Signifying Play: The Sims and the Sociology of Interior Designby Charles Paulk
Historically, videogames have had little use for the domestic. In contrast to television, which from its inception reflected workday suburbia back onto itself in family sitcoms like Ozzie and Harriet, the videogame medium has reliably tended toward more fantastical backdrops. When home and hearth have come into play, most often in roleplaying games (RPGs), they have typically been used as a waypoint en route to more dramatic, consequential things. Developers can hardly be faulted for this prejudice; few could have imagined a thriving audience for virtual domesticity. Will Wright, however, did. In the year 2000, the PC-gaming auteur delivered The Sims unto the world, and several million people deemed it good. Here was a game as menial and repetitive as life itself, and its utter dearth of the fantastic perversely served as its hook. The Sims' enigmatic appeal scythed across boundaries of age and gender, winning over jaded, hardcore gamers and, more impressively, vast numbers of those uninitiated or even hostile to the medium. Within two years of release, it had ousted Myst as the bestselling PC game of all time, with sales of US $6.3 million. By 2005, the audience for The Sims and its various expansions had swollen to over 52 million worldwide. The game has been translated into 17 languages, and the franchise has seen life on platforms ranging from the Xbox to mobile phones (Winegarner, 2005). Some six years on, the game has rarely been referred to without the words "groundbreaking" or "cultural phenomenon" in close proximity.
So how did it happen? By all rights, The Sims should have been a commercial disaster. Despite his Midas-touch track record, Wright acknowledges predictions were dire from the get-go: "We had an official product-selection committee, and I gave my spiel to the committee, and they actually rejected it; they thought we couldn't do it" (Becker, 2006). To be sure, the game offers no carjackings or buxom, gun-toting heroines-just regular people, or rough approximations thereof, going about their day-to-day routines. A home is built, a family moves in, and Sim life takes its course. The player's task is one of Taylorist micromanagement, frantically delegating to keep the house in order and its denizens' "need meters" running high. Or, perhaps, not. The trouble with attempting to pinpoint the game's allure is that no two people approach it in quite the same manner. The Sims is nothing if not flexible-as much a digital bin of Lego as a proper videogame-and players are encouraged to experiment. Some coerce their Sims into soap opera narratives, others engineer autobiographical what-if scenarios, and a fair number cook up ever-more elaborate ways to kill off their little creations. In short, people relate to the game in a fascinating variety of ways. Particularly intriguing is that the better part of The Sims' fanbase may have less interest in the Sims themselves than the spaces they inhabit. According to Psychology Today, "most long-term players say designing Sim households is the chief delight of the game" (Thompson, 2003), and indeed, The Sims' construction and interior design aspects are as impressively realized as its "human" element. Players can easily mirror their real-world homes, and the game is designed with this inevitability in mind. From the outset, Wright envisioned The Sims as "a laboratory for understanding not only our personalities, but also our personal spaces" (Thompson, 2003). As I will attempt to demonstrate, this latter application seems increasingly timely.
"Build. Buy. Live." is the tagline of the game, and building is, accordingly, its first priority. Every Sim family the player creates comes flush with 20K in "Simoleans"-the game's too-cute strain of legal tender-that they can use to get their suburbanite lives up and running. A sizable chunk of this must immediately go toward housing. The player can either purchase an undeveloped lot and build from the ground up, or, more impersonally, move the family into a modest, prefab domicile. The price of empty lots increases as square footage increases and is somewhat location-dependent. As in the real world, a view of the river will set the Sims back more than a view of the access road. Though four empty homes are technically available for purchase at the game's outset, only two of these are within a new family's means. The other two are set purposely out of reach, incentivizing consumerist ambition.
Once the property deal has been finalized, the player's task is to either build her Sims a home or tailor the existing residence to better suit her tastes and their needs. Construction is the more costly option, but allows for more creative freedom. The game's "build" mode provides a comprehensive, commendably intuitive architectural toolkit with which to work. Everything from landscaping to window treatments can be manipulated and clicked into place via a user-friendly, icon-based interface. If a room needs a door, the player need only drag and drop. The only great burden the player is saddled with at this stage (apart from the limited budget) is an almost paralytic array of design options. Will it be terracotta tile for the back patio, or grey shale? Will it be tulips or roses? And is it "yea" or "nay" on those wrought iron balustrades? There are 30 different wallpaper patterns to sort through, and 29 different flooring styles. While browsing these wares, one quickly gathers why Celia Pearce (2002) has dubbed The Sims "the IKEA game." Furnishings appear in a catalogue-style menu, each accompanied by a pitch-perfect blurb detailing its relative merits. The "Midlantic tan" brick is "warm and inviting, both inside and out," while the "Westchester Ecru" wallpaper is the answer "when a room just has to say East Coast." Of the Berber carpet the player is advised to "never underestimate the power of neutral tones." And the Monticello windows, well:
The Monticello Federal-style window has narrow proportions with simple casing and slender mullions. Its neo-classical origins transform it into an architectural expression of power, wealth, and influence. It looks well-placed amidst its brethren: the Monticello full-length window and the Monticello door.
