PTD Original

Exserpico 1: A Master’s Thesis About ‘The Sims’


Simulation offers us the greatest hope of understanding.  When a world, our world, is far too complex to be understood in terms of first principles, that is to say, when the world is too complex for the human mind to build it as a mental construct…  the computer offers us the hope that through simulation we may gain another handle of understanding. – Computer enthusiast “Rafe,” as quoted in Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen (1995: 46)

What follows is an excerpt from the introduction of my MA thesis about The Sims and cultures of simulation. It was written in 2003/2004, before the release of The Sims 2. Six years later, how does it hold up?

What is Simulation?

In its basest form, simulation, a derivative of the Latin simulare, meaning to copy or represent, is an imitation or replication of the appearance, details or conditions of something in a new form.  More thoroughly, simulation in its scientific and technological forms, as I will be using it,

may be taken to mean the process of constructing a pattern, whether structural or operational, responding to another pattern, whether of things, persons, mechanisms or activities, which for some reason is not present or available. (Rapp 1984: 141)

In both definitions, a simulation is essentially a re-creation or re-imagination of something, but importantly, in its scientific and technological forms, a simulation is a re-creation with a functional purpose.  The constructed patterns of simulation can set in motion imitated elements of a system or structure that may be too large, too complex, or too dangerous to activate in its original form, and manipulate them through input and interaction by simulators for experimentation and hypothetical purposes (Rapp 1984: 141-142).  The product of simulation is a model, the functional copy theoretically capable of reproducing the behaviours of the simulated system or pattern.  In a computer simulation, the model is constructed in a virtual matrix composed of binary code and housed within a computer’s hard drive.  “Virtual” in this project refers to that which is not real but might resemble the real.  It acts as a “counterfeit of the real; the virtual has effects by seeming, not being” (Haraway 1992: 324-325).  In computing, the virtual does not have a tangible form (though, importantly, it is still produced by physical machines), therefore, computer generated “virtual realities” are simulations of the real world or real-world experiences that might seem genuine, but are impossible to inhabit corporeally.  This space of virtual reality, or “cyberspace,” is significantly malleable, and therefore has the potential to simulate the most complex systems in existence and, importantly, the most abstract systems imaginable.[1]  The manipulability and representative potential of such spaces have captivated us for over four decades – especially since early graphic displays allowed for visual interpretation of simulated models, both of worldly patterns like cell growth, and patterns of fantasy, such as outer space conflict.[2]

Computer game simulations, according to Will Wright, offer a new paradigm for understanding the world around us (Cult of The Sims 2001).  They provide players with an opportunity to closely examine the social, mechanical and biological systems present in everyday life, and do so on several drastically different scales, from political conquest on a global scale in Civilization (1991), to personal reflection on an intimate scale in The Sims.  While games and playing, like artistic creations, have always reflected the world around us and helped to interpret the intricacies of our being – “the games of a people” writes Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, “reveal a great deal about them” (238) – process toys like computer simulations and role playing games allow for more than reflection and interpretation of the human condition but also participation in its elaborate structures.  According to game theorist Gonzalo Frasca, simulations cannot be fully understood through their output alone.  Their need of input from a simulator sets them apart from more passive media like print and film (2003a: 224). 

What is a Culture of Simulation?

A culture of simulation is a society that prioritizes the output of simulation over that being simulated.  It is a culture where image is positioned over substance to the point where simulated surfaces come to be seen as the chief representations of what is real.  I am describing twenty-first century Western society as a postmodern culture of simulation because of the way its cultural products, technologies, and social ideologies fashion and foster the imagined realness of external images.  This is postmodern[3] in the sense that a constructed surface, something that seems like it should be superficial, is valued more so than the physical substance or elemental truth beneath it.  Frederic Jameson claims that one of the constitutive characteristics of postmodernity is “a new depthlessness which finds its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum” (1984: 58).  While this is perhaps the principal reason for the postmodernity of our Simanity, other technological and economic reasons exist that I will explain later. 

I must first elucidate certain terms that have and will continue to come into play in my analysis of the culture of simulation.  “Surface” refers to a superficial, peripheral façade that provides the appearance of something that is not present, like a building on a movie set that has no backing.  Its binary opposite is “depth,” which refers to something profound, something grounded in actuality whereas surface, or depthlessness, may be grounded in fantasy.  In the 1980s, the surface of AIDS represented a disease that affected only certain people (namely, homosexuals and IV drug users), while in actuality, in “depth,” AIDS holds no prejudice against who it affects. 

