Ecologists carry a well-stocked toolbox with a great variety of sampling methods, statistical analyses and modelling tools, and new methods are constantly appearing. Evaluation and optimisation of these methods is crucial to guide methodological choices. Simulating error-free data or taking high-quality data to qualify methods is common practice. Here, we emphasise the methodology of the ‘virtual ecologist’ (VE) approach where simulated data and observer models are used to mimic real species and how they are ‘virtually’ observed. This virtual data is then subjected to statistical analyses and modelling, and the results are evaluated against the ‘true’ simulated data. The VE approach is an intuitive and powerful evaluation framework that allows a quality assessment of sampling protocols, analyses and modelling tools. It works under controlled conditions as well as under consideration of confounding factors such as animal movement and biased observer behaviour. In this review, we promote the approach as a rigorous research tool, and demonstrate its capabilities and practical relevance. We explore past uses of VE in different ecological research fields, where it mainly has been used to test and improve sampling regimes as well as for testing and comparing models, for example species distribution models. We discuss its benefits as well as potential limitations, and provide some practical considerations for designing VE studies. Finally, research fields are identified for which the approach could be useful in the future. We conclude that VE could foster the integration of theoretical and empirical work and stimulate work that goes far beyond sampling methods, leading to new questions, theories, and better mechanistic understanding of ecological systems.