Is that sort of elegance worth $110 a pane? As should be clear, the pressures of new home ownership are replicated with an almost sadistic eye for detail. If it is not always fun to fuss over these minutiae, though, it is undeniably compelling. Many early reviews of the game, penned by Mountain Dew-addled males more accustomed to Deathmatch, express dismay at how absorbing the "build" mode can be. As PC Gamer sheepishly confessed: "Playing virtual dollhouse has proven to be one of The Sims' most diverting pursuits, as well as a serious threat to office machismo" (Whitta, 2003).
This blurring of gender roles ranks among the most intriguing aspects of The Sims phenomenon. Videogames have long been cast as an almost purely masculine domain. And not merely masculine, but regressively, tree house macho, trading in lurid, invariably violent adolescent fantasies. In his essay "Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces", Henry Jenkins (1998) equates contemporary platform hero exploits with the "Boys Own" adventure yarns of an earlier age:
Arguably, these images serve the same functions for modern boys as for their 19th century counterparts - allowing an exploration of what it's like to live in our bodies and an expression of distance from maternal regulations. Like the earlier "boy culture,' this scatological imagery sometimes assumes overtly misogynistic form...
This foregrounding of stereotypically male themes and consistent relegation of women to distressed or unsubtly sexualized roles has long amounted to a "No Girls Allowed" sign overhanging the medium. Almost eerily devoid of such bias, The Sims has pulled the neat trick of building a player base evenly split along gender lines, drawing in women without alienating male gamers. Publisher Electronic Arts estimates women could account for up to 60% of Sims players (Bramwell, 2003). Jenkins (2001) praises the game on this point, deeming it "the logical culmination of the Girls Game movement and the beginning of the process of developing a more "gender neutral' playspace". His sentiments have been widely echoed, but for all the justified fuss about millions of women playing a videogame, less often observed is that millions of men are putting aside their Big F*cking Guns (BFGs) to furnish what Wright himself has called "a computerized dollhouse" (Hattori, 2000). It would seem The Sims confounds conventional notions regarding gender-appropriate pursuits in more ways than one. Not only is gaming now safe for the ladies-matching curtains has become increasingly safe for the boys.
This shift is curious, and speaks of a larger trend. Coincidentally or not, the years since The Sims' release have seen a radical democratization of interior design. Previously, the craft was widely perceived as the exclusive domain of flamboyant New York homosexuals with nonspecific European accents who charged $100 an hour to sort through paint swatches with bored Wall Street wives. What little trickled down to Middle America arrived in a much stodgier form-Martha Stewart's holiday handicrafts or the flannel-intensive deck-refinishings of This Old House. Recently, though, all that has changed. Domestic aesthetics have become, in their own right, a "gender-neutral playspace". Weekend design enthusiasts are on course to eclipse foodies as America's premiere subculture of recreational snobbery. The cable dial is clogged with trendy home makeover shows. Reupholstering a sofa now passes for a hip Friday night.
The economic impact of this change has been palpable-home improvement retailer Lowe's has posted record earnings every year since 1999, and shows no signs of slowing (CNN). The chain is nipping at the heels of industry giant The Home Depot, and their growth and competitive strength have been attributed to an emphasis on the more decor-oriented aspects of home renovation (Facenda, 2003). Lowe's has also begun shrewdly courting teens, whose newfound eye for design is perhaps the fad's ultimate validation. A survey conducted by the company found that "this year, more than four in 10 teens will either decorate their bedrooms to make them more personal or ask their parents to spring for a makeover" (Hill, 2003). Teens making their rooms "more personal" is nothing new, of course, but teens scouring the Pottery Barn Kids catalog for the perfect set of curtain rod finials implies paradigm shift.
