Sim Nation

9 minute read
Lev Grossman

Let’s imagine the most boring video game possible. Instead of crashing spaceships and trigger-happy aliens, you would have suburban houses, leaky faucets and chatty neighbors. Instead of fighting evil, you would do the dishes, watch a little TV, then call it a night. Instead of saving the world, you would be saving for a bigger split-level. It’s the opposite of fun–like an ’80s family sitcom without the jokes or Clark Kent without his secret identity.

Now open your eyes: you’ve just invented the most popular computer game of all time. It’s called The Sims (short for simulation), and the premise is simple. You control an ordinary suburban family. You make them dinner at night and send them to work in the morning. You turn on the TV when they’re bored and put them to bed when they’re tired. Since it debuted in 2000, The Sims has sold 8 million copies in 17 languages and has inspired a devoted fan following. It’s also one of the rare computer games played by more women than men.

Next month, when video-game titan Electronic Arts launches The Sims Online, it will become something more than a game. Using the Internet, The Sims Online will enable millions of individual Sims to live, work and hang out together in a shared virtual world very much like our own. Result: a daring collective social experiment that could tell us some interesting things about who we are as a country. We’re about to witness the birth of Simulation Nation.

The founding father of this brave new world is an affable, bespectacled, 42-year-old polymath named Will Wright. In 1981, after five years of bouncing around three colleges without graduating, Wright decided to try his hand at writing a computer game. He called it Raid on Bungeling Bay. “It was basically a pretty stupid fly-around-in-a-helicopter-and-shoot-people game,” he admits. The object was to fly over various islands and bomb them back to the Stone Age. But Wright became fascinated with these tiny islands. He found himself spending hours giving each one a detailed, working infrastructure–tiny people in tiny factories loading products onto tiny ships. “Pretty soon,” he remembers, “I figured out I was having a lot more fun creating these little islands than I was bombing them.” Eureka: the original Sim. Wright had discovered a new way to have fun.

At the time, the attraction was not readily apparent to many people. After Bungeling Bay, Wright cooked up a game he called SimCity, in which players took on the role of mayor of a complex, realistic miniature metropolis, complete with crime, garbage trucks, power plants and a temperamental populace. SimCity was a complex system that required constant, careful tweaking to keep it in equilibrium. This activity doesn’t instantly register as “fun”–in fact, at first blush it sounds suspiciously similar to “work.” When he showed it to publishers, they said, “But how do you win? There’s no win-lose!”

What they didn’t get is that there are some games that you don’t play to win. You just play to play. In fact, Wright’s games don’t end; they just keep going. Wright ended up starting his own company and publishing SimCity himself in 1989. It became an instant best seller, earning him some very real, nonsimulated cash.

When Wright created The Sims in 2000, he narrowed his focus to a single suburban family wrestling with the everyday demands of job, family, housework and personal hygiene. On paper it sounds hopelessly soporific, the video-game equivalent of a Warhol movie, but the response from players was seismic. Counting its various add-on packs, The Sims franchise has sold almost 20 million units.

The game’s genius lies in exactly what should have made it a flop: its mundanity. Instead of transporting players to another place and time, it offers them familiar, everyday situations. The object of the game, to the extent that it has one, is to keep your Sims–your digital alter egos–well fed, solvent, healthy, entertained and, in short, happy. The game never formally ends: you can keep on living your simulated life as long as you like.

But in the hands of its legions of devotees, the game has become an expressive language they can use to tell stories about their own lives. Briar Sauro, 27, a school librarian in Brooklyn, N.Y., readily admits to having a “slight Sims obsession,” i.e., on a good day she limits herself to two or three hours. “It can take up my whole evening. I don’t do anything else.” She experiments with using The Sims to “re-create real-life interpersonal relationships.” Sauro has created an entire Sims world full of her actual friends and family. “The first year I had the game, we were all having affairs with one another’s spouses,” she says. “When the Sims get jealous, they slap each other. There was a lot of slapping.”

