March 13, 2008
The Sims are arguably the most popular human characters ever created in digital media. The game named after them — The Sims (Wright et al, 2000) — is one of the best-selling games ever released, and has produced chart-topping expansion packs, sequels, and ports to new platforms. Perhaps surprisingly, the game is focused entirely on interaction with and between these characters and their environment. There is no shooting, no platform-jumping, no puzzle-solving, and not a single test of speed or agility.
Yet the Sims are incredibly simple characters. They don’t speak except in iconic cartoon images. They can’t be communicated with except by clicking on an object or person and directing them to take some action with regard to it. They are represented with such simple graphics — even for the time of the game’s release — that they convey almost nothing through facial expression and employ only very broad gestures. Most of their actions (whether selected by the player, or by the Sims themselves in “free will” mode) are determined by eight simple measures of their current state, which must be continually maintained so that they don’t fall too low: Hunger, Comfort, Hygiene, Bladder, Energy, Fun, Social, and Room (figure 1.3).
Figure 1.3: A Sim (in The Sims Party Pack on a Macintosh) reads a newspaper standing up. This may help her get a job, but her Needs display shows it’s not particularly comfortable (or fun) for her. In the background, a Dialectric range sits beside the door.
While other media communicate the state of characters through word and gesture and action, the state of the currently-selected Sim is, for much of play, directly visible at the bottom of the screen. A “Needs” display shows the current reading of each of the eight measures and the direction in which it is moving. A simpler “Mood” display shows the overall state of the Sim, presented as a set of green or red bars. Other possible displays reveal the iconic topics in which the Sim most interested (a Sim will gain the most from discussion with those who have similar interests), the current state of the Sim’s interpersonal relationships, five measures of the Sim’s basic personality (Neat, Outgoing, Active, Playful, and Nice), and so on.
In other words, when one begins playing The Sims, the game moves immediately and decisively toward the SimCity effect. While audiences may begin playing with their own ideas of what makes a person, The Sims works quickly to expose what makes a person in its system — eight meters, continually moving in a negative direction, with certain activities able to push back the deterioration of one or more measures. Given their personalities and circumstances, some activities work better for some Sims. And that’s all. But instead of disappointment with the stark simplicity of its characters, which might have occurred had the simplicity remained hidden beneath the surface, this approach has produced a remarkably successful media experience.
Part of this success has come from the tools made available for playing with the Sims indirectly, through alteration of the environment in which they live. The Sims are simple, and the objects that surround them are simple, but the vast number of possible elements and configurations creates an emergent complexity. Further, the differing costs and benefits of particular objects make for a clear progression element and challenge (much like the growth of a SimCity urban area) in a game that has no defined “winning” state or point totals.
Many of the objects in The Sims are physical possessions, located in the homes of the Sims. Each of these — whether a television set, a toilet, a bed, or an oven — is defined by certain information.3 It takes up some amount of physical space, which limits where it can be located. It has a graphical appearance, which often falls along an identifiable design direction. It has a textual description, often amusing, with the ring of parodic catalog copy. For example:
Dialectric Free Standing Range $400
Have you ever been shopping in a traditional appliance store and looked at ovens? The similarities are almost incredible. They all look the same. Like the new Dialectric electric range. The Dialectric makes cooking a snap! Familiar design. SemiTuph heating elements. Grease waiter. Contradiction of opposite heat currents synthesizes a perfect meal . . . every time. Hunger: 5
For some players, an important goal in The Sims is to produce a household with the appearance they desire (one of the reasons Celia Pearce calls The Sims “the Ikea game,” 2004). But all players must consider the information at the bottom of the description of the Dialectric range. “Hunger: 5” is a description of its impact on the simulation, of the power it has to push back the deterioration of the Hunger need meter (the authoring interface for this is shown in figure 1.4). The oven, like other household objects, will “advertise” its potential impacts to nearby Sims, causing them, in free-will mode, to make use of objects that help address their needs. Each object also has a behavior tree which points to the animations necessary for its use, a compartmentalization that simplifies authoring and reduces coherence — as discussed in an earlier chapter.
