From Simulation to Imitation: New Controllers, New Forms of Play


In this paper, we briefly outline some of the early research in the field of digital games and education that attempted to answer the question of what and how people learn from playing games. We then turn to the recent revolution in gameplay controllers (from the classic controller to the touch screen, Wii wand, plastic guitars, microphones, minitennis racquets and plastic drums) to argue that gameplay has only just undergone a significant epistemological shift, one that no longer sees gameplay as the simulation of actions on a screen, but instead enables imitation as the central element of gameplay, perhaps effectively for the first time giving players access to a form of play-based learning relegated to the very young. This radical modification of the way games are played, from simulation to imitation, has already attracted new audiences: in Japan, female players exceed male players on the handheld Nintendo DS, in the U.S. and in Canada and elsewhere seniors’ homes are purchasing the Nintendo Wii (with its suite of sports and fitness games) to encourage residents to exercise, and since December 2007, when Rock Band deftly beat out Guitar Hero as everyone’s favourite game in which players form a band and play using a “guitar”, drums and a microphone as controllers. It has never been so obvious that playing games is not a “solo” act: the player is both acting and acted upon by the technology, and his/her play is very much situated within a broader network of actions, actors and activities which are community-based and supported. The question of what and how players are learning in games has been at the forefront of research on education and gameplay in the last several years when we began to ask what and how people learned from playing commercial entertainment-oriented digital games. Long viewed as artifacts of an “unpopular culture,” particularly by educators and educational theorists, commercial videogames are now recognized as highly effective learning environments where player (as learner) agency is paramount, and where the acquisition of knowledge and competency is infused in engaging and pleasurable play, not a prescribed task (de Castell and Jenson, 2003, 2005; Gee 2003, 2005; Prensky, 2006; Squire, 2002). As such, the primary argument for the paper will be to examine new controllers not as simulative experiences, but as technologies of imitation that support players’ embodied competence, rather than players’ ability to simulate such competence. This hitherto neglected distinction appears to lie at the heart of ubiquitous claims for the power of learning through game-based simulations, and propose that framing inquiry in the terms of what are distinctively meant and offered by simulation and imitation to be a critical conceptual tool for developing theories and practices of digital game-based learning. Whose conflation is at the heart of ubiquitous claims for the power of learning through game-based simulations.