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Mary-Ruth Marshall; Project Co-ordinator, Australian Values Project, Melbourne. (1978)

Have you ever played a simulation game? Don't answer 'No' unless you've never played Monopoly or chess. They are examples of simulation games. The two essential elements of a simulation game are that it is a simulation (that is, it simulates some form of reality - commerce in Monopoly, war in chess) and it is a game (that is, it has rules, a goal or goals, the element of chance, competition, a winner or winners, and is fun to play). For the purposes of this article, a simulation game (from now on, often referred to simply as games) will be defined as one which meets the criteria above. There are many exercises and strategies called 'simulations', 'games', or 'simulation games' which are not, in fact, games - sometimes they are not simulations, either. What sets educational simulation games apart from Monopoly and chess is the de-briefing and evaluation which must follow. Later in the article, I will be raising the element of theological reflection which makes simulation games ideal tools for religious education.

Simulation games first appeared in the 1960s, and the earliest ones were designed for classroom use. Many of them were concerned with history (causes of wars, feelings and reasoning of people on both sides of an actual historical event) and the social sciences (feelings and reactions of people in a given or imaginary society). This exploration of two levels of learning (feelings as well as actions) made games a very personalised form of learning. Children and young people learned not only what people '.did or might do, but also why they did it. The learnings intended to be more effective on the factual level (what happened?) and on the conceptual level (why did it pen? what else might have happened?) The personal involvement led to clearer and longer-lasting understandings. And because the games were games, and therefore usually fun, teachers and students alike enjoyed using them. The use of games quickly spread to other subject areas, with different purposes depending on the curriculum area.


A simulation is an imitation or representation of something else, reality reduced to manageable proportions. It is based on a theoretical understanding of a particular social process. Life experiences which are extremely complex are simplified; those which cover a number of years and multiple relationships are condensed. (A good example of simulation is that common scene from war films, where naval officers stand around a table and move models of ships from place to place, simulating battles and estimating results.) Patterns can be readily observed, and the results of choices are obvious fairly quickly. In simulation games, reality is most often simulated in one of two ways when:

players play themselves in an unfamiliar situation;

players play the role of someone else in a familiar situation.

That is, the player either learns about another environment or situation, and what it is like to be in that setting, or the player learns about how other people think, feel and react. The player experiences the processes of reality being simulated. There are alternatives, or perhaps variations, of these two basic forms. The most common is when the player plays the role of someone else in an unfamiliar situation. However, since the purpose of simulation games is to gain insight into life and society, and clarify ways of acting, they are most useful (and debriefing is easier) when only one element of reality is unfamiliar.


Simulation games, perhaps uniquely, help us deal with complex situations in a very concrete way. Because reality becomes manageable, and much more immediately understandable, we can act in the game with a clear sense of purpose. We can analyse the essential elements in the situation. The game director, in de-briefing, helps players transfer the learnings and understandings of the game to players' own lives and experiences.

Since a simulation game is real experience (rather than second-hand), players are more likely to develop empathy with and sensitivity to the feelings and actions of the person whose role he or she has assumed, or who are in a similar situation. Most games highlight the advantages of working co-operatively or seeking and acting on consensus.

Games help us to try out new or different behaviours, to experiment or take risks, to attempt new solutions or ways of acting. In a game, it is actions, deeds or moves which count, not vows, promises or rhetoric. A game is a 'no risk' situation because when the game is over, we revert to our usual selves and usual lives, although hopefully with new insights. One of the most useful aspects of games is that they allow us to explore situations and experiences we might avoid in ordinary life specifically, conflict and change.

Because of the element of competition (and one of the assumptions of gaming is that humanity is basically competitive), conflict is common - conflict of goals, conflict in choices, conflict between players and teams. In life, we may avoid conflict, but in the game, there is no escape. In several years of using simulation games with people in the helping services, I have noticed how often players embrace the opportunity to be overtly competitive in a non-judmental, non-threatening setting. On one level, they obviously found it helpful, perhaps even therapeutic, to adopt a life-stance not ordinarily theirs. But on a much deeper level, it gave them gut-level insights into the thinking of people who, for one reason or another do not or cannot act co-operatively, and greater understandings into the causes and useful ways of resolving conflict. Games allow feelings, even hostile ones, to be expressed.