I'm not sure this trend can be traced to a single catalyst, but the editor of your local Lifestyles page would likely refer you to TLC's cult hit Trading Spaces. A basic cable home-renovation reality show, Trading Spaces reinvents This Old House for the Survivor era, substituting the mousily fetching Paige Davis for hairy old Bob Villa and adding a healthy dose of contrived human drama. In each episode, Paige watches on as two couples, under the tutelage of professional designers, remodel a single room in one another's homes. Neither couple sees the other's handiwork until it is too late, and there is no guarantee the finished product will please. Each show culminates in the big reveal, which can elicit reactions ranging from glee to awkward silence to hot tears of remorse. It is this climactic unveiling/money shot that is Trading Spaces' addictive agent. How will Rick and Cathy respond to their alternative wall treatment? Will it be bliss or poorly masked despair? That the superficial alteration of a room can spur such an emotional catharsis speaks volumes. That 3 million viewers tune in each week to experience it vicariously speaks volumes more.
Predictably, Trading Spaces has spawned a plurality of gimmicky imitators. There is a glut of new shows that portray home renovation as equal parts hip and accessible: ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, TBS' House Rules, USA's House Wars, VH1's Rock the House. The Home and Garden Channel boasts 22 such fixer-upper programs. Even MTV is in on game-their Crib Crashers infuses the genre with so much street cred the word "house" is inadequate to contain it. Many of these shows also endeavor to replicate Trading Spaces' surprise reveal. The device is employed to similar effect in TLC's own While You Were Out and Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, among others. The latter program, in which a quintet of culturally enlightened gay men spruces up both a heterosexual schlub and his squalid abode, is noteworthy in its own right. In pairing the home and cosmetic makeover, the show suggests the former now rivals the latter as consumer society's pre-eminent rite of redemption. At the moment of reveal, the wife/girlfriend is always duly impressed by her mate's newly waxed brows, but the étagère and coral bathroom trim inspire an ecstasy that verges on religious. It is not just transformation-it is transubstantiation.
Though this redecorating renaissance has just now hit its stride, it has been a long time coming. It was arguably anticipated by Jean Baudrillard in The System of Objects (1968), in which he warns we're headed toward "a sociology of interior design." In the book's opening chapter, he describes the changing role of the subject within the domestic sphere:
We are beginning to see what the new model of the home-dweller looks like: "man the interior designer' is neither an owner nor a mere user-rather, he is an active engineer of atmosphere. Space is at his disposal like a kind of distributed system, and by controlling this space he holds sway over all the possible reciprocal relations between the objects therein (p.26).
It is these "relations between objects" that are crucial, for it turns out relations are all objects have left to offer. Here in late capitalist, ought-six America, furniture just does not carry the symbolic weight it once did. A century back, the dining room table really meant something. It spoke of tradition and patriarchal morality, and it brought everyone accordingly into line. What, by comparison, does that $79 IKEA number where you eat your toaster pastry signify? You might have snapped those legs into place yourself, but it unquestionably lacks a certain something. "A certain density, an emotional value-what might be called a "presence'" (p.16).
The modern object has become abstracted-it is no longer an immutable symbol, merely a sign. Mass-produced, mail-ordered and essentially interchangeable with any number of other signs. Baudrillard's use of "syntagmatic calculation" as an occasional synonym for "interior design" underscores the linguistic qualities of the craft. Modern objects comprise a sign system, and like linguistic signs, they only acquire meaning in relation to one another. The project of "man the interior designer" is to assert his place in the social order via strategic manipulation of these signs. The modern dwelling is just the sterile backdrop against which this signifying play takes place. It is not insignificant that the show is called Trading Spaces-just as the dining room table has been supplanted by IKEA, the symbolic weight of the "home" has given way to the abstract neutrality of the "living space." The loft, the condo, the studio apartment-all are just disposable canvases on which "the signs of one's presence can be rearranged and substituted in endless combinations, according to various "lifestyle strategies'" (Levin, 1996, 35).
It would not be difficult to argue The Sims has sped the ascendance of this "sociology of interior design." At the very least, like Trading Spaces and its ilk, the game is a byproduct of the phenomenon, and possibly its most lucid illustration. Consider that many players employ their Sims' home as a testing ground for real-world remodeling projects. For others, lacking the means or resolve to do-it -themselves, the game provides a virtual outlet for domestic signification. As Cindy Poremba (2003) notes: "The use of The Sims to model/recreate personal environments is one of the more popular ways players appropriate the mechanics of the game to create their own meaning" (p.9). An extreme strain of this trend is players who devote more time and effort to maintaining their Sims' living space than their own. Absurd as it may seem, designing a fabulous Sim pad can be a serious commitment. Much has been made of the game's open-endedness-the freedom of the player to do as she sees fit-and to be sure, this freedom is substantial. Suffice to say, though, not all choices are equally rewarded. The Sims are by no means indifferent to the player's decisions, including those countless decorating calls described previously. The most vague and initially bewildering of their fundamental need-meters is something called "Room." One might assume this relates to a desire for personal space, but it is actually a gauge of a Sim's satisfaction with whatever room he or she occupies. In other words, the game posits approval of the décor as a human need ranking up there with food and water. A minor break from Maslow, but entirely in step with Baudrillard, who would argue needs are embedded in consumer goods. In an interesting parallel to the makeover shows' surprise reveal, the Sims respond to design alterations with either childlike glee, or shuffling, iconographic dismay.
