in that world, receive an assignment requiring them to work together to achieve an instructor-defined goal. They fight a bit as a team and get frustrated; they resolve the frustration and complete the assignment. When the work is done, the class debriefs around a conference table or, perhaps, in the virtual world itself. The pilot-in-training is also working harder, having been tasked with increasingly challenging scenarios, such as landing with broken gear or under stormy conditions. The pilot crashes quite a bit at first but gradually gets more and more comfortable and confident.

The ease with which the children in the pool, the students in the virtual class, and the pilot in the flight simulator move from exploratory virtual-world behaviors to structured but simple games to taking on rigorous simulation challenges illustrates both the differences across these three instances and the connections that link them. It is only by building from open experimentation to increasingly rigorous rules, structures, and success criteria that children learn transferable water survival skills and pilots learn critical flying skills.

Distinctions and Connections

As the HIVE model sees virtual worlds, games, and simulations as both different and connected, there are two large sets of consequences: one emerging from appreciating the distinctions among the three and one related to the view of them as connected.


The HIVE model asserts that virtual worlds, games, and simulations are all different; each has its own affordances and purposes. A virtual world will not suffice where a simulation is needed. The virtual world offers only context with no content; it contributes a set of tools that both enable and restrict the uses to which it may be put. An educational simulation may take place in a virtual world, but it still must be rigorously designed and implemented. Organizations routinely fail in their efforts to access the potential of virtual worlds when they believe that buying a virtual world means getting a simulation.

Likewise, a game is not an educational simulation. Playing SimCity will not make someone a better mayor. Some players of, for instance, World of Warcraft may learn deep, transferable, even measurable leadership skills but not all players will. The game does not provide a structure for ensuring learning. Just because some players learn these skills playing the game, that does not mean either that most players are also learning these skills or that it should be adopted in a leadership development program. Conversely, a purely educational simulation may not be very much fun. The program may have the three-dimensional graphics and motion capture animations of a computer game, but the content may be frustrating. Specific competencies must be invoked, and students’ assumptions about what the content should be, likely shaped by their experiences with games, will be challenged.


However, the ease with which players in a new virtual environment move from exploratory behaviors to more structured simulation structures also illustrates the connection among virtual worlds, simulations, and games. There are overlaps of both processes and best practices between them. For instance, the same structures that help students get access to a virtual world (say in a university or corporation) also help them get access to a simulation and vice versa. These include help desks, technology test tools, accurate and understandable download information, and password and username management. The aspects of computer game design, such as scoring mechanisms, scripted storylines, and competition-based motivation, can drive increased engagement in an educational simulation. By the same token, a good teacher with a good curriculum can use a relevant game as part of a meaningful learning experience, but the experience must be carefully prepared, presented, and debriefed (Exhibit 1).

One example of the commonality across all HIVEs is the need for introductory structures. These asynchronous, self-paced levels or locations allow students to learn and demonstrate basic competencies in manipulation, navigation, and communication before moving on to the “real” exercise. These have been successfully adopted in Second Life where students often have to navigate through a custom challenge before joining a class for the first time. Computer games frequently have single-player levels with scripted stories and even their own training sequences that players must complete before joining multiplayer teams. Given the parallels between simulations, games, and virtual worlds, multiplayer simulations designed to teach specific skills may do well to include a significant single-player mode in which students can first learn the basic interface and gameplay.

A second area of commonality is the need for communities around games and simulations. Community-building tools and opportunities can be built in as a seamless, integrated piece of technology within the world or simulation or they can be provided separately via a chat room or other tool.

The biggest area of commonality, and this will be true for years and perhaps for decades, is that HIVEs get people to do things. In a formal learning program, this means that they can be integrated with the goal of getting students to learn how to do, not just what to know. To accomplish this, instructors in virtual worlds will find a range of techniques already refined in stand-alone simulations useful, including assessment methodologies such as benchmarking and coaching strategies to manage student frustration and to provide effective debriefing. More complex interactive structuring techniques, such as the use of branching structures or mathematical modeling to allow students’ decisions to guide the development of events in the world, can also help by increasing the interactivity of these environments.


