Simulation is one of the largest video game categories, for both PC and console. It covers a wide variety of games of many types and difficulties, and with a variety of audiences. But they all have something in common. Whereas in a typical computer game the goal is to win—to fight the last boss or defeat all your enemies or reach a certain goal—most simulation games cannot be won. Even in those that can, the focus is not on winning or completing the game.
Instead, in simulation games the focus is on the experience. They are about being in a virtual world and exploring its possibilities for as long as you want to. You can’t ‘win’ in life, so neither can you ‘win’ these games. You can sometimes lose, however, by dying or crashing or running out of money. But even then you can return again and again to explore the same environment.
Rather than trying to describe all simulation games at the same time, since they vary so much, in this article we will go over the most common simulation genres, their major features, and some typical games. With so much to choose from, it’s likely at least one genre will peak your interest.
Virtual Life Games
This is arguably the most popular simulation genre. Life simulation games let you control one or more living beings (usually humans) and direct their lives. The focus in these games is on social interaction and the development of the world and its characters. You can build and/or buy items and homes for your simulation characters, and control them as they play out everyday routines. While there are sometimes minigames and lesser goals to reach, these games stretch on as long as you want to keep returning to the world you’ve created.
The most common life simulation game is the Sims series—The Sims, The Sims 2, The Sims 3, and its many expansion packs. In games you control one or more virtual people and can build an environment for them to live in. They are born, grow old, and die, allowing you to preside over many generations of the same family. You can choose to have a great deal of control over their lives, micromanaging everything they do, or you can let them choose for themselves most of the time and watch how they interact.
The other major sub-category of this genre is pet simulation games, which allow you to raise and train virtual pets. You can interact with your pets, feed them, and care for them. A newer, more unusual member of this sub-genre is Viva Piñata, in which you are given a virual space—a garden—and must tend it and the animal-like piñatas that live on your land. You can mate your pinatas, attract new ones, and play several minigames. There are also enemies that try to enter and wraek havoc on your garden, which you must fend off using various methods.
Construction and Management Games
In the virtual life games you can often edit and build houses and other buildings, but the focus is on the social interactions of the characters. In management simulation games, however, building and managing your environment is the focus. These games have strong economies and ways for you to earn money so you can continue to improve on your developments. While there are often sub-goals, most of these games do not officially end and allow you to continue building and developing indefinitely.
City-building simulation games are a popular sub-genre. One of the first of these to achieve success was SimCity and its later versions, which focus on the creation of a virtual city. You can develop your city for as long as you want, although you will experience periodic disasters (everything from lightning strikes to alien attacks). Most SimCity games also allow you to play a timed version of the game with a specific goal or set of goals, which are often historically based.
Other games like RollerCoaster Tycoon allow you to build an attraction and earn money off visitors and tourists. Finally, pure economic games such as Hollywood Mogul are related to this genre, although they focus not on construction but on methods for making money. In Hollywood Mogul, for example, you can choose sets, plots, and actors in your attempts to create blockbuster movies.
These simulation games put you behind the wheel of a vehicle, usually a car or plane, and allow you to experience driving or flying. They are not as open-ended as life and management simulation games, and usually include set races or missions to complete. But the focus is not on winning but on mastering the vehicle, and often there is a way to play in a free-form environment.
Racing games such as the Grand Prix and NASCAR series put you behind the wheel of a car or motorcycle. Flight simulators put you in control of a variety of planes, either military or civilian. Some incorporate racing aspects or the ability to upgrade your plane. In military games you are given missions and combat opportunities, while civilian-based simulations such as the Microsoft Flight Simulator games are more open-ended. Other games allow you to simulate driving trains, tanks, and ships, and more.
As the name suggests, these games allow you to simulate playing various sports. These include everything from traditional team sports to modern extreme sports, and the games often use the names of players and teams from the real world. Sports simulation games are competitive and realistic, requiring good reflexes and accuracy. They are also immersive and offer play-by-play feedback. Popular examples are Madden NFL, an American football simulation, and NBA Live 2003, a basketball simulation. Other games allow you to simulate golf, hockey, baseball, soccer, wrestling, and skateboarding.
As with any genre, the best way to really understand the simulation game is to experience it for yourself. This genre is so broad, there is something to interest casual and veteran gamers alike. And if you’re new to PC gaming in general, check out our guides to the role-playing game, first-person shooter, strategy, and action adventure genres as well.