MET:Simulation in the Humanities Classroom

From UBC Wiki

This page was originally authored by Lindsey Martin & Kevin Wilnechenko (2011)

Basic Definition

A simulation is content that is based on actual situations. Wikipedia states that a simulation is “the imitation of some real thing, state of affairs, or process. The act of simulating something generally entails representing certain key characteristics or behaviours of a selected physical or abstract system.” (Wikipedia, 2011). Simulations allow a learner to analyze data, problem solve, make decisions, and to study the consequences of the decisions they make. There are two types of simulations, role play and system dynamic simulations. In a Humanities classroom, both types of simulations can be utilized to help students achieve deeper understanding. Adding a technological element, like a computer, will aid in the creation and implementation of simulations as they promote data retention and retrieval of information, while the technological elements foster a more authentic simulation.

Here is a video for you to watch on Simulations in the Humanities classroom:

What the Literature Says

Computer simulations have grown in their use in high school classrooms. They are more advanced than ever, with high level graphics and user-friendly manipulation. Much of the research shows that there is benefit to using simulations in high school classes. Simulations are useful in that they give students a chance to take their learning to a deeper level. Certain interactions between students and a systems/situations are often only possible because of simulations. Attempting to manufacture those interactions any other way would often be impractical; expense and safety become an issue when interacting with the real world (Berson, 1996). In addition, role playing games can conveniently emulate and recreate “vanished environments” of the past or “inaccessible real-world sites” (Thomas, 2004; Wideman et al., 2007). There is an intersection between meaningful interaction and course curriculum.

Studies have shown that students respond well to simulations used in the classroom They experience “increased motivation, intellectual curiosity, a sense of personal control, and perseverance" (Ehman & Glenn, 1991). Students learn best when they are engaged and excited about the content. Simulations help bring the content to life, and this life-giving quality is what makes the desire to learn increase. One example of interactive roll playing simulations in humanities is three-dimensional digital game–based learning (3D-DGBL). This technology provides discovery-based learning to the user and supports situated cognition. In their 2009 article Literary and Historical 3DDigital Game–Based Learning: Design Guidelines, Neville and Shelton discuss the features of 3D-DGBL and what makes it a valuable instructional medium. They claim that affordances exist within 3D-DGBL to:

• develop context-specific problem-solving skills

• provide personally tailored and highly motivational instruction

• promote student-directed learning, free inquiry, and exploration

• support constructivist environments conducive to various forms of social learning

Neveille and Shelton go onto say, “3D-DGBL environments allow students to transcend their own cultural-historical situatedness and become fully and seamlessly immersed in the methods of meaning production simulated in the game world” (Neville & Shelton, 2009). Many of these 3D-DGBL affordances exist within other simulation programs as well.

It should be noted that not all research shows a benefit to using simulations. A 1992 study by Ray and Grimes found that simulations did benefit high and low achieving students, but that they had no significant effect on average students (Berson, 1996). In terms of cost to the institution implementing simulations, there would be an impact due to the training of staff and potential upgrades to existing computers. With some of the research suggesting that simulations make little to no difference on learning, with the cost factored in, some institutions may want to weigh the financial cost with the benefit before incorporating these technologies. With that said, most of the research does support the use of simulations in schools.

Types of Simulations in the Humanities Classroom

Role Playing Simulations

Role Playing simulations include those simulations where students are interacting with a scaled down version of a real-life situation where the student takes on the roles of others as they make decisions and solve problems in the simplified version of the real-life situation. These are excellent simulations for history, politics, law, geography, sociology and other humanities courses. An example of a role playing simulation would be students assuming the role of President Kennedy as he made his decisions regarding the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Role Playing simulation can be enhanced with the use of a computer as it can enhance the authenticity while allowing for more storage and retrieval of information necessary for problem solving or making decisions.

System Dynamic Simulations

System Dynamic simulations are simulations where one experiences a real life situation as it plays out over time. This type of simulation can be used in all aspects of the humanities classroom including geography, law, history, and sociology. This form of simulation allows for the teacher to reflect complex political ideas in a more simplistic fashion in order for students to understand the key concepts. In order to implement a system dynamic simulation, the person requires a computer and software. This software creates a series of feedback loops which are required to make the simulation run, similar to a “choose your own adventure” story. Feedback loops include a balancing loop, reinforcing loop, and a casual loop diagram.

