Why do I love The Sims franchise? It defies logic. I spend my entire “real life” day getting up, showering, brushing my teeth, going to work, and running the kids around. Why do I enjoy logging into my gaming rig to make a little avatar get up, shower, brush his teeth, go to work and raise his kids? Talk about a meta moment.
The $25 Dog
But enjoy it I do, to the point that I often lose track of time as I’m directing my sims through their lives. In fact, I’ve enjoyed The Sims since the original game. I’ve still got the CD ROM around here somewhere. I don’t remember much about the original, and even now some of the features between versions run together in my mind. What I do know is that The Sims 2 is where EA really reeled me in with the way they released all of the expansion packs. How ridiculous is it to charge $25 to add pet animals to the game? I cheated a little bit, though. I bought them from China on eBay and hacked the config files so that they played in English. That saved me at least $10 per “expansion”. You’ve got to give it to EA, they had the DLC model figured out before it was even DL.
Nowadays, I boot into the 3rd iteration of the Sims franchise once or twice a month, when nothing else sounds very appealing. But the question remains: why is the Sims so enjoyable? One thing that’s always fascinated me is computer simulated genetics systems. It’s interesting to see what physical traits and talents are passed from one generation to another. A family with an artistic mother can create a child who becomes a musician. One child might have the hair color of the father, while the other inherits pigmentation from the mother. While probably not the most complex genetic system ever built into a game, I enjoy playing multiple generations and noticing things like traits that are passed from generation to generation.
This fascination with genetics reminds me of a game that I purchased for my old Windows 95 computer back in the late 90’s called Creatures. Creatures was a fascinating life simulator that in many ways was ahead of it’s time. It allowed you to hatch creatures called “norns” into a sandbox world where you could teach them certain behaviors (and even language!) using repetitive positive and negative reinforcement. Supposedly, norns could in turn teach other norns the things that they had learned, with the end-goal being ever-increasingly intelligent generations of creatures. The danger, of course, is that absent of your guidance, the norns tended to make up their own words and behaviors and pass those along as well. The result of which became an increasingly ignorant and chaotic population. I’ll have to admit, I don’t think I ever made it past one or two generations, as teaching a single norn was a very time-consuming process. Thus, an entire family of the furry beasts was nearly unmanageable, especially for someone attempting to juggle a new job and a new wife.
In the Sims 3, I’ve noticed that the Sims themselves have a fairly complex AI. Left to their own devices, a sim will generally take care of its most basic needs. They’ll use the bathroom, feed themselves, bathe (sometimes), and go to work when the carpool arrives. However, they don’t always do these things in the most efficient order, nor do they choose activities that are most beneficial. A sim who is lacking in “fun” may choose to spend time playing a computer game, which simply fulfills the “fun” desire, instead of playing a game of chess, which not only fulfills the “fun” but also awards additional points for logic. In essence, the sim knows how to survive, but not how to live it’s life to the fullest possible extent.
There is a sub-genre of life simulation games called “god games”, a term that seems to have fallen out of favor, somewhat. A god game “casts the player in the position of controlling the game on a large scale, as an entity with divine/supernatural powers, as a great leader, or with no specified character (as in Spore), and places them in charge of a game setting containing autonomous characters to guard and influence” – wikipedia. I wonder if the term has dissipated because of the general discomfort surrounding “playing God” or due to the influence of the many within the gaming culture who do not believe in a deity. Whatever the case, I would almost consider The Sims franchise, and certainly Creatures, god games. While our pixel friends go about their daily minutiae, unaware of all of the events of the larger game and the influence of their actions on that ecosystem, we (the players) know better. We try to influence them to make the best possible decisions, but ultimately when we take our hands off the mouse, it’s up to them to decide. Sure, go repair that dishwasher without first mopping up the standing water. Flirt with that housekeeper while your wife is away at work. I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.
I think god games tap into a couple of things that are embedded deep within the human soul. First is the desire to understand the world around us. This either includes or doesn’t include a creator, depending on your worldview. Assuming that we are open-minded enough to accept the possibility of intelligence behind creation, then we long to understand that intelligence as well. Second, the deep-seeded desire we have to be in control. I might even go as far as to say our desire to be gods. Christians will recognize this desire as original sin, but even if you don’t subscribe to the account of Genesis, evidence of this desire is everywhere. Whether it be to control the world, or just our sock drawer, even the most selfless individual has experienced this desire at some point. Aren’t all competitions about realizing this desire, in the end? Have you ever thought about what “bragging rights” are really all about? I would contend that they are about our desire to be able to definitively say “I/We am/are the best” – “I am god.” Don’t misinterpret me, competition can be healthy. It strengthens us. It forces us to work with others to accomplish a goal. But at the end of the day, why do we pine for that goal, anyway?
Just Keep Simming, Just Keep Simming
It seems that these types of games, while trite on the outside, touch us in a very deep and very real place. Someplace that we have yet to fully define, and yet has a large influence on defining us. For me, the parallels between my beliefs and what the game represents are stark. That’s probably one of the reasons that I struggle to play the part of an evil, vengeful god. To me, that characterization doesn’t even make sense. And so I continue to ponder the relationship and how accurately it is represented on the flat screen monitor before me. I think that’s why I enjoy The Sims.
Or maybe it’s just because they’re so darn cute.