This HIVE taxonomy has a range of implications for instructors structuring classes and for students exploring virtual worlds. Accepting the idea that HIVEs exist on a continuum, each providing its own benefits but each also being linked to the others, will affect how classes in virtual worlds, serious games, and educational simulations are conceptualized, developed, and deployed. Virtual environments provide a natural way for people to learn by nurturing an instinctive progression from experiencing to playing to learning; instructors should encourage the shifting across experimentation, play, and practice in which students naturally engage. In fact, instructors can exploit that behavior by providing stages that accommodate each stage. Light games and self-paced introductory levels can be used to get students comfortable with basic concepts and the interface necessary to exist in the virtual world, and the complexity can be increased to encourage students to move on to play and practice stages.

Content created for virtual worlds should reflect the nonlinear nature of HIVE learning and exploit the opportunity to learn by doing. The goal should not be to repurpose existing content but to rethink its goals and to imagine new types of content and new modes of presentation that fully access the power of HIVEs for learning. While best practices in content structuring may be transferred from stand-alone educational simulations to virtual world-based simulations, metrics and learning objectives for the different contexts should be different. Learning objectives and assessments around games, for instance, should be focused on the engagement, exposure, and use of simple interfaces while those for educational simulations should measure the development of complex, transferable skills.

Community is also an important element in virtual world-based learning, whether in games or simulations. Even stand-alone simulations need to provide participants some opportunity to access a community even through a separate tool if it is not possible to integrate the community into the simulation platform itself.


This emerging, unifying view of HIVE learning is the future of education (Exhibit 2). It represents, finally, the practical convergence of best practices and technologies, leveraging and building upon what we already know for better results for all involved. However, the critical trick for today is knowing when to look at virtual worlds, simulations, and games as part of a greater whole, sharing best practices when appropriate, and when not to let this holistic view obscure the critical differences among them, optimizing the sense of place and presence offered by virtual worlds, the fun engagement provided by games, and the rigor and transferability of skills promised by simulations.


Aldrich, C. 2009. The complete guide to serious games and simulations. Somerset, NJ: Wiley.

Exhibit 1: Examples of Commercial Games Used in Classrooms

  • Sid Meier’s Civilization Series by Firaxis for history and social sciences.
  • SimCity Series by Electronic Arts for urban planning and social psychology.
  • Age of Empires Series by Microsoft for history.
  • Zoo Tycoon by Microsoft for planning and economics.
  • Roller Coaster Tycoon by Chris Sawyer Games and Atari for planning and economcs

Exhibit 2: The future of HIVEs

Here are some brainstorming thoughts, some personal speculations, about how content may be created and experienced as universities, corporations, and other organizations increasingly explore the power of nonlinear and engagement-based media.

2010: Understanding and Procuring HIVEs

In the near term, educational and commercial organizations will explore their understanding of HIVEs and where HIVEs may fit in their missions. They will seek to how and when to use virtual worlds, serious game, and educational simulations.

And they will make mistakes. As more organizations acquire access to virtual worlds, corporations and academic organizations will use them primarily for building communities and bridging distances, although about 80% will be greatly underused. Large organizations will commission their own customized, self-contained simulations to teach foundational skill sets, mostly using external vendors. Others will buy and often modify off-the-shelf simulations, such as those now available from Harvard Business School Publishing and Capstone Business Simulation. We will see a proliferation of short, stand-alone simulations, typically using Adobe Flash and often connected to online communities, as the dominant model of customer-build stand-alone educational simulations.

Both socially focused virtual worlds, where users meet primarily for interpersonal interactions rather than to pursue goal-focused activities such as games, and self-contained simulations, when done well, will work better for learning than people now realize, developing in students a greater understanding of and interest in the content and a better ability to apply their learning, beginning a rethinking of the multitude of flawed current assessment methodologies currently in use, such as tests and papers. However, corporations especially will still pursue the Sisyphean task of “managing through metrics,” trying to assess the usefulness of an active virtual community or an effective simulation by seeking a quantifiable return on investment.

