Most of us didn’t fight in World War II, drive a race car, or fly the Space Shuttle. But with simulation, you can experience at least some of what it would be like to do those things. Granted, playing Call of Duty isn’t really the same as going to war. No matter what you are simulating, it only goes so far. However, you can get a lot of value from a simulation. I’d bet the average kid who has played Call of Duty knows more about WWII locales and weapons than my high school history teacher.
When it comes to electronics, simulation is an excellent way to get insight into a circuit’s operation. After all, most circuits operate in the abstract–you can’t look at an audio amplifier and see how it works without a tool like a scope. So simulation, when done well, can be very satisfying. You just have to be careful to remember that it isn’t always as good as the real thing.
One of the best-known electronics simulators is Spice, which Berkeley created in 1973. In its original form, you had to punch cards that described your circuit and the analysis you wanted to perform. Modern PC versions sometimes replace the deck of cards with a text file. The best modern versions, though, give you a GUI that allows you to draw a schematic and then probe it to see the results.
There are several paid and free versions of Spice (and other simulators) that include a GUI. One of the best for a casual user is the free offering from Linear Technology called LTSpice.
Linear makes LTSpice available and populates it with models for their devices in the hopes you’ll buy components from them. However, the software is entirely usable for anything, and it has a powerful set of features. Linear produces the software for Windows, but I can attest that it runs just fine under Wine on Linux. The Web site will invite you to register, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.