Change can also be explored effectively through games. Choices and decisions provide relatively instant results, with awareness of cause and effect. Players learn to take and accept responsibility for their own actions. Change happens quickly and, again, without the feeling of risk and uncertainty present in real life. We can learn about how change occurs, how we (and others) respond, and how to be effective agents of change.

In Using Simulation Games, my colleague and I list the following general purposes of simulation games:

1 To become aware of existing views on an issue;

• To understand the social, religious, political, and economic aspects of the situation;

1 To understand the feelings of those in the situation;

To analyse possible outcomes, or actual historical ones;

1 To generalise factors and apply to other cases.


Simulation games have been criticised on the grounds that they over-simplify, fooling players into thinking that they know everything about the situation, or that real-life constraints can be ignored. The reality simulated is selective, containing only those elements the game designer deems relevant to the game's purposes. Some players may manipulate others or mar the game by the dramatic intensity, over-involvement, mischief or rebellion they bring to the game. Effects on the lives of players can be short-lived, especially if the de-briefing is inadequate and/or if the game is not supported by other educational experiences. Certainly the learning process is negated if the game is used only because it is interesting, or easy to do, or fun, or if a careful de-briefing period does not take place. Indeed, a game may even be upsetting or disturbing to a player if there is not adequate time spent in expressing feelings and validating them through evaluation and application to life.


The most common packaged format is board games. The action is focused, and takes place, on a game board. Various chance elements (dice, spinners, cards) are used. Familiarity with games such as Monopoly or Ludo makes this type of game easier to use. The winner is usually the one who reaches 'Finish' first, or wins the most money or tokens, or who is left in the game.

When more interaction is desired, role play games are used. A scenario (the situation up until the time the game starts) and a role profile (description of player's objectives, rationale, resources and hints for playing strategy) are suggested or provided. The winner is usually the one who achieves more role objectives, or who is deemed by others to have achieved them.

Another, though less common, type is card games. Card sorts are a variation, though they rarely have a win/lose component. Pen and pencil games are usually similar to role play games.

Games which combine two formats are usually called hybrid games. The play is focused on a game board or paper, but players have roles, and negotiation and bargaining may take place, to affect or be recorded on the game board.


When astronauts and cosmonauts return to earth after a mission, they spend a great deal of time with space experts talking about what happened, and how that may be used to improve future missions. This period is called debriefing. In the educational use of simulation games, a similar time is spent on discussions about what happened, how players felt about it and then, when feelings have been adequately ventilated (called de-roling, that is, distancing oneself from the experience and the feelings) applying the learning to life. Most of the learning in simulation games takes place at this point. It is vitally important. Feelings and behaviours not fully explored can fester and dismay. If learnings are not verbalised and applied, the game may appear, to players, to be a time filler or some form of casual manipulation by the teacher. Skills of de-briefing are easily learned; most games include suggestions for discussion questions. It is important to say again that the de-briefing time is what makes a simulation game educational. But even more, the de-briefing/reflection time is, for religious educators, the opportunity for theologising, for relating the game experience and its implications to the purposes and intentions of God. We will return to this point later in the article.


Simulation games provide an experience of what could be, rather than what is. Most games can be an environment for realistic hope. They open up to players glimpses of what is ultimately possible, and, in debriefing, can encourage individual and co-operative planning to, make these possibilities concrete. In theological terms, people can move from bondage (life as it is) to freedom (life as God wants it to be). Regardless of the social reality simulated, it can be seen in terms of change or improvement, in terms of freedom, liberation and authentic Christian life. Games not only may transmit old culture, but also lay the foundations of the new-humanity not in its own image but in what it understands to be its best image. Simulation games can provide fresh images by which people may live.

A game I particularly like to use in religious education is called Unequal Resources. (This, and all other games cited, come from the publications by Baker and Marshall mentioned in the resources listing.) Four teams have identical tasks to complete using paper, scissors, rulers and fasteners. But each team has a different collection of resources issued when the game begins. The distribution of resources is roughly similar to that of economic resources in the world. Rarely do teams co-operate in this game; often they are unaware of the extent or lack of resources in the other groups. 'War' sometimes breaks out; items are stolen. But in the de-briefing, players quickly realise the cause and effect component of their interactions, and focus clearly on what an ideal solution might have been. They often suggest playing the game again, and comparing the experiences. The fresh image of co-operation and sharing becomes powerfully real.