A good introduction to the notions of surface and depth, and to our culture of simulation in general, is provided by considering how the concept of beauty works in the West.  Every day millions of people spend millions of dollars trying to conform to certain standards of beauty that are, for the most part, socially constructed and nearly impossible for the average person to attain.  Yet we have made available products and services to help us simulate those standards on the surface.  To name but a few, there’s make-up, Botox, muscle-building protein supplements, teeth-whitening products, bust-increasing Wonderbras, and for the ugliest of ducklings, cosmetic surgery.  These products and services allow us to imitate and indeed assume the behaviours associated with beauty by aestheticizing outward reflections and ultimately ignoring what is below the surface – something Sherry Turkle calls “the simulation aesthetic” (1995: 41).  Jameson (1984) sees this prioritization of surface beauty as “an act of compensation which ends up producing a whole new Utopian realm of the senses, or at least of that supreme sense – sight” (59).  So the reality of beauty in Western postmodernity is of a concept made up of images – images increasingly made fleeting, perpetually changing, and as we will see later, mediated by the workings of late-capitalism.

Despite the fakeness of these simulations, they now hold precedence over many truths of reality.  People generally spend more time on physical appearance than on bodily health maintenance, and our social interactions, romantic relationships, public treatment and even business successes are often governed by surface beauty (Morrison 2004).  According to Sherry Turkle, “people are increasingly comfortable with substituting representations of reality for the real” (1995: 23).  Thus is revealed the philosophy of the culture of simulation: “If it works, it has all the reality it needs” (24).  How does this rethink or compromise our conceptions of what is real and what is simulation?  Even with these few examples dealing with beauty, we can see how socially profound this issue is, but what happens when we inject technology and economics, two circuits of postmodern life that cannot be ignored when discussing the culture of simulation, into the equation?

Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter (2003) describe the postmodernization of culture as a “dazzling cascade of simulations, virtualities, and hyperrealities,” which to them is born in the interplay between social life, technology, and economics (61).  The birth of the digital computer, the primary technological feature of the culture of simulation, was instrumental in establishing the web of productive relations that structure this interplay in postmodernity.  It is the computer that allows for the creation and proliferation of postmodern “depthlessness.”[4]  To clarify, the digital computer is key to our conception of postmodernity given its capacities for depthless quantization.  There is nothing we cannot digitize and represent (simulate?) in digital spaces, from the concept of time to the Dead Sea scrolls to, as The Sims suggests, everyday life (Murray 1997: 27; Wolf 2000: 5).  Sherry Turkle insists that we rely on these simulations more and more as technology advances.  She writes that we use simulation via the computer “to become comfortable with new ways of thinking about evolution, relationships, sexuality, politics, and identity” (1995: 26, 67).  Paul Starr (1994) claims that “Washington [D.C.] is already Sim City,” referring to the way (American) government policies on health care reform and economic growth are shaped or changed according to computer simulated forecasts (20).  Pilots are trained to fly real aircraft and soldiers are trained to go war using digital simulations.  And simulation pervades our lives at very personal levels as well.  Indeed, many of us could not imagine life without ATMs and online banking, computer desktop displays and word processors, or even digital games.

But why do we simulate? And why do we play with simulations, project ourselves into them, and reconstruct our domestic situations within them?  Why turn “life” into something we can play, where even the dirtiest details of everyday existence, right down to having to go to the bathroom, are included? [5]  Most computer simulations provide participants with an uncommon experience that they are not likely to ever undergo in reality, such as flying an experimental fighter jet, or racing an Indy car.  Why a “people simulator,” something that offers an experience that seemingly doesn’t need to be simulated because it always already is for every living person?

