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The Wall Street Bull, located in the financial district of New York City. The world's first completely cruelty-free vegan investment fund starts trading on the stock exchange this month.

The Wall Street Bull, located in the financial district of New York City. The world's first completely cruelty-free vegan investment fund starts trading on the stock exchange this month. (Mike Roy/TNS)

Stock market simulators are a great way to get a feel for what it's really like to trade stocks, whether you want to do that as a full-time job or as a hobby. You can get into virtual trading for free and not risk losing any money, but the real appeal is often the ability to simply track your progress, keep up with some of your favorite stocks and dream a little bit about making outsized returns on your mock portfolio.

Stock simulators come in two main types:

- Stock market games, where you compete with friends or strangers to pick the top-performing stocks within a portfolio you manage. The emphasis is less on trading and more on buy-and-hold investing over the life of the game. Mostly, you're just there to have fun.

- Virtual trading, where you're tracking the market closely and actively trading stocks for virtual profit. These simulators typically use a broker's actual trading platform and get you comfortable with the various tools that are available. For the most part in virtual trading, you're using it as a way to practice real trading and test-drive a platform.

Here are several of the top stock market games and virtual trading platforms available online for those who are interested in getting started.

TOP STOCK MARKET GAMES

Wealthbase is the newest entrant into the world of stock market games, and it's one of the most fun games out there. Wealthbase marries a stock-picking contest with social media, and the result is a match made in heaven. You can create a game, set the rules for playing and then email your friends to join – and you'll have a full virtual contest going in just a few minutes or less. And the game is not limited to desktop, with all the slickness available in a cool mobile app, too.

The game interface is silky smooth – everything loads so quickly – and the social elements make competing more fun. You'll have a live feed of the stocks your rivals are picking, and you can talk a little trash, if that's your thing. End-of-day updates track your progress, while you can use charts and a news feed to stay ahead of your competition. Simply put, Wealthbase makes stock-picking fun.

Investopedia

Investopedia offers a classic take on the stock market game. After signing up for Investopedia's Stock Simulator, you'll get $100,000 to invest in stocks and options, or you can go short or even trade on margin, depending on the kind of game you set up. Entering your trades feels a lot like placing trades at your broker, too, with the same kind of interface.

The stock simulator is useful even if you're not playing the game or are in between games. You can set up watchlists to track your potential picks, and a couple basic stock screens let you sift through the market on some basic criteria. A portfolio page tracks your portfolio's progress and ranks you against the rivals in your game. Tutorials can help you get started, if this is all new to you.

Virtual Stock Exchange

Virtual Stock Exchange is offered by Marketwatch, and it allows you to create your own game or you can join one of the tens of thousands of games that are currently in play.

If you're designing your own game, you can set whether players can trade on margin or short-sell stocks, how long the game lasts and how much virtual money players begin the game with.

You can buy stocks traded on American exchanges, and simply have to type in the ticker symbol to get full details on the company. Players have a page devoted to their portfolio, and they can set up a watchlist to track stocks for later research. This portfolio-building competition is a solid addition to the field.

Motley Fool CAPS

The Motley Fool was founded on the principle of crowd-sourced investment wisdom, and its CAPS service does much the same, allowing you to see why a player has made a pick. Players can write a short pitch for any given stock, and these can be a great tool for sourcing ideas. When you join, you'll be thrown into a giant game with tens of thousands of players, and each entry is ranked according to their performance. Looking for a great stock idea? See what the leaders are buying and why.

CAPS tracks your performance over time, giving you a score based on how well you do relative to other players in the game. It's not about making money so much as about earning points based on whether your pick is right and by how much it beats the stock market overall. But the real value is watching top performers in action and even asking them questions.

TOP VIRTUAL TRADING PLATFORMS AND SIMULATORS

TradeStation

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Become a Member

TradeStation is well-known as a broker for high-volume professional traders, and its virtual platform – called TradeStation Simulator – offers the full features of its real-life trading platform.

After registering online, you can start trading with any amount of virtual money you want. The platform will provide you with details of your day's trades, and you'll see a report of your gains and losses. Another advantage of TradeStation is that you can test out your hunches, creating automated trading strategies and then using the platform's real-time data to validate them.

TD Ameritrade

TD Ameritrade's virtual trading app – paperMoney – puts you in the game with $100,000 in virtual currency, and you'll be working with the broker's highly regarded thinkorswim trading platform right from the start. If you don't already have an account with the broker, you'll have to register to download the platform, but then you're cut loose into the whole suite of tools. If you're not a customer, you'll get 60 days to test-drive everything and see how you like it.

The thinkorswim platform is fully featured, and it's one of the aspects that were highlighted in our comprehensive review of the broker. Besides the tools, you'll get streaming news and can watch markets as well as your watchlist. You can backtest strategies and access technical studies and charting, and you'll find most of the platform's features enabled in the simulator.

Interactive Brokers

Interactive Brokers brings the functionality of its high-caliber trading platform to virtual trading in what it calls its Paper Trading account. You'll start as a high-roller with $1 million in paper money available for trading, and you'll be able to use the broker's full range of trading tools. While the environment is simulated, the market conditions are real, so you can get a feel for how you might respond under the pressure of the real thing.

If there's a downside to the broker's virtual trading simulator, it's that you have to be a customer to give it a go. You'll not only have to open an account, but fund it, too. While that requires a little legwork for using the simulator, Interactive Brokers may be the most popular choice of the pros.

WHY YOU SHOULD USE A STOCK MARKET SIMULATOR

Stock market games and virtual trading really have different purposes and audiences, and they're both well-suited to their aims.

For those looking to have fun and test out a few stock ideas, stock market games make it easy. You can get in the game with your friends, win some virtual money and just generally have a good time. Bragging rights are nice, but it's really about learning and fun.

On the other hand, virtual trading or simulators are for serious traders. Virtual trading is all about testing strategies and evaluating a broker's platform, with the possibility that you might take your business there, if you like what you see. So a broker's virtual trading platform is going to throw you into a real market environment. Sure, the money isn't real but the market quotes are!

Virtual trading can be a great first step into the market, because you can get a feel for how things work. If you make a mistake, it's all just paper money anyway. That gives you a sense of calm that you'll never experience when real money is on the line.

While virtual trading can be useful to find your trading groove, the experience will be more intense and emotional when you're trading with real money and have something to lose. That doesn't minimize the value of starting with virtual trading, however. Just know the limitations.

BOTTOM LINE

Whether you're playing a stock market game or using virtual trading, it's important to remember that they're never quite like the real thing. You'll react differently when you're playing with fake money than when you've got real dough at stake.

So even if you're familiar with how the market works or how a given broker's trading platform operates, it's a good idea to start small and work your way up. You'll always have the opportunity to invest more money at a later time.

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Visit Bankrate online at http://www.bankrate.com.

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