Simulation games involve players experientially in the learning process. Any assessment of the effectiveness of learning methods highlights the longterm usefulness of experiential learning, of learning by and through experience. In games, players feel the plights of others, and grapple with the social realities which keep others where they are. There are both experiential (playing the game itself) and analytical (de-briefing) investigations into areas of life many would never have an opportunity to understand. Games help to explore and understand the world in which we live, and to raise questions about what it means to be a person of faith in this time, this place, this situation. There is an emphasis on learning together; each player is both teacher and learner. This has a socialising effect, and games are useful for cross-age and cross-culture groupings. Simulation games provide a context for testing perceptions and presuppositions experientially. Most games stress cooperation and consensus-seeking, which, when experienced, provide models to broaden and deepen understandings of human relationships. And, of course, games are fun and have a high degree of self-fulfilment.

The game Crystal Pistol is a good example of experiential learning. Crystal Pistol is the name of a local church youth club's coffee shop. Neighbours in the street have been complaining about cars and noise; restauranteurs in the town, some of them church members and officers, have complained about the effect on their businesses. Players assume the roles of neighbours, business people, the local church governing body, the officers of the youth club, and the young minister of the church (a very difficult role!). Newspaper articles, letters to the editor, and radio broadcasts are scattered throughout the negotiating process of the game. No matter which role a player takes, he or she comes to understand the constraints and feelings of the individual or group represented. No amount of reading or listening to speeches could have quite the same effect.

Simulation games can help people get inside the facts and implications of the biblical message. Games are a useful tool for conveying the social message of Christ, but they can also help in exploring the meaning of Christ, and faith experiences. Players can realise the gospel message through their own experiences. Game situations call for relevant and practical responses; they help people see the effect of their decisions and actions in a fairly rapid way, one not normally possible in real life. In personal and group reflection, they may explore the meaning of these experiences in the light of the gospel. Games often meet the need for personal insight and inspiration, and make vivid that which frustrates and satisfies the yearnings of persons. Games in a specifically biblical framework are limited in number, but many common formats can be adapted to a biblical story or theme. Even if the game doesn't reveal opportunities for Christian content or behaviour, the theological debriefing and reflection can highlight it.

A common game design is the NASA or 'Survival on the moon' exercise. A list of items in a space capsule must be ranked in terms of usefulness for survival on a walk from a crashed capsule to the moon base. I adapted this format for use with the Exodus story. I know much more about the Exodus after playing a game where teams, as Hebrew families, had to choose the essentials for the trip (and gained or lost points depending on the accuracy of their lists against the biblical one - we all forgot Joseph's bones!), but even more, I understand the panic, the fear, the hope, the need to share and the importance of trusting God. I know why Moses didn't feel he could handle the leadership task, and why we rate him as such a great biblical hero because he did lead his people to freedom. Nothing can make me forget that intense personal knowledge of what the Exodus meant to my faith-cousins so long ago.

Simulation games are flexible and almost limitless in use and adaptation. There are shorter games, which can provide climax and reflection within one class period, and longer games for playing over several hours or several days. One game can provide data and input for several hours of reflection and follow-up study. Games can make more rich and complex those things of life and commitment some consider simple, and more understandable and manageable those same things perceived by others to be overwhelming and paralysing. Games can be played by almost all ages, at least from six or so upwards, and are especially enjoyed by cross generational groups. There are games for any number of players, and most are easily adapted to fit the size of your group (though less easy to adapt to fit shorter amounts of time).

Pay off is one of the most flexible games I know. It can be played by any number from four upwards. I once saw seven hundred people play it simultaneously, although they were subdivided in a large room, and there were game assistants working with each sub-group. Playing time is strictly limited to half an hour, and, working on the formula that you ought to spend at least three-quarters as much time on de-briefing as you did in playing the game, the entire process can be completed in one session. But the learning can be built on in many ways:

• exploring ways of creating 'I win/you win' situations;

discussing trust and betrayal;

• using other team building strategies.

It is a particularly apt game for theological reflection.

