Simulation Design Guide

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Simulation Design Guide by Jeremiah McCall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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What Is a Historical Simulation?

What is offered here is by no means the first (or last) word on the subject, but rather a working definition of a historical simulation. A historical simulation is, first and foremost, a dynamic reconstruction and/or representation of the past. Dynamic in this sense means using physical or conceptual moving parts, representations of historical factors and their relationships. A historical simulation attempts to  represent a set of historical factors faithfully and establishes a precise or fuzzy relationship between these factors in order to offer a better glimpse of how a past system may have operated or a particular set of decisions came about.

Types of Simulations

For purposes of analysis and as a means of setting clearer design goals, it is helpful to categorize simulations into four categories: parameter-driven, tactical, social process, and hybrid simulations. The categories of tactical and social process simulations come from Gredler 1994 though the interpretation below reflects my understanding of her concepts within the context of history education. I have added the categories of parameter driven and hybrid simulations to round out a basic taxonomy. Again, it is worth noting that these terms should not be applied too rigidly; they are intended simply to help in the process of analyzing and designing simulations.

Parameter-Driven Simulations refer to those simulations that consist of a set of relationships between parameters. The user provides the initial parameters to the simulation and the simulation generates the results based on those parameters. This type of simulation is not interactive per se; rather, it runs a set of calculations based on user input and the system it is modeling. Parameter-driven simulations tend to be used for scientific or social scientific purposes. For example, one might use a parameter driven simulation to estimate the demographics of a given population with a given birth and death rate or to calculate the spread of a historical disease (or a prospective future outbreak).

Like all simulation types, parameter-driven simulations have strengths and weaknesses. They are beneficial because of their power to illustrate the potential effects of complex factors and even to predict. To the extent that a parameter-driven simulation accurately models the relationships between variables, it can provide reasonable predictions of outcomes. At the same time, they do not allow for participants to make decisions after the initial setup and, to this extent, may be less helpful students of history learn in dynamic fashion about the factors that shaped historical decisions and the potential effects of human decisions.


  • a model where a user sets variables concerning a plague and sees how those variables affect the spread of disease in a hypothetical population.

Tactical Simulations (see Gredler 1994) are simulations wherein participants identify problems through available information and solve problems essentially by manipulating variables. This is probably best understood by example. Suppose a participant plays a simulation in which she is an early 19th century textile manufacturer tryng to make a profit. The problem/obstacle she faces is  the goal of making a profitable business. She has a set of data/information to inform her decisions: number of employees, wages per employee, resources available in the warehouse, the time benefits investing in new machinery will produce, etc. Using this information as a guide, she then makes decisions involving the composition of her work force, the number of units of textiles she will produce, whether she will invest in hiring more workers or new machines, etc. Each of these decisions boils down to manipulating variables.The primary  decisions of participants in tactical simulations, then, involve managing information and resources effectively to solve problems. These simulations are called tactical because their focus is on tactics, i.e. the means and methods by which participants can solve the problem with which they are presented.


  • a simulation in which a business manager must attempt to develop cost efficient production techniques
  • a wargame where participants must make decisions about troop movements
  • a simulation of agriculture where participants must determine how to produce enough food to feed a village.
  • Essentially every computer simulation game.

Social Process Simulations(see Gredler 1994) are simulations that revolve around social interactions between participants who have taken on roles. Participants in such simulations attempt to solve problems that tend to involve social conflict. The primary means of solving such problems is negotiation, whether in a formal or informal sense. Where tactical simulations focus on responding to information and adjusting variables in response, social process simulations focus on interacting with other participants and attempting to achieve goals primarily through communication with other participants.


  • a diplomatic simulation where countries attempt to resolve their differences and draft a resolution.
  • a witch accusation simulation where participants attempt to defend themselves from accusations of witchcraft by building coalitions with other villagers.
  • a simulation of suffrage movements.

Hybrid Simulations could theoretically refer to any combination of catgeories, but in this case are used to refer to simulations that combine tactical and social process elements. At the extremes a pure tactical simulation would focus the participant only on the data, not on communicating and negotiating with other participants; a pure social process simulation, on the other hand, would focus only on communication rather than variable manipulation. Often, however, a simulation combines these elements so that participants must both manage their own variables and communicate effectively with other participants in order to achieve goals.


