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Vol. 2, Issue 15
March 13, 2000
Livin' With the Sims

An article by theAntiELVIS


Is The Sims the first step toward a virtual life where everyone is Swedish?

Earl Sphincter is sleeping. He was up at the crack of dawn to shower, dress, eat, and catch his ride to work at the Institute. He almost missed work this morning - just before going out the door he broke down, sobbing, overcome by his unbearable loneliness. But Earl has bills to pay, and a 'fridge to stock, and plans to enlarge his home. So squaring his shoulders and choking back his tears, Earl went out to greet the day.

I'm one of those freaks who enjoys shooting the Scientists in Half-Life - mostly just because I know I'm not supposed to. I used to build sprawling urban blight on purpose in SimCity and SimCity 2000, with integrated Crime Zones and Eternal Traffic Jams. Then I'd torch the whole lot and start over. So when I popped-open The Sims my first move was "let's see if this thing will let two mixed-race lesbians adopt kids". So I cover the whole demographic: a young white woman, hip-dresser with a bob and shades, meets older black woman in a sweater with gray hair. I build them a nice little bungalow. I furnish it well. I make sure they are well fed, amused, and clean. And not only do I not get that offer to adopt, these two just totally hate each other.

Six sleepless days and nights later, I have experimented with numerous permutations. A slovenly biker dude and a serious-minded career woman, one black and the other white. No dice. A paunchy balding middle manager, white, and a four-eyed nerd with a pocket protector, brown. Well, at least those two got along. Finally I went for the buff Ken doll lookalike, and a Barbie-esque beauty queen, both white, and guess what? They were falling in love and reproducing in no time. Likewise with a middle-aged small time crook, male, and a middle-aged librarian, female, and both black. Two Asians of similar age: ditto. A pattern began to emerge.

Turning to the manual, in the section entitled "Moving In" on page 56 we read "The Moving In proposition is…available only for same-sex friends. Opposite-sex friends never have Move In available…" Why not? On page 57 under "Marriage", it says: "Only opposite-sex relationships qualify for a proposal of marriage. Marriage is the only means to bring an opposite-sex character into the house to stay". Well, there is currently a controversy going on about same-sex marriages, so maybe Will Wright is just taking a stand here. I can even see a certain game-design reasoning to all this. These two rules control migration of characters through the homes in the neighborhood, and without pretty strict rules for this, you'd quickly end-up with 16 people living in a one-room studio. And I have discovered that with a lot of effort you can get same-sex couples to fall in love, although I still can't get the little schmoes to cross the race line…

I'm playing this game and I'm thinking about stuff that has names like biology, sociology, and psychology. About what elements of similarity in two personalities make people compatible, and what differences make them interesting. And race relations. And what, exactly, is my stand on same-sex marriage? Y'know, I don't think about these things when I play other games.

Polygamy, Death by Fire, and Why the Swedes are so Ornery

The von Prangs of the Prussian nobility immigrated to Sweden after the war, where they established a banking and legal empire in SimCity. Unfortunately the family fortune was squandered on bad laetrile investments in the 1960s, and now young Otto von Prang must make his own way in the world as a security guard on the graveyard shift.

Ultimately, The Sims is about ego. Not those of the little doll-people on the monitor - they don't have any - but about the self-perception of the player. If you're a power freak, it's a god-game, and your sims will rarely exercise their "free will" mode. If you're a builder person, you'll see the lives of the sims as a revenue producing process that lets you build bigger and buy better. So it's an economic/building game. If you're a tyrant sicko you'll build a house with no doors, and move the 'fridge out into the front yard every other day. While sims have a handful of "personality traits" that define their behavior, The Sims has more to say about your personality by placing these fragile virtual lives in your care. How you deal with it says a lot.