Simulation games are an excellent medium for initiating theological reflection. Games involve people in human issues which can be discussed and debated. In making sense of the game situation, players increase their abilities to think theologically in the face of a concrete social problem.

Religious educators using simulation games would probably want to include questions such as these in debriefing:

•What does this particular aspect of the human condition mean to us as Christians?

What were the conflicting beliefs and values operating in the game?

• What is the quality and meaning of life to people in this situation?

• What symbols of faith (e.g. redemption, reconciliation, justice, liberation, grace, salvation) bring meaning to this situation?

• How can we respond in faith to this situation?

But new understandings and insights are not enough; motivation must lead to action such as clear-cut goals, next steps, changes in life style. De-briefing/theological reflection must also include the questions:

• What is God's purpose in this situation?

• What is my commitment to that purpose?

Picture, if you will, a group of people arriving for a week-end workshop on simulation games. I suppose they expected to register, put on name tags, and hear some theory before playing a few games. In fact, they arrived to find a large sign which said 'Registration', with an arrow pointing into the building. That was the last English they saw for quite a while. They were issued with numbers and sent into a room decorated with large travel posters of Australia. When their numbers were called, they were issued lengthy, official-looking papers in Italian (these were visa application forms). Eventually, they made their way into a room where immigration counsellors looked at their forms, chastised them severely for mistakes on the forms, and either gave them a passport to complete, or sent them back to complete the visa applications all over again. The passports were in Dutch and German. Many more mistakes were made; players were continually sent back to the admitting office, to start the whole process over again. The immigration counsellors often said, 'Why haven't you learned our language?', or pointed to large signs about the room which obviously said something important but said it in Spanish. Occasionally, players heard the more reassuring 'Not to worry, the immigration officer will sort it out for you'. No one made it through the process without having at least one form torn up or marked unacceptable; all returned to the admitting office at least once.

Eventually they reached the immigration officer, but only after his secretary arbitrarily turned every fifth person away because 'You don't meet our standards for your profession'. Desperate for the promised help, they burst into the officer's sanctuary, only to be greeted by a Welsh-speaking immigration officer.

Once players had completed the immigration process (playing the game took three hours), they were invited into a large room where they watched films in French with no sub-titles while all the game assistants gathered in a corner for a sumptuous coffee break, which players were not invited to share.

These people had been playing Immigrants, and several years later, they still speak to me of the powerful and vivid insights they gained in that game. In the de-briefing, we explored what it felt like to be in the situation, and how much language and a de-personalising attitude affected ability to function. But the most profound learning for us all was how everyone obeyed orders: they queued when told to queue, they sat without complaining until called for, they accepted, albeit with growing fury, the bureaucratic decisions which sent them back to the starting place. No one opted out; no one tried any form of intimidation. Many people said, 'I simply never believed I would be that kind of person. I never thought I would react to authority in such a way.'

The religious educators present at the workshop spent some time exploring what Christian faith might mean in such a situation, both for individuals and for the church in any guise. It was a time of theologising - of thinking through the message of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus in terms of relationships to authority and to others. It became biblical study which had such long-lasting effects that it changed people's lives.

As any other teaching method, simulation games are not a total program. They are useful both for introducing a subject and for summing up learnings at the end of study. They are useful for introducing the experiential component during the study. Chosen wisely, and well prepared, they have much to contribute to religious education.


P. Baker, M-R. Marshall, Using Simulation Games, The Joint Board of Christian Education, Melbourne, 1974.

New Beginnings Games Packet, The Joint Board of Christian Education, Melbourne, 1976.

Youth Action Games Packet, The Joint Board of Christian Education, Melbourne, 1976.

More Simulation Games, The Joint Board of Christian Education, Melbourne, 1977.

D. Benson, Gaming: The Fine Art of Creating Simulation/Learning Games for Religious Education, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1971.

J. Schrank, Using Ganges in Religion Class, Paulist Press, New York, 1973.

D.E. Miller, Using Biblical Simulations, Vols. I and 2, Judson Press, Valley Forge, 1973.

L. McKenzie, Creative Learning for Adults, Twenty-Third Publications, West Mystic, 1977.

P.H. Gillespie, Learning Through Simulation Games, Paulist Press. New York, 1973.