Balancing Loop

A balancing loop keeps equilibrium in a simulation. A balancing loop moves from the current state to a desired state through an action in order to achieve a goal or objective. A great example of a balancing loop is a furnace. As the temperature goes down, the thermostat creates the action of turning on the furnace in order to raise the temperature back to the desired temperature.

Reinforcing Loop

A reinforcing loop has an action that produces a result which influences more of the same action. An example of this is dogs and puppy births. As the puppies are born it ensures more dogs and more dogs produce more puppies.

File:Reinforcing loop.jpg
Reinforcing Loop

Casual Loop Diagram (CLD)

Casual Loop diagrams show the relationships between items. This can have two types of effects either a balancing loop or a reinforcing loop.

File:Casual Loop Diagram.jpg
Opposite Direction
File:Casual loop 2.jpg
Same Direction

How to Use Simulations


When creating or choosing to use a simulation one must think about the grade level and ability. Ask yourself questions regarding the purpose and audience. Bates and Poole (2003) show us the importance of selection in regards to educational technology yet their model can also apply to simulations whether technology is implemented or not. Bates and Poole’s SECTIONS model indicates the following elements when considering implementation:

S – Student appropriate

E – Ease of use

C – Cost structure

T – Teaching and Learning – will it enhance learning

I – Interactivity – does it move the learning beyond viewing and listening

O – Organization – is it feasible and practical

N – Novelty – engagement motivation to play, welcome relief from other instructions methods?

S – Speed – is it quick to implement and update (Bates & Poole, 2003)

Bates and Poole’s SECTIONS model is a great starting point for whether or not someone should consider a certain simulation in the humanities classroom. If you are creating the simulation, a well created simulation simplifies a situation or scenario, but allows for full awareness of the complexity of the system itself.


The implementation process begins with adequate explanations of the objectives for the students. Highlighting the reason for doing the simulation is an effective method to achieve student understanding. When students do not know why they are doing something, often they lose potential for more meaningful learning.

A key element in implementation of a simulation in the humanities classroom is to include periodic discussion during the simulation. This includes general ideas and how they relate to the real world. These periodic discussions allow for more focus, clarity, and understanding of the material.

The role of the teacher during implementation is to observe and coach. The teacher is there to provide clarity should there be any confusion and to guide students in the right direction. This includes scaffolding the material and asking focus or guiding questions during the simulation.

Post Instruction

Post instruction is the most important aspects of the simulation. This provides students the opportunity to apply and synthesize what they learned from the simulation. Students are given the opportunity to share their experiences, assess their own learning, and evaluate their responses to the intended outcomes of the simulation. Post instruction can be done in the form of an informal class discussion, small group discussion, or even written questions after the simulation. Arguments can be made for any of the post instructional methods; therefore it should be based on individual preference.

Examples of Simulations for the Humanities Classroom


1.Civilization III:

Students are required in this game to plan, manage, and compete with other civilizations. Students will learn about system of governments, geography, and about different civilizations historical leaders. This game requires students to use their problem solving skills to build their civilization while learning what cause the rise and fall of empires.

2.Who Killed William Robinson

A great murder mystery surrounding the beginnings of BC settlement. This online site provides information about the real murder or William Robinson. Students must examine the evidence and decide who is the potential murderer. A great resource for both Law courses and Social Studies 10.

3.Cariboo Gold Rush Game

Students are required to stake a claim and successfully mine for gold during the period of the Cariboo Gold Rush. This simulation is online and provides fact regarding costs of equipment, the different stop towns, the Cariboo road and helpful guides. Students must make the best choices for their health, safety, and money. A great addition to the Gold Rush information in Social Studies 10.

4.Age of Empires III:

This game also allows students to learn about the causes of the rise and fall of empires from all over the world. Students are able to strategize based on military, resource development, and expansion.

5.Oregon Trail:

Students will learn what it is like to travel as a western settler. They will understand more about the geography of the Americas while learning about the impact humans have on the environment. This would be great for students studying early American settlement.