At first I identified with the game's animated denizens. They do the same things I do. They go to work, they pay bills, they make dinner, they clean up, they sleep and use the bathroom. And they make and lose friends, fall in love, have fun and get depressed. Tough not to see a bit of ourselves in all this. Okay, I don't go to the bathroom eighteen times a day, nor do I have "accidents" on the living room carpet. And I work a bit more than six hours a day, and if I took every other day off I would definitely get fired. And polygamy is illegal. And I have a car. And I have political and spiritual opinions. And then there's sex - sims don't get any. They hug and kiss and give each other back-rubs a lot. Like the nice part of an EST seminar before they lock you in the little room for two days. It's as if life has been reduced to physical existence, where interaction with objects takes precedence over interaction with people. Sims live their lives in a sort-of valium haze always partially disconnected from their environment. Like the other night Otto had a little problem in the kitchen when the stove caught fire. At one point Otto caught fire. Not only were several visitors completely unaware of Otto's predicament, Otto himself seemed fairly disinterested in the fact that he was consumed in roaring flames. I like to think that if I were doing an impromptu impersonation of the Human Torch, my pals might snag a rug to roll me in.

The French have carved a name for themselves in the depressing minimalist existentialist niche of the Philosophy market. Only the Germans give them any real competition. The Sims has a bit too much humor for it to qualify as really hard-core c'est la vie wrist-slitting existentialism. In fact suicide is just one more of those options a sim doesn't have available. I'd place the life philosophy of the game a little farther North in Scandinavia, probably Sweden. You need a sense of humor to get through the Winters up there, but at the same time, six months of sleet isn't a fertile growth medium for a positivist moral philosophy. Thus the Vikings. But I digress.

The value of the experience of creating a game like The Sims lies in appreciating all those things you had to leave out, like religion and cancer and divorce and death. Only by exploring a concept like "people simulator" within a very narrow feature set can designers and developers explore the foundations of this kind of program. Just as Wolf 3d had to come before Half-Life or Soldier of Fortune, The Sims has to come before Virtual New York. Right now people are building the first truly persistent 3D worlds for online play. I'm sure a few of them are playing with The Sims and rethinking some of their assumptions about what gameplay is. One of these assumptions is that you have to let players kill other players to have a good time. Another is that if gameplay involves thought or problem solving, that's just another kind of "key" to open some sort of "door", to allow the player to run into a room and kill some other people. In real life one thought often leads to another, while the reward for solving a tough problem is generally six or eight even tougher ones. Most people who burst into a room and mercilessly slaughter everyone end up on the news channels. For a little while, anyway.

What's the value in playing a game like The Sims? Besides having your game-playing mind sent in directions it rarely travels, it's fun. What other reason is there to play a game? But if you need a larger context to place things in (and when your game machine costs as much as a small recreational vehicle, a larger context helps), it proves that Real Life™ has commercial potential as entertainment. Television has been onto this for a long time. "Reality" shows are huge ratings wells, sucking in millions of people who may not realize they are having their own lives repackaged and sold back to them. Me, I've been coming home from work for a week and "relaxing" by making sure my sims get off to work on time. The other night I was paying some bills, and I looked up, and Otto was paying his.

Sting, Lassie, The A-Team, and The Message in The Medium

Arletha Lithium is a middle aged waitress who has given up on love. Bitter in her loneliness, Arletha sits in her filthy bungalow and watches television while she waits for her ride to work at the Stuckeys out at exit 39. Arletha only enjoys the Romance channel - there is nothing she would rather do then sit on the couch and watch other people live interesting lives…

As for The Sims itself, its philosophy is clear. Life is about the Three C's: Companionship, Consumption, and The Can. Especially The Can. We're talking 8-bit bladders here. Of course, it could just be that they all eat and drink like rhinos. Life in the Neighborhood is a real Jungian/synchronicity/Sting-concert affair. Just as the fluttering of a butterfly's wings in Tibet causes a tornado in Kansas, a sim needs to make money to buy food to eat and then eliminate to keep living so they can make money to buy food…. And along the way it all gets just unbearably dull, so to keep them interested in the whole process they also need to have comfort and fun, which generally costs money - well, you see where that's going. It's really an American Suburban Commuter Simulator, without the driving. Which only makes the fact that everyone is speaking Swedish that much more confusing.

