Analysing the Space Sim

In an earlier blog post I pitched a trifecta of frameworks for a critical analysis of the space sim genre of video games. The three frameworks I had chosen were autoethnography, freedom, and immersion. Several weeks later and the goalposts have shifted slightly; I have replaced ‘freedom’ with scale. A simulation of space as a traversable level in a video game by default implicates a colossal distance which must be constructed as a game world, especially relative to other types of video games. ‘Scale’ is a defining feature of the genre, and relates to freedom, and as such will be one of my focuses.

Study of each of the following concepts influences the kind of content I curate and create for my digital media project: the Twitter account for a space sim game I am producing.

Screenshot from our unreleased space sim project, which I prefer not to name at this stage.


Producing a video game in the ‘space sim’ category requires a thorough understanding of the culture of space sim fans; of the experiences they are having and the value they are extracting from those experiences. As a long term lover of space as a narrative setting, and someone who has played just about every space sim game out there, I am in a position to autoethnographically analyse this group of people. By detailing and analysing my personal experiences as a space sim fan, I hope to better understand the experience of space sim fans as a culture (Ellis, Adams & Bochner, 2010). As part of my critical analysis of the genre, I have begun observation of space sim fans and mapped out a field network from which to do so, with the goal of gleaning epiphanies that may be useful for my project. These epiphanies will be contrasted against my own experiences as a member of this culture, establishing a relationship between myself and those I observe (Merriam & Tisdell 2016, pg.137).

I can consider autoethnography in terms of both scale and immersion by observing discussions and experiences relating to either concept, such as this thread on the /r/Starfield subreddit about immersive elements, and comparing it to my own experiences.


In simulating travel between virtual worlds, space sims are invariably of colossal physical scale. Scale relates to spatiality; place. While most video game levels are relatively small (even the large game-worlds of Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed are tiny in comparison to the average space sim), space sims often replicate light-years of playable – albeit empty – space. Elite Dangerous‘ map is 13.8 cubic light years across, with over 400 billion unique star systems simulated. Open-world games in general give players the freedom to express themselves themselves, “free to explore what amounts to an enormous sandbox with no boundaries and few rules.” (Muncy, 2015) Naturally, when the scale of the open-world is increased, this sense of freedom and player agency tends to follows suit.

In space sims, a means of “fast travel” is a necessity due to this scale, whether that be faster-than-light inter-system travel, warp gates or some other method of teleportation between game levels. Computer games, Aarseth (2001) notes, “are allegories of space: they pretend to portray space in ever more realistic ways, but rely on their deviation from reality in order to make the illusion playable.” Extreme travel speeds and methods are space sims primary deviation from reality, and make their scaled-up game spaces playable.


Jennett et al went to great lengths to quantify immersion in games, a term that is commonly used but quite under-defined. The authors argue that immersion is experienced in one moment in time and “involves a lack of awareness of time, a loss of awareness of the real world, involvement and a sense of being in the task environment”. Entering an immersive condition is entering a flow state; a video game player is entirely captivated and unaware of their physical surroundings – they are wholly engrossed in media. Weibel and Wissmath (2011) describe two distinct concepts: spatial presence and flow: “whereas flow can be defined as immersion or involvement in an activity (i.e., the gaming action), presence rather refers to a sense of spatial immersion in a mediated environment.” While flow, I argue, can be experienced through non-gaming media such as a novel or film, presence is unique to first-person experiences.

In space sims, spatial presence relates to the scale of the setting by allowing players to have experiences (traveling vast distances and incredible speeds) they could never have in the real world, fostering feelings of wonder and correlating with my ethnographic observations that many space sim gamers play space sims to experience a fantasy; a genre play.

Flow also relates to scale in that many space sims feature mechanics such as commodity trading and prospecting, where players must traverse long trade routes or explore deep space. Thus they enter immersive flow states which are dependent upon the sense of scale being replicated in the virtual world.

McLuhan (1964, pp. 51-58) describes the process of “autoamputation”, wherein the central nervous system, overstimulated by an increased sensory intake as a result of technology (such as VR headsets simulating a spaceship’s cockpit) numbs itself from the “stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load” brought on by technology. In the example of gaming immersion, the body appears to numb itself to physical sensations and physical presence; experiencing only the game’s “reality”, as a method of protecting itself from sensory overload. When gamers talk about immersion, they are not describing autoamputation? McLuhan saw amputation as a mostly negative effect of technology, thus it’s interesting that today gamers are actually seeking out immersion – a form of self-fulfilling numbness to one’s experience of self.


Aarseth, E 2001, ‘Allegories of space: The question of spatiality in computer games’.

Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2010, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 12(1), Art. 10, < >.

Jennett C, Cox AL, Cairns P, Dhoparee S, Epps A, Tijs T & Walton A 2008, ‘Measuring and defining the experience of immersion in games’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, Volume 66, Issue 9, pp. 641-661, ISSN 1071-581.

McLuhan M 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw-Hill: Canada, pp. 51-58.

Merriam SB & Tisdell, EJ 2016, ‘Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation’ (4th ed.), San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Muncy, J 2015, WIRED, ‘Open-World Games Are Changing the Way We Play’, accessed 21/09/2022, < >.

Weibel, D & Wissmath, B 2011, ‘Immersion in computer games: The role of spatial presence and flow’, International Journal of Computer Games Technology vol. 2011, viewed 20/09/2022, DOI: 10.1155/2011/282345.


2 thoughts on “Analysing the Space Sim

  1. Pingback: Space Sims: Scale, Immersion & Autoethnography | Welcome to the Thunderdome

  2. Pingback: Space Sims: Scale, Immersion & Autoethnography – Game Cultures

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