Silicon Insider: A Perfect (Sim) World

— Sitting here at the keyboard, waiting for the next computer virus or worm to kill my computer, the mind tends toward thoughts of a better world.

My friend Bob always offers a left-handed defense of hackers. He says they play a crucial role in the ecology of the Web; that it is really the fault of software companies for not designing sufficiently robust products. “Every system needs its predators,” he says.

Perhaps so, but something tells me that if a blood test determined that Bob had a W. Bancrofti nematode infestation, he’d be begging for every medicine on Earth to kill the damn things before he got elephantiasis … and he wouldn’t accept an argument from the doctor that he had been insufficiently diligent in preventing such an attack.

Maybe the best solution to this whole problem is to use the civil courts. Class action suits — against the software makers whenever negligence can be shown, and against the little weasels who perpetrate this stuff.

Not just short prison terms, immediately followed by a high-paying job as a computer consultant. How about if we add a class action judgment, brought on behalf of 75 million victims for, say, $3 billion — plus another $5 million for that baby you killed in Omaha when you crashed the hospital fetal monitoring system?

Go ahead and take that consulting job: we’ll garnish every paycheck you get, forever. And attach every piece of electronic equipment you buy. And drive the folks who sold you your equipment into Chapter 11, and everyone who ever helped you into poverty. Did we mention that mom and dad are wiped out too? They’ll be spending their retirement with you in your new abandoned station wagon home.

But that will never happen. And so I dream on about a more perfect world.

An Unexpected Oasis of Domesticity

In fact there is such a world, and, ironically, it resides on the Web — The Sims.

I looked at the Sims pretty carefully when it first came out. Here, after all, was something new in the computer game world.

I’d been following computer games from their inception — played the moon landing game on the giant NASA mainframes in the 1960s, saw (and played) Bushnell’s first Pong game at Andy Capp’s Pub, and even tried out the first Atari home player before it was introduced.

I watched the computer game business rise and fall … and then miraculously rise again.

Like most adults, I drifted away from the game world — the real-life game of Silicon Valley was more than enough to keep me engaged 24/7 — only to be brought back a dozen years later by the birth of my kids. Through them I learned of the third generation of gaming.

Over the last six years, through my little surrogates, I’ve explored the panoply of modern gaming, from the renewal of my acquaintance with the Mario Brothers, currently residing on my 6-year-old’s GameBoy, into the darker worlds of Half-Life, Counterstrike and Unreal Tournament visited by my 12-year-old. And from there into the even murkier world of on-line gaming.

As with movies, life for my wife and I is a perpetual battle to keep from my oldest from sneaking into R-rated experiences, and my youngest from experiencing what his older brother is already allowed to see.

Yet, in the middle of this dreary landscape of murder, mayhem, and mythical beasts there is this unexpected oasis of domesticity called the Sims. And its enormous success I think says something very telling about being a child in the Internet Age.

Not a Game, But a Subculture

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

This sense of responsibility sneaks up on the average player. From what I’ve seen, the standard evolution of a Sims player is to begin as a curious player, just trying to make things work. Then you become an Avenging Angel, the great anarchist, lobbing missiles into the living room or drowning the kids or torching one of the bedrooms.

Finally, once you get the chaos out of your system, you enter into your Sims metaphysical stage, which apparently goes on almost indefinitely. Here you become a merciful divinity, kind of like a Roman household god, gently watching over your mortal wards, constructing for them a world in your own image — or at least the image of your own material desires.

But shouldn’t this grow old rather quickly?

I asked my oldest, who currently has the attention span of cocker spaniel puppy, why he spends so many hours building and filling houses on the Sims, usually without any human inhabitants at all.

“Because,” he replied, “It’s like building a perfect world. The world you’d like to live in if you could.”

I think I understand. In the last couple years, the real world has taken a turn down a very scary path. When the news each day offers the latest set of terrors, when the music you listen to celebrates chaos and decay, and when your heroes prove to not only have feet of clay but souls of coal, it must be very pleasant indeed to visit your little handmade Utopia and see behind the pixels your own better world.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised.