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Simmin’ the Good Life

By (August 1, 2009) 2 Comments

It feels a little gauche to start off yet another article quoting financial statistics, but I swear it’s not without cause. One of the oft-contested criticisms of video and computer games is that they, like Hollywood, rely primarily on violence for their entertainment value. Whether or not this is true is beyond me to say at this point, and we’ll leave entirely alone the even tetchier subject of the social ills the violence might represent. But, were I to venture onto this explosive topic, I might point out the following: the best selling game franchise of all time could accurately be described as a digital dollhouse.

I speak of Will Wright’s The Sims. For those not familiar, the game centers around the creation of families and households, managing the lives of ‘Sims’ – the game’s simulated people – in their careers and relationships. Like most games designed by Will Wright and the Maxis team, The Sims has no stated goal or conditions for victory. Leading your Sims to success or misery is entirely dependent on the whim and skill of the player; I myself admit to having created a plot called ‘The Pit’ where five ill-fated Sims designed so that their personalities would clash were forced to cohabitate, share a fridge, a single bathroom, and a limited food budget. The results were… grim to say the least. Three burned to death in a tragic food cooking accident, while the remaining two took breaks from mourning their fallen companions to bicker viciously, ending in a fight after which one Sim stormed off, never to be seen again, and the other starved to death.

But, evil experiments aside, most people who play this game do so in order to help achieve their Sims needs and wishes (which I swear I do, Pit aside!). This is a cheerful proposition at face value, but as tough minded critical thinkers we should look closer. If The Sims is in any way a ‘simulation’ of life, what precisely do the designers of the Sims consider the stuff of needs and wishes? Some industry estimates calculate over 100 million copies of The Sims have been sold worldwide since its introduction. Why would such a vision be so compelling to so many people who buy and play these games?

The most common critique of the Sims franchise is that it’s consumer-driven escapism. Happiness in the Sims has usually been directly tied to the quality of the items in a Sim’s house, the value of their furniture and appliances, the beauty of their home. Better items provide better bonuses, fulfill needs more effectively, and as such the answer to most Sims’ woes involves purchasing something new and shiny, be it a more comfortable, stylish couch, or a self-cleaning stove (something I honestly would be pleased to have). Perhaps in answer to this criticism, or perhaps just in the interests of making the simulation at least seem more authentic, later versions of the game include ‘aspirations’ or ‘wishes’, things each Sim strives for personally that are not necessarily linked to money and the things it can buy. This modification, taken either as an answer to criticism or just a step towards more robust simulation, is what the makers proffer as the ‘something else’ of human desire.

This ‘something else’ is our best shot at pinning down the ideology of The Sims. What is above ‘worldly concern’ and the hubbub of the market? What needs motivate the Sims beyond the answering of desires like hunger, sleep, comfort and basic socialization?

In The Sims 3, Lifetime Wishes are the offered substitute; each Sim has one, from the moment they reach maturity. Within the game’s symbolic framework, it represents a Sim’s greatest aspiration, their dearest wish and ambition. They range from becoming ‘CEO of a Mega-Corporation’ to being ‘Super Popular’, meaning your Sim will receive their reward when they acquire an impressive number of friends – or even achieving the status of ‘Chess Legend,’ complete with Sim tournaments.

Of course, the game doesn’t ask you to navigate the actual intricacies of office politics, nor does it require the player to master chess; these things are handled neatly through a variety of tasks and trainable skills the Sims can practice through using game objects or participating in game activities. But as far as aspirations go, becoming a business mogul or a chess grandmaster seems very reasonable, even simple. They are made even more convincing since the choice of lifetime wishes from which the player picks is constrained by the traits previously chosen during the Sim’s creation. A Sim who loves to flirt and romance, for example, will have the option of aspiring to being a ‘Heartbreaker’. The same Sim, if they are also ambitious or a mooch, may want to become a ‘Gold Digger’.