6.Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego?:

Just like the old TV show, this classic game showcases many historical events, people, and places. Students will attempt to thwart Carmen Sandiego as she steals relics from history. This will showcase problem solving skills and will help them learn historical facts.


Pharaoh is a strategy game where students are building Egyptian civilizations. The game involves Egyptian mythology, conflicts, leaders, and vocabulary. This would be a great addition to a unit on Egypt.

8.Making History:

Making History is also a strategy game that allows students to work through the time period just before World War Two. Students will make alliances, build weapons, command troops, and manage international relations. Students will understand the impact of their political decisions on diplomacy, aggression, and international relationships. Great simulation for Social Studies 11 or History 12.


1.Age of Mythology:

This game provides students with information on the mythology of ancient Greece. The game requires students to appease the Gods, battle mythical creatures and ensure the survival of the civilization. Some background on mythology is provided in the game. This would be great for a study on ancient Greece or for a course on Comparative Civilizations.

Business & Law

1.Railroad Tycoon II:

This game allows students to learn about the railroads and the basics and running a business. Students could build track, mange resources, and buy and sell companies within a virtual stock market. This game would be perfect for a Entrepreneurial class or Social Studies 10 during the study of the railroad.

2.Trade Empires:

Trade Empires is another fun business simulation. Students will try to create a merchant trading business. Students will learn about economics and business markets. This game is perfect for all Social Studies courses as well as any Business course.

3.Law & Order:

This is a great simulation game that is based on the TV show. In this simulation game students are searching for clues and building a case that will be taken to court. This game allows students to learn about the legal process as well as the ins and outs of the legal system. This game is perfect for Law 12 or Social Studies 11 unit on government and the legal system.

Community & Personal Skills

1.Sim City 4:

This was one of the first simulation games that had widespread success. Sim City allows for students to manage finances, growth, resources in a city. Students can build cities in all types of environments. This games allows students to gain an understanding on human impact on the environment and also how citizen are effected with the growth of a city. This game would be best suited for geography or a sociology course.

2.Sims 2:

Similar to Sim City, students create their own identify where the character interacts with the world. Students will learn about the relationship of education, career success, and interpersonal skills. This game would be ideal for a psychology, sociology, or planning 10 course.

Using PowerPoint to Create Simulations

One method of creating simulation games for classes such as social studies, law, or English, is to create a PowerPoint simulation game. The PowerPoint can have scenarios and decisions to be made by the player which are hyperlinked to a corresponding slide with the result of that decision. An example would be a simulation game where the player is President Kennedy who just found out that the Soviet Union has placed missiles in Cuba and must make the necessary decisions to avoid nuclear annihilation. Tutorials are available to help with the creation of a simulation PowerPoint.View Powerpoint Tutorial

Pictoral Example of a PowerPoint Simulation:

PPT Example 2
Pros and Cons, showing choice
PPT Example 3
example of the consequences
PPT Example 4
File:Cuba 5.jpg
PPT Example 4
File:How to make hyperlink.jpg
How to make a hyperlink

See Also


Simulation for Social Change

Simulation for Software Learning - Corporate

Simulation for Medical Training

Simulation for Science Education

Simulation for Science Dissections

Real-world Applications of Simulations

Role-Play Simulation As A Learning Strategy


Berson, M. (1996) . Effectiveness of computer technology in the social studies: A review of the literature. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 28(4), 486-498. Retrieved from

DeCastell, S., & Jenson, J. (2003). Serious play. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35(6), 649-665.

Neville, D., Shelton, B. (2009). Literary and historical 3D digital game-based learning: Design guidelines. Simulation Gaming, 41, 607-629. doi: 10.1177/1046878108330312

Thomas, W. (2004). Computing and the historical imagination. In S. Schreibman, R. Siemens, & J. Unsworth (Eds.), A companion to digital humanities (pp. 56-68). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Wideman, H., Owston, R., Brown, C., Kushniruk, A., Ho, F., & Pitts, K. (2007). Unpacking the potential of educational gaming: A new tool for gaming research. Simulation & Gaming, 38(1), 10-30.

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