In universities using three-dimensional virtual worlds, these environments will increasingly be used to host student work, providing a venue for students to create interactive content, rather than as virtual classrooms. Schools that do not focus on the students’ role in building interactive content will wind down their use of virtual worlds in favor of easier tools, such as enhanced virtual classrooms. At the same time, the military will continue to lead the way in using simulations, using specifically developed simulations to develop soft power through the application of interpersonal skills, an effort begun in earnest a few years ago with projects such as the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a University of Southern California (USC) project funded by the U.S. Army.

A widespread and growing preference for highly interactive content will have far-reaching implications. Business models structured around the production of linear content will continue to deteriorate. Newspaper and book publishers, as well as schools and traditional training providers, will find themselves in increasingly dire shape. But there are also huge problems in those consulting industries whose major outputs are traditional analysis and recommendations to large clients. Corporations will simply no longer buy traditional reports of events that are accurate, even profound, because they just sit on shelves unused. And the sale of interactive applications via providers such as iTunes and Android will continue to flourish. Simply, the market will shift to reward HIVE production as opposed to traditional media.

2013: Authoring in HIVE Environments

Widespread availability of robust and easy-to-use authoring tools and environments will develop quickly in the next three years. While small vendors will initially meet these authoring needs, these tools and capabilities will increasingly be aggregated by the biggest software vendors. The availability of these tools will enable large organizations to bring sophisticated authoring capabilities in house, as students who grew up authoring in Second Life enter the workforce. The time it takes to build a useful simulation will be reduced asymptotically to about four weeks, but larger budgets will be available for more complex simulations that take years to build. The range of development time for simulations will reflect both the maturity of the tools and the market value of these products.

Just as games have developed and refined such genres as first-person shooters and real-time strategy, the increased focus on HIVEs for learning will catalyze new ways of structuring content around the goal of “learning to do.” The power of simulations and virtual worlds to help teach the Big Skills (also known as 21st-century skills) will be recognized and embraced. Linear content will be viewed with increased suspicion as thin and ineffective compared to the robustness of well-created HIVE content. Institutions supporting schools will try, and fail, to build simulations around traditional content, such as biology and literature. HIVEs will increasingly be seen as a continuous whole; students and teachers will expect a smooth transition between the real world, the open virtual world, the fun game, and the relevant simulation.

Second Life will suffer as corporate customers follow younger users to better looking and more dynamic, but also more splintered, environments. Ironically, as the virtual world market fragments, the platform for simulations will converge. Adobe Flash will run everywhere (including hacked future versions of Xboxes and Playstations) and be the common authoring environment of choice, enabling schools to assign simulations without babysitting hardware.

2016: Rethinking Knowledge

By 2016, the culture will be rethinking the possibilities and necessities of captured wisdom. Research organizations and consulting groups will reluctantly reject the easy lens of linear content and, pushed by competition and client requests, follow a research and analysis process similar to the complex methodologies required to generate simulation-based content, even when not building a simulation (Supplement 2-1). Business reports will talk about actions, systems, and results, not just processes and tips. Search engines will be significantly challenged, with huge investments and infrastructure trapping them in old content, as people realize that you can’t learn leadership from Google. Instead of straight information, people will be seeking interactive, learn-to-do content; they’ll want to access virtual environments that allow them to practice particular skills, such as negotiating scenarios. Google has the same constraint as all linear content is shocking. You can’t learn stewardship, relationship management, innovation, or security any more from Google as you can from a traditional book, magazine, or traditional class. As a shared understanding of the limitations of “learning to know” vs. “learning to do” emerges, the realizations of the limitations “Learning to know” approaches becomes obvious.

Increasingly, everyone from the MacArthur Foundation to Accenture will default to producing interactive content over passive. Reports will be produced not as binders but as experiences, not as bullet points and inspirational quotes but as equations, interfaces, and dynamic relationships. For example, rather than having a report describing new market conditions and evolving customer preferences delivered to top executives of a large retailer, a consultant firm might produce a fifteen-minute mini-simulation that all employees of the company can access; in place of a mass of data that must then be disseminated through the corporation, the client will have a tool that can create across the corporate heirarchy a shared belief in the changes identified by the consultant and an understanding of the new behaviors necessary to adapt. This new research will cycle back into increasingly detailed simulations. As the perceived value of information and expectations for its presentation change, journalism will disappear as a distinct college major and career.

