Guila Muir

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Games, Simulations, and Roleplays: Do Differences Matter?

Which would you choose…and when?

Long ago, I discovered I loved experiential learning and wanted to learn more about simulations. As a trainer in 1981 Thailand, I experienced the famous “Ba-Fa-Ba-Fa” cultural simulation. It blew me away! Years later, with great hopes, I attended an ASTD-sponsored workshop called Experience Simulations. To my disappointment, the workshop centered on board games a vendor was highlighting. I walked out–I can’t stand board games!

Since then, I’ve often heard professionals use the words “game,” “simulation” and “roleplay” interchangeably. It wasn’t until I read Ken Jones’ “Simulations: A Handbook for Teachers and Trainers” (Nichols Publishing Company, 1995) that I felt I could really verbalize the difference between these three very different activities.

I’ve created the chart below to compare and contrast these varieties of experiential learning. The different role that ethics play intrigues me.

Characteristics of Games, Simulations, and Roleplays


Games Simulations Roleplays
Participants try to win within a set of rules. No “real-world” ethics are involved except the spirit of fair play. Participants keep their own personalities and try to behave professionally in a situation where they have functional roles. Participants’ skills and emotions are real. The environment is simulated. Real-world ethics apply. The aim is to give a good performance or imitation. Often, emotions, personalities, and ethical motives are supplied.



CBS Survivor: What is It?

No matter what your feelings about this show, it’s interesting to examine it through the lenses this chart provides. Overall, no matter how often the participants say, “It’s only a game!” (which they tend to do whenever they model some particularly nefarious behavior,) “Survivor” seems to me to be a classic simulation. The participants’ own ethics guide their actions. Periodic physical and mental competitions are the only real games being played. These games are discrete. They begin and end. The participants actually live and work within an extended simulation.

What About Roleplay?

Les Lauber, board member of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association (NASAGA,) presented a stimulating workshop on roleplay at NASAGA’s 2002 conference. Lauber explained that roleplays are actually “a discrete form of simulation,” falling mid-continuum between case study and total virtual reality:

Case study Roleplay Virtual Reality

Lauber says roleplays work best to:

  • Reinforce new skills
  • Sensitize participants to others’ feelings or concerns,
  • Test problem solutions from social or cultural arenas.

Effective roleplays involve everyone in the room. Even the “observers” have a role and should be briefed as carefully as the players. The fact that observers are present and active actually helps differentiate roleplays from simulations, where observers (if any) do not play an overtly active role. (Of course, the mere presence of observers impacts participant behavior, as any anthropologist knows and Heisenberg postulates.) Would “Survivor” participants act exactly the same without the presence of TV cameras?)

Test Yourself!

Mark which activity you’d choose to reinforce the following skills. Why?

Skill Game Simulation Roleplay Combination
  • Flying an airplane
  • Matching terms with the correct definition
  • Commanding the Starship Enterprise
  • Diapering a baby
  • Giving behavioral feedback
  • Resolving workplace conflict
  • Perfecting your firearm aim
  • Writing a grant proposal
  • Establishing rapport with a potential customer

Resources for Those Who Are “Hooked”

I have been lucky to discover two wonderful sources for all sorts of experiential learning activities, including simulations and roleplays. One is NASAGA ( The other is Sivasailam Thiagarajan, otherwise known as Thiagi, the master of creative learning. ( I invite you to explore their web sites.


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