It might be just an innate part of being human.  One only has to observe the mimicry of social existence in the make-believe games of children. Imitative play, with its “construction of miniature shared social worlds, and the role-playing that occurs in them,” to quote Mark J.P. Wolf, “seems a natural enough part of human existence” (2000: 174).  The cultural omnipresence of representative toys like dolls and representative spaces like dollhouses lay testament to this.  Domestic imitative play has been around for millennia: “play houses have been discovered dating from Ancient Egypt.  It seems human nature to recreate our domestic surroundings in our play, and [something like] The Sims is created as a natural, and unquestioned, extension of this history” (Flanagan 2003).  We’ve always relied on imitation and representation to understand and explain our realities, domestic or otherwise.  Indeed, it was in imitation (mimesis) that Aristotle insisted poetry, narrative, music and dance – fundamentals of art itself – were born (Poetics I).  Play theorist Johann Huizinga (1955), while admitting that no one knows for sure the specific reason for play, suggests that it might exist to satisfy some innate “imitative instinct” within us (2), and for Huizinga, it isn’t just art that arises out of imitative play, but all of human culture.[6]  

For child development psychologist Jean Piaget (1977), imitative play is not only instinctive but fundamental to healthy human development.  According to Piaget, a young child’s behaviour is always being sanctioned by the rules and interests of adults, and no sense of unique personality can be experienced through the behaviours governed by these external forces.  It is then “indispensable” for children to have access to an “area of activity whose motivation is not adaption to reality, but, on the contrary, assimilation of reality to the self, without coercions or sanctions” (492).  This “assimilation of reality to the self,” or the personal construction of a unique play space, begins with a child’s imitative play, which includes games of make-believe and copy-catting.  It then evolves to include symbolic play with props and toys, and eventually grows to include “games of construction,” where systems or objects of interest are modeled physically, or represented graphically through drawing (493). 

The computer, with its limitless representational capacities and infinite expanse of cyberspace (a virtual construction yard), seems to be a medium very well suited to host Piaget’s games of construction.  That being said, could computer simulation games like The Sims, Black and White, Civilization, and Singles (2004) – or indeed, any computer game, given J.C. Herz’s claim that all video games are simulations of something (1997: 29) – be seen as the next logical evolution in imitative play?  Certainly, the simulations listed above are not programmed with children in mind, but the child’s drive to break free from the rule spaces of external authority mentioned in Piaget is not, of course, absent in adults.  Adults “assimilate reality into the self” as an escape from or a short intermezzo in our often complicated everyday existences (Huizinga 1955: 9; McLuhan 1964: 237).  And elements imitative of day-to-day life aren’t completely foreign to adult play or hobbying either.  While playing “house” may not be a staple of most grown ups (outside of The Sims, of course), many people entertain themselves with simulated stock markets, virtual sports leagues, paint ball combat, war reenactments, etc.  Indeed, what are simulation games like Sim City if not modern interpretations of the model railroad?

Building on the theories of imitative play and simulation presented here, I have categorized our reasons for simulating every day life in virtuality into three related arrangements.  We simulate existence in real-life settings to:

 1.      Structure our fantasies and set in motion imagined alternatives to real life.  Simulations have the capability to generate spaces inspired by fantasy and prearranged to reflect personal or collective ideals.  They allow for customizable projection into the world, with the simulator often made to be in control of situations he or she cannot control in reality.  Simulations provide experimentative, utopic play spaces.

2.      Analyze and gather understanding from the simulated experience.  Like simulations in science or imitation in art, we use fictional models to gain a deeper understanding of the actual world.  Simulations of life provide spaces for learning about ourselves.

3.      However briefly, give order and meaning to “life,” which is usually chaotic and resistant to fundamental meanings.  To its simulator, a play space created in simulation is an ordered, logical space with functional meaning.  Without such attributes, the label “play” would not apply and “real life” would be set back in motion (Huizinga 1955: 1, 11).             

Of course, we have an extensive history of playing with simulated life, and the patterns that shape The Sims, and govern audience reaction to it and its immediate predecessors like Dogz, are found in many other popular simulations of the past.

There’s Life to be Played (With) – A Brief History

In 1860, American lithographer Milton Bradley invented a board game that transformed aspects of everyday existence into the elements of play.  Players of this “Checkered Game of Life,” as Bradley called it, begin at a square labeled “infancy” then use a six-sided top to determine how many spaces they move over a modified checkerboard, trying to land on beneficial spaces like “perseverance” and “matrimony” and avoid detrimental spaces like “gambling” and “intemperance,” all in an attempt to be the first to reach the final space, “happy old age.”  The game was a regional hit, selling tens of thousands of copies and allowing for the establishment of the Milton Bradley game company.  One hundred years later, freelance toy inventor Reuben Klamer was asked to develop a special game to mark Milton Bradley’s centennial anniversary.  Inspired by the company’s first game, Klamer designed The Game of Life, a game that once again turned certain elements of lived existence – getting educated, working, finding love, etc – into the focus of play.  The Game of Life was an immediate North American hit, giving millions of people the opportunity to play with the rudimentary aspects of a lived reality alternate from their own, however generalized and trivial (see “Game of Life: Game History”).