Open-source simulation design will flourish and be compatible with professionally created content. When the $49 laptop becomes a reality, sometime before 2015, China and India will both announce that a majority of their school curricula across all ages will be simulation based. Game makers will enter the educational simulation space for real here, as they see there is a market for finished goods, but they will be too late to create real brands. They will still manage to wipe out large tracts of smaller companies.

2019: A New View of Knowledge and Wisdom

Moving forward, school curriculum in the U.S. will be retooled around teaching innovation and stewardship and other Big Skills. The first Pulitzer Prize to a simulation will be announced in 2019, as well as the greatly diminished use of multiple-choice standardized tests (after years of decline). The last textbook publisher will fold. Pure linear content will be looked at the way we listen to scratchy phonographs. Finally, and truly, the most valuable content in the world will be educational simulations and serious games. IBM will launch a new initiative into this space.

Supplement: Research Questions to ask Subject Matter Experts When Designing an Educational Simulation

Most business research relies on the same intellectual constructs as other forms of linear content- including linear analysis, case studies, and inspirational examples. And like with movies and magazines, these reports end up impressing with their cleverness but don’t actually enable effective action (or any action, except more presentations), because they are not designed to.The process of creating a simulations or other “learning to do” content, requires a different process. Even if the goal is not a simulation, the new types of questions can result in richer, more action driven content. Here are some examples of different questions for Subject Matter Experts:

  1. What situation have you experienced that you feel epitomizes the subject matter? (This could be a real-time event or an event that took place over weeks, months, or years.) Were there multiple situations?
  2. What were your available options? At each moment, what could you have done in that situation, and what might a naive or inexperienced person done? What did you end up doing?
  3. Why would the naive approach fail? What would it not have taken into account?
  4. What were clues that informed your analysis of the situation? What did you see immediately, and what information did you have to look for? How did you look?
  5. What did you want success to be? What did the conclusion end up being?
  6. What were you looking for to suggest that things were going well? What were you looking for to suggest that things were not going well?

What were the “maintenance” or routine activities that you had to do (even including body language) to keep the situation developing well? What would happen if you did not do them?

  1. What was the moment were you knew you were successful (or not)?
  2. What was each person’s best case and worse case outcome? What were their strategies and actions?
  3. What would have been three to five legitimate alternative approaches to the problem or situation?
  4. What were the three to five high-level metrics that you were monitoring? Time? Commitment? Alignment?
  5. What trade-offs were you willing to make? What trade-offs did you make?
  6. Can you graph the high level metrics over the course of the experience?
  7. What were the inflection points for each?
  8. How do the actions impact the high level metrics? What else impacts the high level metrics (be as specific as possible)?


This article may be reproduced and distributed for educational purposes if the following attribution is included in the document:

Note: This article was originally published in Innovate ( as: Aldrich, C. 2009. Virtual worlds, simulations, and games for education: A unifying view.Innovate 5 (5). (accessed May 26, 2009) and at the blog Clark Aldrich On Simulations and Serious Games. It is reprinted with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

Author Bio

Clark Aldrich, an independent contractor and award-winning designer, works with clients to create simulations on areas ranging from influencing skills to cyber security, and with clients as diverse as the Department of Defense to private universities. When working with SimuLearn, he was awarded a patent for the Virtual Leader global product line (which is the most popular leadership simulation in the world and was the winner of the “best online training product of the year”). Virtual Leader (and the updated vLeader) is currently used in hundreds of corporations, universities, and military installations and has been translated into multiple foreign languages.

Aldrich also advises many of the world’s most influential organizations (private and government), and serves on over a dozen boards, including with magazines, and universities, on educational and business analysis projects.

He is the author of four books, Simulations and the Future of Learning (Wiley, 2004), Learning By Doing (Wiley, 2005), The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games – How the Most Valuable Content Will Be Created In the Age Beyond Gutenberg to Google (Wiley, 2009) and Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds (Wiley, 2009).

His work has been featured in hundreds of sources, including CBS, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, NPR, CNET, Business 2.0, BusinessWeek, U.S. News and World Reports, and, among other distinctions, he has been called an “industry guru” by Fortune Magazine.

He can be reached at [email protected]

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