Figure 1.4: At Will Wright’s company, Maxis, the Edith editor is used for creating objects. Here, Kenneth Forbus and Wright illustrate altering the standard shower from The Sims into a “joy booth” — with Social, Fun, and Mood payoffs (2001, 9).
More expensive objects have stronger positive impacts on the need meters of the Sims. In turn, Sims that leave for work in a better mood perform better in their jobs, leading to promotions, leading to more income, leading to the ability to buy better things, build job skills more effectively, have a bigger house, have more friends over, maintain larger social networks, be happier, perform better at the job, and so on. But there never seems to be enough time. At the start of the game jobs must be found — and then its a challenge just to get the Sims fed, showered, and urinated before the carpool comes to pick them up. If you don’t they’ll never get promoted, and if they miss the carpool they’ll get fired, but the minutes of the day click by far too quickly. It all starts to feel like a very familiar Dialect(r)ic.
Of course, this is what makes the game a challenge to play — and games without challenges don’t tend to be best-sellers. But Wright also considers the game more reflectively, as a comment on our time-stretched lives, and even a parody of consumer culture (Wingfield, 2006).4 Frasca and others are unconvinced (2001).5 The very rules of the simulation enforce the roles of commodity capitalism, so what does it matter if the in-game catalog descriptions, or the game’s designer, poke gentle fun at its structures? Taking the discussion somewhat deeper, McKenzie Wark, in Gamer Theory, points at what might make an idealized representation of capitalism, a game that boils down to surviving the daily grind, so appealing. Wark’s book begins with a question: “Ever get the feeling you’re playing some vast and useless game whose goal you don’t know and whose rules you can’t remember?” After a few related questions the book says to its readers, “Welcome to gamespace.” This sets the stage for Wark’s discussion of The Sims:
The difference between play and its other may have collapsed, but there is still a difference between play within the bounds of an algorithm that works impersonally, the same for everybody, and a gamespace that appears as nothing but an agon for the will to power . . . If it is a choice only between The Sims as a real game and gamespace as a game of the real, the gamer chooses to stay in The Cave and play games. (2007, paragraph 49)
This can be taken further. It is not simply that the Sims, unlike their players, occupy a predictable, transparent, impersonal version of capitalism. This predictability and transparency also extends to their interior, emotional lives. We don’t know what will make us happier. We may think it’s a big-screen television, but that’s probably wrong. Whereas we know exactly what will make a Sim happier, and exactly how, and also why we can’t afford it or have no place to put it, but think maybe if we play for a little more time. . . .
Which is to say, again, that the crucial element of The Sims — what enables its impact — is the work it does to expose the workings of its simulation. Its design is focused on teaching players to understand and operate within the software system. It succeeds in being an experience about human beings in familiar situations because it communicates on its surface precisely the simplicity of its processes and data. It succeeds through the SimCity effect.
The Sims avoids the pitfalls of the Eliza effect by not pretending to model more than it does. It avoids the Tale-Spin effect by exploiting all that is present in its simulation in the audience experience. In doing this it also raises a question, which Janet Murray gestures toward when she writes, “If there is to be a Charles Dickens or Charlotte Brontë of the digital medium, then Will Wright is surely one of his or her key antecedents” (2004, 4). The question is: Can we find similar success with characters more complex than eight mood meters, and fictions more well formed than The Sims’s implied progression through possessions and careers?
3This description is based on lecture notes by Kenneth Forbus and Will Wright (2001).
4From Wingfield’s article:
“Critics have also charged that the game wrongly equates happiness with consumerism, since much of it revolves around buying clothing, furniture and other goods. Mr. Wright has said the game actually parodies such habits. “The Sims’s” more conspicuous consumers spend a lot of time fixing broken refrigerators, tending to malfunctioning cars and otherwise being controlled by their property.”
Alex Galloway, in his book Gaming, goes further — writing that “The Sims is a game that delivers its own political critique up front as part of the gameplay. There is no need for the critic to unpack the game later” (2006).
5Frasca writes that he has met people who “firmly believe that The Sims is a parody and, therefore, it is actually a critique of consumerism. Personally, I disagree. While the game is definitively cartoonish, I am not able to find satire within it. Certainly, the game may be making fun of suburban Americans, but since it rewards the player every time she buys new stuff, I do not think this could be considered parody.”