Fast forward to the 1969, a time when humankind is enmeshed in the beginnings of the digital age.  British mathematician John Conway designs what he calls Life, a simulation of cellular automata that would get adapted for the computer by researchers at MIT lead by Edward Fredkin (Turkle 1995: 156).  Conway’s creation is what is referred to as a software toy, an “addictively open-ended model of systemic development designed to be endlessly tinkered with and enjoyed” (Friedman 2004).  From an initial pattern, cells on a grid are rendered “alive” or “dead” (or “active” and “inactive”) depending on the status of adjacent cells.  From these simple rules, very intricate patterns evolve, propagate and die.[7]  Conway’s Life is not alive per se, but it

does capture one of the chief attributes of life – the creation of large patterns as a result of many smaller effects.  Computer simulations like this are tools for thinking about the larger puzzles of existence, such as how anything as soulless as a protein can give rise to something as complex as consciousness. (Murray 1997: 93)

The operations that produce the very means of life, cell formation and proliferation, enter the digital age in the form of a simulation game.  Since its source code has always been available to the public and manipulating the game patterns has always been encouraged, Conway’s Life is probably the “most programmed computer game” in existence (Callahan). 

A quarter century later, Japanese toy company Bandai, apparently aiming to update the pet rock craze of the 1970s, develops Tamagotchi, a virtual pocket pet.  Each egg shaped Tamagotchi unit features a small LCD screen upon which the virtual pet is displayed.  If the pets are cared for (fed, played with, cleaned up after, and loved), they will grow and evolve into mature virtual beings.  If they are neglected, they will deteriorate and eventually die.  Bandai sells nearly forty million Tamagotchi units before discontinuing the product after interest waned in the late nineties (“Tamagotchi Digital Pets”).  Despite Tamagotchi’s fad status, it conveys the virtual pet premise of games like Dogz to the forefront of popular culture, and shows that playing with the basic needs of life in virtual form proves to have enormous entertainment and market potential.

The immediate roots of The Sims are buried in two related types of digital simulation games – management simulations, and virtual pet simulations.  Concerning the former, The Sims is the direct progeny of the successful line of PC simulation games developed by game designer Will Wright.  Wright’s creations, which began with 1989’s classic Sim City, are management simulations – a genre of games in which “players must balance the use of limited resources to build or expand some kind of community, institution or empire” (Wolf 2001: 126).  In a defined virtual space, players are asked to construct and manage an elaborate microcosm – what game critic J.C. Herz calls a “digital terrarium” (1997: 29) – such as an urban metropolis in Sim City, an ant colony in Sim Ant (1991), or a rollercoaster theme park in Sim Coaster (2001).[8]  The expected play of such games involves negotiating strategic trade offs between necessarily oppositional factors to create a functional balance.  For example, the player of Sim City is expected to tactically negotiate pollution levels against needs for heavy industry; the player of Sim Ant is expected to negotiate food accumulation against colony expansion (Wolf 2001: 126).  However, management simulations permit play styles different than those expected by their producers.  The game play of such programs is ultimately determined by the actions of the user.  It is not uncommon for the player of Sim City to construct a metropolis, then relish in its deterioration or destruction.     

Secondly, The Sims also takes a cue from several virtual pet simulation programs such as Dogz (1995), Catz (1996), and Creatures (1997).  These programs simulate in virtuality the lives and behaviour patterns of animals that require real-world human assistance for survival.  For instance, Dogz, developed by game designer Andrew Stern, requires users to interact with simulated puppies that live on the Microsoft Windows desktop.  If the user feeds, trains and cares for these desktop pets properly, they will eventually grow into healthy, happy dogs.  If the user neglects or abuses the pets, they will become aggressive, run away or even die.  

