Simulationism does not mean blind reproduction of real-world processes in a game. I have a more nuanced and objective definition of simulationism. Using this conception, we can better understand what I mean by moderate simulationism.
My approach to moderate simulationism is based on a managerial technique employed to some success among Japanese automakers and subsequently many businesses worldwide: The Five Whys.
Take a look at the high-level mechanics in a game and ask “why”—“why does this work?” or “why did this happen?” After drilling down through consecutive “why”s, you reach a point where you have no other answer but “because the devs say so.” This is the point at which there is no further game-level reasoning: you must step out of the rules themselves to answer this “why.” I call this jump to metagame reasoning a “bottom”. It’s the end of whys that are useful to the player when they’re playing the game. Each time you have a successful answer to a “why” question in a chain, the why-level for the mechanic increases by one.
Gamist systems tend towards metagame reasons taking control almost instantly. The rules in a pure gamist system exist primarily because of metagame reasons—all of the rules do, high and low abstraction layers alike. The perfect simulationist game would allow this chain of whys to proceed all the way until you reach the point you would say “well… I don’t know!” in real life.
In virtual world design (which is the primary concern of just about every single MMO) pure gamist systems fail because the game rules become too arbitrary for the players to suspend disbelief and become immersed in the world. The immersion loss is too great to justify the marginal balance improvements a pure gamist system ensures. Pure gamist virtual worlds do exist, though, in the form modern MMORPGs. There are no pure simulationist MMOs because pure simulationist systems are impossible to implement. Limitations on computing power doom pure simulation. Even if the computing power limitations disappeared, thorough simulations routinely become too complex to program and too complex to play. We don’t even have the means to interact with a computer accurately enough for a simulation of such depth to be feasibly usable.
What, then, is moderate simulationism?
Start with a living virtual world. It doesn’t have to be an accurate simulation of some subset of the real world, but it should be a virtual world that sustains its own operation but changes as different agents interact with it. These agents should be AIs to start. Once you have a self-altering world, you define a set of interaction points at which the player can touch the game world—these interaction points manifest in the player character and its capabilities in RPGs. The way that the player character can interact with the world depends on the parameters of the simulation and the natural conditions that arose as the world evolved under the influence of AI agents. The why-levels of most of the key aspects of the game world will now be significantly deeper than they are in modern theme-park (and even further, sandbox) MMOs, but there is still a bedrock of world design principles that are safely below the why-level of the real world.
(Props go to Tales of the Rampant Coyote’s article on making magic less mundane which helped me to better understand the core of simulationism.)