Silicon Insider: A Perfect (Sim) World

The Sims kind of snuck up on me. I remember watching my oldest playing all the various forms of SimCity — a game which struck me, as a parent, as pleasantly benign, but as a former player, rather static. Still, I thought at the time, better my son is constructing Arcadian landscapes than brain-shooting virtual zombies in arcades.

Thus, when the Sims came along, it scarcely registered with me. The few times I glanced at it, it impressed me unmightily as a kind of digital Brady Bunch, a post-modern Donna Reed Show.

Stiff figures appeared to be moving around a crude (albeit brightly colored) interior floor plan performing various mundane tasks.

I gave it a month. Of course, that’s how long I gave eBay, too.

Two years later, the Sims remains the most popular game in our house. The little guy still sets aside time to ogle Lara Croft, and the oldest makes occasional forays to shoot Nazis in Castle Wolfenstein, but the Sims — now evolved into Sims House Party, Sims Living Large, Sims Hot Date, Sims Vacation, Sims Unleashed, Sims Superstar and Sims On-Line (I vaguely remember handing over credit cards) — still rule.

Recently, I sat down with my 12-year-old and asked him to give me tour of the Sims universe. What I saw was staggering. Not only are there all of those games, but also literally hundreds of other Web sites, each offering, usually for a price, Sims imagery for downloading: furniture, cars, appliances, rugs, windows, roofs, landscape, even famous faces for the characters.

Each day, millions of people either play one of the versions of the game alone on their home computer, or with others on the Internet. In fact, so great are these numbers, and so complex is the Sims universe, that it is hard to call it a game any more. This is a movement; a subculture.

Adding a Layer of Responsibility

So, what gives? Why would such a non-violent, non-hyper, non-Gothic game so appeal to such a sizable percentage of the population?

One answer, I think is the Sims’ philosophy — or more accurately, its ontology. The Sims is very “thingy.” It is, ultimately, more about things than people.

All of those Web sites offering virtual merchandise are a terrific simulation of real, capitalist life. We are all happy consumers, dreaming of the next purchase, working hard to make money to buy those objects of our desire.

In real life, we may never be able to buy that 427 Cobra or the Giacometti or the Noguchi coffee table — but in Simsworld we can, for just a few bucks a month at most, sometimes even for free. And that’s almost as good as having them for real … even better sometimes (no homeowner’s insurance, stained upholstery, broken chair legs)

But acquisition is only the beginning. Because atop that, the Sims adds a second layer of participation: responsibility. The Sims' world isn’t truly static. Events take place, causality rules, and there can be terrible consequences for negligence.

Fire — a reflection of the originator’s own survival of the Oakland Hills Fire — is the biggest threat. Leave the iron on or the oven running and the house will burn down. The characters can die too, though somehow their extinction doesn’t have the metaphysical weight of, say, losing the living room furniture.

Players Become Like Merciful Divinities

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