Both management and virtual pet simulations are often referred to as “God games,” a title derived from the deific perspective assumed by players, and the near-omnipotent creative control they are given (Kline, Dyer-Witheford, & de Peuter 2003: 270; Herz 1997: 31).  I say “near-omnipotent” here since control is always limited by the preprogrammed rules, assumptions, and biases of the game’s designers. Players do not have absolute control in computer simulations – I cannot make cars levitate in Sim City, or force my characters to fly in The Sims.  Even in programs like Populous (1989) or Black and White (2001), where players actually assume the role of a god, only actions sanctioned by programmers are possible (Poole 2000: 71).  These preprogrammed structures may limit absolute player freedom in God games (and, indeed, in all video games), but they are far from being detrimental to the enjoyment of virtual pet programs like Dogz or Creatures.  The charm of these programs is that their simulated beings are semi-autonomous.  The virtual pets are, as one reviewer puts it, “intelligent enough to learn but independent enough to misbehave” (Deci 2004).  It is this semi-autonomous behaviour that gives Dogz’ virtual beings their unique personalities, and allows for the formation of genuine affection between players and onscreen pets.  This “raise me, feed me, and love me” relationship between players and the simulated life they interact with is taken to its extreme in The Sims (Frazca 2003b).

Crucial to the successes of these developments is the appeal of using life, its experiences and fundamental biological workings, in the actions of play.  These examples are successful because they absorb elements of day-to-day existence into the imaginative spaces of play – something our Simanity suggests we find intriguing.  But what does it mean to play “life” and play with life, to represent it in the form of a game, or simulate it in such as way that players can amuse themselves with it?  “Life” is not something that can be easily reduced. Some abstraction may be necessary, but what gets included, and what gets left out?  How are the intimate, troublesome and controversial aspects of life represented? Why is the concept of playing life so appealing?  How, if at all, does simulating life affect our living of life, and our notions of reality?  However broad, these are some basic questions under study in this project.  Of course, they will be explored in much greater detail, not with board games, cellular automata or virtual pocket pets, but with what has been called “The Game of Life for the millennium,” The Sims (“Cybertech” 62).

Abstracted Reality

The idea of The Sims apparently stretches back to 1994’s Sim City 2000.  The concept of personalizing the unseen inhabitants of a simulated metropolis is mentioned in that game’s instruction manual: “As you design and build your cities, simulated citizens, known as Sims, move in and build their homes, stores and workplaces, raise their families and invite their friends” (Bremer 1998: 2).  Will Wright had hinted at exploring the intimate lives of these unseen citizens in several mid-nineties interviews:

I’m working on something called Project X.  It lets you zoom further into your city, and it will get into simulating human behavior.  I’ve avoided simulating human behavior in the past because it’s so tough to do, and everyone has an opinion about how human’s [sic] behave – so “errors” are more obvious than if you’re simulating a city or a world.” (quoted in Katz 1996: 198)

Of course, the varying opinions on how humans do (and should) behave are a result of our complexity as conscious social animals.  People are much more complicated than the mechanical workings of an aircraft or race car, and unlike planes or cars, there is no one way for us to work well, so any simulation of something as complex as human behaviour and interaction is going to be essentially trivialized somehow.  It is safe to avow then that the behaviour on display in The Sims is a detailed generalization of reality – an advanced model, but by no means an exact copy.  Given this, it is perhaps better to see The Sims not as a clear-cut representation of human behaviour and everyday life, but as a representative abstraction of those things (Wolf 2003: 64).  To abstract something, in this sense, means “to simplify it, [and reduce] it to a few essentials and basic forms instead of trying to reproduce it” (Wolf 2003: 48).  Whereas traditional representation is often conflated with realism, abstraction can parody, distort, and toy with the norms of reality while still being representational, allowing for The Sims to be an intriguing reflection of everyday life while mixing elements of reality with the fantastic. However, Will Wright is known for striving to understand the fundamental elements of the intricate systems he simulates, and for basing each of his abstractions on treatises of well-known researchers and theoreticians.  For instance, Sim Ant’s framework was built upon the writings of bio-entomologist Edward O. Wilson, and Sim Earth (1990) was inspired by the work of scientist James Lovelock, whose “Gaia thesis” proposes that Earth is a self-regulating mechanism, a notion that provides the backbone of the game (Thompson 2003).  Though Wright’s designs are abstractions of reality, they are still very much based on “real” ideas.[9]   

