Games and simulations are employed on the basis that learners learn best by doing.
“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.” (Confucius)
“People remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they hear and see, 70% of what they say and write, and 90% of what they say and perform at a task.” (Edgar Dale’s “Cone of Experience”)
Simulations are computer models of reality that allow learners to experiment safely with scenarios that would be too costly or dangerous to create in real life. Games include a competitive element to further encourage learner participation.
Simulations can range from a simple spreadsheet in which learners change certain values and observe the effects in others, right through to fully-immersive three-dimensional virtual reality experiences.
Many useful simulations fall somewhere in-between. Two common technologies used for creating simulations and games are Macromedia Flash and Java applets.
To be effective simulations must be rich enough to fully model the behaviour(s) they are intended to teach. Furthermore they need to be accompanied by sufficient explanation for learners to use them in a useful way rather than treating them as mere games.
By way of example an excellent collection of educational Java applets (on optical microscopy) may be found at Molecular Expressions.