The goals are humorous, of course. This is a game we’re playing, and we can’t forget that there is a purposeful cartoonishness to it all. A common defense is that The Sims parodies modern consumerism, that it is pointedly exaggerated, and this is not without a solid basis. Becoming the CEO of a Mega-Corporation really is as easy as meeting the prerequisites, chess mastery is possible for every Sim. The drudgery of achievement is superficialized, and the odds of complete failure are significantly reduced. But rather than use this cartoonish tone to dismiss serious analysis, I’d rather hone in on it for a little discussion. After all, any worldview is only as good as its philosophical underpinnings, and that handy achievability is at the heart of The Sims. Marxism focuses on the political economy, nationalism on cultural and territorial identity, objectivism on the individual as autonomous merchant. The Sims, if a reading of the Lifetime Wishes is any indicator, focuses on individual mastery and career achievement. There are no limits to a Sim’s success, no interdependence. Whether your happiness is found through money or love, it is attainable and non-exclusive. Everyone in a single household could be CEOs, or Leaders of the Free World. It is, in short, precisely what we are told in grade school. You can be whatever you want to be.

The Sims, therefore, is more than just a consumer paradise. It is a vision of late-stage capitalist utopia, and a remarkably comprehensive one at that. The Sims exist in a world where direct competition barely exists, and economic pressures are present only for the individual, based on individual preferences and choices. Notably lacking are any representations of economic inequalities; there is no ‘slum section’ of a Sim neighborhood. However poorly your design your house, the sun will always shine brightly, the roads will always be paved, and the schools will always be open. Color, gender, and even sexual orientation are blank factors, with no economic or significant gameplay effect. Women can become pregnant, while men cannot, but other than this, the issues that are so divisive in real life, with their grave socio-economic implications, are either harmless or nonexistent. The implications of this can be shocking, and none more shocking than the subject of sexuality.

That video games attack traditional values, promote violence or sexual depravity is a common claim. Yet when Jack Thompson, the ur-anti-video game fanatic, brought charges to bear against The Sims, it was the transparently false claim that the game had anatomically correct models for naked children and was in fact peddling child pornography. This outrage was both overly-excited and off-track. How much easier would it have been for him to rage about the fact that Sims do not differentiate between sexes when romancing one another, an indisputable fact in all three installments of the franchise?

Such a feature could be described as progressive, remarkably so, since rather than having a Sim choose a stable sexual identity, sexuality is entirely contingent, as is race and gender. And this is the fantasy of liberal capitalism, the idea that these entrenched problems will – can – evaporate. Unaddressed, the obstacles that block the promise of full equality in the eyes of the market have vanished in The Sims, and success really is possible for everyone, limited only by personal drive and preference.

This capitalist utopian vision is underscored by the game mechanic behind the wishes, the ‘something else’. The benefits of achieving wishes is not simply an elevation of the Sim’s mood, but additionally the acquisition of ‘lifetime achievement points’, the currency for a second level of economy that can be used to buy useful personal traits or special items. Desire itself has an economy, produces capital. Is this not precisely the message of global ‘individual’ capitalism? We all want the same thing, we are told: happiness. How we get it can be different for each person, and that difference defines who we are, much as the Sims’ traits decide the nature of their wishes, but on a basic level the ‘currency’ of happiness is comparable. This shadow economy has nothing to do with money; it’s the capitalization of desire itself.

Which means that this critique of consumerism in The Sims isn’t merely wrong, it’s blind. More than just a capitalist fantasy, it is the capitalist fantasy, and this accounts for the game’s astonishing success. The game suffers severely from what Ian Bogost, a well-known video game theorist and critic, refers to as ‘simulation fever’, the dissonance that is produced when a simulation necessarily leaves out aspects of reality. Simulation fever, when applied to an ideological construct, points to the objects of difficulty that ideology cannot account for. Even Marx stated that capitalism would help lead to revolution by dissolving traditional dividing lines, that nationality, ethnicity, even gender would be erased by the terrible force of the market; it was a necessary step in history’s progress towards communism. But the promised disintegration never came. Even after the tearing down of any number of legal obstructions to equality, the free market has still failed to distribute wealth meritocratically.

Such bogeys are not issues in The Sims, where resources are limitless and success a question of efficient game-playing. Whether you view this as amazingly progressive, in presenting a coherent image of a world without strife, privation, racism, homophobia, etc., or perceive it as a frightening form of escapism, the feat is actually quite remarkable. I’ve heard any number of people complain, ‘why would you want to play a game about life instead of just living it?’ The answer is simple: you want to play a game about the life you’ve always been promised but have never been able to experience. A life identifiable, relatable to your current one, but cleaner, brighter. Why do people usually choose to be kind to their Sims, to give them everything they want? Because the Sims have a genuine chance at living their dream. We’re stuck playing it.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, video game movies, Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft novel Arthas, and Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming.

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