The Sims is no different.  It is based heavily in social, psychological and economic theory.  The home construction and interior design elements of the game were influenced by architectural theorist Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Landscape: Towns, Buildings, Construction, a work that also influenced how Sim characters interact with and appreciate their homes (Thompson 2003; Brooks 2002: 58).  Based on Alexander’s theories, Sim characters value things like natural light over electric light, and a yard of trees and vegetation rather than concrete and stone.  Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Motivation and Personality provides The Sims with its “hierarchy of needs” which privileges the satisfaction of intuitive needs like bathroom breaks and eating before less urgent needs like entertainment and comfort (Thompson 2003).  Economist David Friedman’s Hidden Order, a book that contends that life is composed of a succession of “quasi-economic” choices, provides the basis for the activity juggling necessary to manage life in The Sims (Thompson 2003).  Finally, “retail anthropologist” Paco Underhill’s Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping provides the paradigm of consumption-as-self-expression for the game. Despite its abstractions and generalizations, all of this makes for what is perhaps the most sophisticated model of human behaviour produced for mass consumption (Thompson 2003).      

But any simulation of human behaviour calls into question what codes of existence are being put into play: The Sims may very well be described as a simulation of everyday life, but the everyday life of the upper-middle class North American suburbanite is much different from the everyday life of the struggling South American coffee farmer, the urban Japanese teenager, or the middle class Indian businessperson.  Everyday lives are governed by different codes and different cultural ideologies.  The life depicted and played in The Sims is anything but neutral.  No matter how the qualities of human behaviour are presented as fundamental in the works by theoreticians above, the considerations of culture and social conditioning cannot be ignored.  The game presents players with an idealized, unabashedly suburban American, unabashedly consumerist set of standards – it is “civilian simulator training for yuppies” (Kline et al. 2003: 276).  Indeed, Wright has admitted that European players have complained about the roads in The Sims’ neighbourhoods – they feel they are too wide, too American (Boal 2000).  He also admits that his Sim City line of games are set in a basic framework of American “capitalistic land value ecology.”  They suit “the development of American cities in the twentieth century” but do not relate to the development of older international cities like Paris or St. Petersburg (Starr 1994: 23).  So we must right away establish that these types of games that claim to simulate life are only representative of one way of life – that of the culture that produced them.  This bias and partiality is an inherent feature of abstracted simulation – we can’t forget that digital simulations are built and designed by people, and not be weary of the assumptions, biases and ideals of programmers that get “buried in the underlying models” (Starr 1994: 19; Friedman 2004).  These are best revealed by examining what gets included in The Sims, and what gets left out.

Off to Never-Neverland

Though The Sims has been praised for its progressive liberalism in simulating nontraditional relationships – within the game, same-sex and polygamous unions can be fostered just as easily as heterosexual or monogamous relations – many other realities of life, even American suburban life, are absent from the game.  Created characters in The Sims do not age.  They do not grow old, go grey, or experience any of the detrimental physical effects associated with aging.  Children in the game never grow up, nor do they experience any sort physical change associated with puberty and adolescence.  In fact, physical change is not possible for any characters in The Sims.  A Sim will never change size or gain weight, regardless of eating habits, inactive behaviour, or exercise.  This is a prime example of the idealization that goes on in digital simulation.  As Chris Horrocks (2000) explains,

There is an important philosophical dimension to discourses of virtuality that underpins the dynamics of immersion and interaction.  The accession to virtuality is analogous to the path-way from the individual and imperfect world to the unified and idealized world of cyberspace. (37)

We already know that the culture of simulation prioritizes ideals in such things as beauty, aestheticizing and covering up the features of our outward appearance deemed “negative.”  The same process is at work in life-simulating programs like The Sims.  Representative of all simulations of reality, it “is laughably clean compared to the infinitely chaotic and messy real world” (Poole 2000: 48).[10]  Besides aging and physical change, several other real-life concerns, deemed as negative, are absent from the game.  There are no mentally or physically disabled Sim characters.  There is no abuse of chemical substances, no expression of child sexuality or under-age romantic desire, no violent crime, no homelessness, and no racial tension.  The country of The Sims, Sim Nation, is a virtual utopia.  The negative aspects of reality are emptied out of its borders, leaving behind a space of sanitized ideals, a kind of virtual Disneyland (see Giroux 1999: 37-40). 

In “The Promises of Monsters,” Donna Haraway (1992) reminds us of the semantic history behind the word “virtual”:

An obsolete meaning of “virtual” [is] having virtue, i.e., the inherent power to produce effects.  “Virtu,” after all, is excellence or merit, and it is still a common meaning of virtue to refer to having efficacy.  The “virtue” of something is its “capacity”(325). 

Seeing a virtual space as a space of virtue may help to explain the idealized nature of virtual spaces like The Sims.