Sometimes things get even more serious. Elizabeth Powell, 56, a retired nurse, took up the game after her husband died. She made little Sims versions of herself and her husband to help her work through her grief. “I could still be with him psychologically, even though I understood the reality,” she says. “To many of us, it is more than just a game. We don’t just play The Sims; we express ourselves and our lives with real emotions, situations and interactions.” Wright believes that it helps people understand their own lives: “You start to see patterns you don’t when you’re living. It takes all the messy grayness of real life and makes it bright and shiny.”

When The Sims Online launches in December, the private dramas of the Sims will emerge on a much larger stage. Instead of Simming alone on their computers, players will connect to central servers over the Internet, where their Sims will coexist and interact in a shared three-dimensional virtual world. In The Sims Online, each player will control a character who lives with, talks to and works for other Sims, all of whom will be controlled by other players, all living together in simulated cities in a simulated country on the Internet. In effect, it’s a vast virtual society built from the state of nature up.

To live in that virtual world there is a one-time fee of $49.95 for the software, and the player-inhabitants of The Sims Online will then fork over $9.95 a month for access to its servers. Based on pre-orders, Electronic Arts expects to have “hundreds of thousands” of subscribers at launch.

Experiencing The Sims Online is less like playing a game than taking part in an open-ended community theater production, where the dialogue is improvised, the theme is modern life and the star is you. As in the original game, players control the behavior of their characters by choosing from menus of actions and interactions. (Unlike in The Sims, they can also type messages to one another in real time.) The primary goal is similar to the original as well–you want your Sim to be happy–but there’s a new emphasis on making friends and setting up a successful business, like a coffeehouse or a nightclub. If other people like your business, you’ll make more money and more friends.

Life in this Simerica has a dreamlike quality: the elements are familiar but scrambled. In a typical session you may walk into a stranger’s home in the middle of the night, grab a shower in the bathroom (never mind that his wife is using the toilet), practice the piano for a while, then start making and selling pizzas out of your host’s kitchen. In the trial beta version of the game, which currently has around 35,000 participants, Wright plays a Sim who is the proprietor of a lounge located in a submarine. It’s called Das Love Boat (he describes it, not very helpfully, as “a German U-boat with a romantic-comedy theme.”)

But it’s not all surreal chaos. To a greater extent than the original game, The Sims Online has built-in group activities to encourage people to get together and socialize. It’s built right into the simulated psychology. Call it “simbiosis”: your Sim won’t be happy if it’s not hanging out with other Sims. In The Sims Online, nice guys really do finish first. “We’re giving the players a blank slate, a blank world,” says Wright. “We want people to try to build a large, diverse world, so we’re tailoring our reward structures to encourage the kind of world people will want to be in.” You can see the outlines of a fantasy America emerging, one that’s touchingly utopian and crassly commercial at the same time.

Not that Wright is opposed to making a buck or two in the real world. The Sims Online belongs to an emerging category of computer games that use the Internet to put players into a three-dimensional shared virtual world. These games can be ferociously addictive: the most successful example of the genre, Sony’s Everquest, is known to its player-inhabitants as “Evercrack.”

Wright’s real challenge will be to expand beyond the nerdy niche of hard-core gamers that currently constitutes his audience and start attracting the mainstream. To do that, he’ll have to overcome the, shall we say, stigma still attached to computer games and the people who play them. “It’s like watching somebody watch television,” says Wright. “Until you have the controller in your hand, it’s hard to understand the appeal.” But he’s confident that in the next decade, as more and more people grow up playing video games, they will take their rightful place beside books and movies as a form of recognized mass entertainment.

And why shouldn’t they? The Sims Online might be exactly what America needs right now: a virtual sandbox where we can play out our fantasies and confront our fears about what America might become. “One of our long-term goals is that we want to see the players evolve their own governance,” says Wright. “We’re going to let the whole thing grow from the bottom up, see what the players want. As structures get larger and larger, we’ll give them more and more power.” And you thought midterm elections were interesting. Can we look forward to electing a virtual President of Simerica? “Or a committee?” Wright muses. “Or a dictator? It will be interesting to see if people replay history or come up with something new.” –With reporting by Sora Song

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