Here's a telling point. No one has tattoos or piercings. While sims may sport orange hair and a bit of leather, for the most part they are identifiable as yuppies at 1000 yards. Pacifist yuppies, at that. So far I have not seen them murder each other. They can get into some pretty nasty shoving matches, but not so much as a broken arm or bitten-off ear for injuries. They don't own guns. They don't own a lot of things real people own - like cars, businesses, pets (well, the stupid tropical fish), stocks, bonds, mortgages, or even a washer/dryer combo. In fact they seem to have no concept of "laundry", as we know it. This is an interesting alternate reality. Maybe if there had been just a few more degrees Kelvin accumulated before the Big Bang went-off, and so a few more charmed quarks and a few less strange ones in the primordial cake mix, a new physical law would make laundry impossible. Wouldn't that be great?

The point is, sims aren't thinking about the Big Bang. Sims think along the following lines:


So your average sim is just a bit below the collie-dog rung on the intelligence ladder. Sure, they can fetch, but would one swim a river, climb a mountain, cross a desert, and help some nuns along the way while fetching a doctor for your burst appendix, Timmy? No, a sim would just step over your pain-wracked body on his or her way to the refrigerator. They have no moral awareness to guide their actions. That's your job as the player. Moral awareness is something technical people call Hard To Program. Whenever they come across something that falls into the Hard To Program category, they delegate it to the wetware. Personally I would be delighted if Ulysses T. caught Otto in bed with Barbara, and shot them both in a fit of jealous rage. I wouldn't be killing them - another sim would, in a reaction to his environment. But Maxis (wisely) left-out this level of detail because it's Hard To Program, and because they want to sell this game to kids.

Likewise sims are a little blank to the passage of their life because they don't get sick, they don't age, and they don't die unless it's by starvation or fire (which is bad enough, I guess). They have effective immortality. So for them life must be like watching that episode of the A-Team where they visit B.A.'s mom for the 200th time. You know at the end they'll get away in the van. And so it's no wonder a sim would push past a burning friend to get to the bathroom when their peanut-sized bladder is full. Immortality is a pretty selfish thing by definition. It dooms their kids to always being kids (they have to go to school forever).

So what happens when The Sims meets the Quake III:Arena engine on the Internet? Will the dividing line between our real lives and our virtual ones not just blur, but disappear altogether? If that happens, how much of the real world do we take with us into the virtual one? Do we take our laws? Will we worship god in our persistent simulation? Will we need radiation treatments there? And how much will come back the other way, from the virtual life into the real one? Will we become as blank and unaware of each other as my sims are? Will we be happy in an anti-depressant Ken and Barbie world? And how are we going to work Capture The Flag into a world where you score points by maintaining your interpersonal relationships? There are a lot of practical matters to be worked-out.

It may have been Marshal McLuhan, or perhaps his brother Tony, who said something about how the means we use to communicate and express ourselves, provides a form of feedback that in-turn molds our awareness of self, and thus the things we express. Yeah, I'm pretty sure it was Tony that came up with that one. Anyway, if that's the case, and if our future is engulfed in a virtual reality wherein we are all a sort of benign Borg sim, will we become like Otto and his kind: Immortal, bored, and selfish? And how real will it be? When the carpool comes to pick me up, will it really take me to my job off on some other server somewhere? As we squeeze more of ourselves into thought bandwidth, where will the physical us go? Maybe we'll be stripped-down to some pickled-menudo-looking ganglia floating in a jar of tepid gray liquid or something. I'm sure whatever they come up with will cost about twenty bucks a month, and they'll debit your ATM card for it. And it will have lag. And for some cryptic legal reason, your thought uploads will be slower than your thought downloads. Some things never change.


- If the legends are true, theAntiELVIS lives in Gracelessland and spends his time eating anti-peanut butter and banana sandwitches.


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