[1] The concept of  “cyberspace,” first theorized under that name by science fiction writer William Gibson in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, is best thought of as a metaphorical playground achieved through what Gibson calls “consensual hallucination” (51).  Mark J.P. Wolf writes, “Like all metaphors, cyberspace is an abstraction, disengaging the social world from the physical world and the mind from the body.  It can mimic the physical world in its design, or it can diverge into other imagined worlds.  For the user, it is a world which one can look into but never be physically present in; and while looking into cyberspace, the user can forget – and often wants to forget – the real physical world around them” (2000: 173).  However, it is important to note that cyberspace is not completely free from the constraints of materiality.  Such virtual spaces are heavily mediated by the physical hardware and software required to construct and run them, not to mention the businesses and industries that strategize and regulate their production and consumption.       

[2] Space conflict was simulated in what is arguably the first video game, Space War, designed in an electrical engineering lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962 (Poole 2000: 29; Herz 1997: 5).

[3] A notoriously allusive or sticky concept, “postmodern” resists simple definition. In the past thirty years, it has come to mean several confusing, different and even contradictory things to many different thinkers (Featherstone 1991: 11).  For my purposes here, I will be using “postmodern” as it is frequently used in socio-economic and socio-technological cultural theory.  In this project, postmodernism basically “refers to a phase of Western history [right now] that coincides with the information revolution and new forms of economic, social, and cultural life” (O’Brien & Szeman 2004: 187).  Another useful definition comes from Frederic Jameson, who terms it “the cultural logic of late capitalism” (1984: 53).  Late capitalism (or information capitalism, postmodern capitalism, etc.) can be understood as the chief economic system organizing Western society today.  It tends to put greater emphasis on the “exchange of information and services (software and banking) as opposed to hard goods (steel or cars),” greatly reducing production costs and therefore increasing net profits (O’Brien & Szeman 2004: 10).

[4] Kline et al. (2003) tie together the dominant economic organization of modernist society, which was based in industrialization, to a rise in mechanical and eventually digital technology.  This new technology, fronted by the computer, is then tied together with the development of new virtual communications, quantization, and information prioritization – all things that usher in late capitalist business practices that move industry out of the factories and into the virtual realities of cyberspace (62-66). 

[5] To be fair, the dirty details of having to go to the bathroom in The Sims are blurred from vision, as is character nudity.

[6] This is obviously a controversial claim with many critics.  However, Huizinga’s insistence that play produces culture permeates his body of work.  He writes, “Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play.  Wisdom and philosophy found expression in words and forms derived from religious contests.  The rules of warfare, and the conventions of noble living were built up on play patterns… [Civilization] does not come from play like a babe detaching from the womb: it arises in and as play and never leaves it” (1995: 173).

[7] Conway’s Life, also known as The Game of Life, was originally theorized for play outside of cyberspace.  On a checkerboard, or any other grid-patterned surface, it is possible to construct the same patterns of cell proliferation as you can generate with a computer, however without the speed and frequency that a computer offers (see Murray 1997:  92, 290; Turkle 1995: 154).

[8] The first of such management simulations designed as a computer game was Hammurabi (1970s), a text-based game programmed in BASIC designed to simulate the political workings of a feudal Mesopotamian kingdom.  Hammurabi required players to adjust tax rates, acquire land, grow crops, and maintain the consolidation of power to ensure the success and growth of the simulated system.  Despite enormous technological advances in the medium, the fundamental elements of Hammurabi – things like the strategic trade off between growth and sustainability – are still reflected in the management sims of today.  (Herz 1997: 9; Poole 2000: 32).

[9] Uri Rapp (1984) argues that simulations frequently express this implicit double meaning, and act as both representation and abstraction.  He writes, “[Simulations] relate to an outside reality by referring to it, according to the experiences of the observer and spectator, and they disrelate to it by enclosing patterns within steadily maintained boundaries” (143).

[10] This may be part of the draw of The Sims.  Sherry Turkle writes, “Some people are captured by virtual worlds that appear to be unsullied by the messiness of the real” (1995: 30).

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 – – – (2000).  Abstracting Reality: Art, Communication, and Cognition in the Digital Age. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.

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One thought on “Exserpico 1: A Master’s Thesis About ‘The Sims’

  1. Indeed a nice written article!. Congratulations.

    Posted by Mr. S | October 11, 2010, 7:57 pm

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