  • a  simulation where countries have a set of resources, an infrastructure, and a military. They attempt to achieve goals for their country through careful use of these elements and by  negotiating favorable arrangements with other countries.

Key Steps in Designing a Simulation

  1. Select a historical event or system for the simulation. There are a wide range of historical events (example: the Cuban Missile Crisis)and historical systems (example: the long-term interactions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R post-1945) suitable for simulating. Since simulations are inherently models of processes it is important at the very beginning to recognize that simulations are not the best fit for all sorts of learning. In particular, simulations are not particularly efficient for helping students memorize a list of facts, dates, and details. This is not to say that students are unable to learn historical facts during the course of a simulation. A true simulation that allows participants room to make decisions within a set of historical factors, however, will by necessity focus to an extent on long term historical factors of cause and effect. It is well worth noting, however, that considering and determining those long term issues of causes and effect require higher order skills from students than memorization.The hallmarks of a viable topic for simulation design depend on the type of simulation to be designed. Hybrid social process/tactical simulations are best suited for historical events/systems where more than one individual (nation, social group, region, etc.) is in some form of conflict with other individuals and these groups have a set of goals and tools for reaching those goals.
  2. Determine the key processes in the historical event or system. What will this simulation model for students? Since a simulation–particularly one for use by middle and high school students–cannot include all the processes involved in a historical event of system, the designer will have to choose which processes are crucial. Attempting to define the key processes at work before beginning to design the simulation gives the designer a standard for what to include and not include in the simulation.
  3. Determine the participants’ roles. (Whom do the participants represent?) Will the participants of the simulation be representatives of historical groups (the governments of countries for example) or take on the roles of individuals (prosecutors and accused in witch trials).
  4. Determine the participants’ goals. (What are the participants trying to achieve?) It is critical that participants be aware of the goals for their roles. While simulations need not be competitive they function best when goal oriented. The decisions and actions of the players, ideally, will be guided by consideration of the goals in mind. Make sure the goals reflect faithfully the concerns and aspirations of the historical groups and inviduals represented.
  5. Determine the tools available to the participants. (What kinds of actions and decisions can participants make in order to achieve their goals?) Though all steps of simulation design are critical, a well considered set of roles and goals can founder if participants are not provided with a set of tools to reach those goals. Participants need to have different tactics available for achieving their goals; in general they also benefit from knowing what those tactics are, to a certain degree.The tools available to participants are a crucial distinction between role-playing activities and simulations. Activities that are accurately classified as role-plays are limited to discussion between characters. For an activity to qualify as a historical simulation–and this is a qualitative distinction, not a improvement or degradation of the role-play–participants must have actions/options available to them beyond sharing ideas and views. This is true even if those actions/options are verbal in nature.
  1. Eric Menninger
    January 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Great overview. I’ve been designing my own classroom simulations for years so it’s really validating to read such an intelligent write up. Nicely summarized.

    • January 28, 2011 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks Eric; there are so many people like you and I doing this work (at least I hope), but very little in the way of organized resources, so I’m very glad you found this helpful/interesting. You may find my forthcoming book, Gaming the Past: Using Video Games to Teach Secondary History interesting. It’s a guide to developing, implementing, and assessing lessons involving computer simulations, but you may find some of the ideas dovetail with your simulation designs.
      Do you ever explore having your students design simulations?

  2. March 30, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Jeremiah, the outline you provided was quite helpful in designing a game on Soviet history, provisionally entitled “Soviet Factory Manager.” It was useful to think of a historical simulation as a rule-based framework that aimed to model one aspect of the past: this helped me focus on the rules and goals of the simulation without being distracted too much by elements of the historical context that I would have wanted to bring in. The idea that this historical video game constituted what you termed a “Tactical Simulation” also helped me to consider the best way of conveying the historical information to students while engaging their attention on what was truly important. Also, the idea that this category of a historical video game presented a problem for students to solve also helped guide my thinking. Thanks!

  1. August 30, 2012 at 7:41 pm
  2. February 23, 2020 at 6:05 pm
  3. March 11, 2022 at 1:40 pm

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