To keep the Sims' Room gauges running high, the player must coordinate and maintain their living space effectively. Partly, this involves commonsensical things like providing adequate trash receptacles and remembering to put a door on the bathroom. There's a definite negative correlation between Room scores and the percentage of floor space obscured by festering piles of refuse. Additionally, all Sims share some subtler aesthetic predilections. When it comes to architecture, they prefer spacious rooms, sizable windows, and abundant natural light. That these are features we tend to associate with upper-class homes is not accidental. The Sims, it seems, are hard-wired social climbers. Another commonality the player will note is their obvious preference for high-end designer furnishings over the cheap stuff. This brings us back to the sign function of objects. Baudrillard adds a third term to Marx's classic commodity form-consumer goods not only have a use value and exchange value, but also a sign exchange value. This is the status an object imparts its possessor within a social network. Prefiguring Baudrillard, Henri Lefebvre (1968) explains it thus: "the car is a status symbol, it stands for comfort, power, authority and speed, it is consumed as a sign in addition to its practical use, it is something magic, a denizen of the land of make believe" (p.102). Sign exchange value is the intangible quality of Bruno Maglis that mark their wearer well-heeled. It is that chasm that separates Victoria's Secret cotton panties from a pair of Hanes Her Way. A skillful arrangement of objects is all well and good, but equally important is owning the right objects to begin with. In The Sims, sign exchange value is rendered transparent-it is listed in the catalogue, right below the item's price, and the two are always directly proportional. The "Posture Plus" discount office chair carries a Room-enhancing value of "zero", while the $1,200 "Parisienne" dining chair rates a respectable "three". A Sim can sit in either, but only one provides quantifiable social promotion. "Consumer-goods are not only glorified by signs... consumption is primarily related to these signs and not to the goods themselves" (p. 91).
Beyond this reliable equation of expensive = good, the art of Sim-pleasing design gets murkier and more specific-often startlingly so. Early in my own run at the game, I was fussing over bedroom wallpaper patterns. As if sensing my indecision, a help message appeared in the corner of the screen, informing me the female half of my Sim couple was a Winter, and that I would do well to decorate accordingly. It was a level of aesthetic nuance I had not previously been aware of, even in the real world. From that point forward, I kept close watch for similar subtleties, which often paid off in surprising ways. For example: I had designed my Sims as a romantic couple, and in most respects they played the part. However, they had a mysterious aversion to sharing the same bed. This seemed their only streak of prudishness-nudity ceased to be an issue early on, and they mashed face like teenagers, so I figured they would eventually warm to the idea. Around the same time, I happened to catch an episode of Trading Spaces, in which videogenic design pro Hildi Santo Tomas helped restore romance to a couple's boudoir. One of her amorous design tips was to move the bed away from the wall, making it more inviting and accessible to both parties. Intrigued, I booted up the game and did as Hildi suggested. Almost immediately, my Sim couple was spooning the night away. Whether this was AI at its most refined, or a glaring weak spot, the effect was the same.
Baudrillard (1968) characterizes man the interior designer as "a mental hypochondriac... someone obsessed with the perfect circulation of messages" (p.29). Once fully aware of the subtleties at work in The Sims' design schema, the player may find herself similarly obsessed, endlessly tinkering with furniture themes and arrangements in a quest for virtual Feng Shui harmony. "Everything has to intercommunicate... no more secrets, no more mysteries, everything is organized, therefore everything is clear" (p.29). Baudrillard equates this flow of messages with the human excretory function-just as the latter demands "absolute conductivity in all internal organs" (p.29), the former requires the same from the elements of a room. I grant you, the analogy might seem like quasi-Freudian nonsense-fecal material of the theoretical variety-but install your Sims' toilet in an inappropriate place and watch what piles up.
It is a testament to the singular genius of The Sims that, in an industry even more mimetic and formula-driven than Reality TV, the game has yet to spawn many imitators. To date, the only serious contender for a slice of Wright's pie has been a European-very European-knock-off entitled Singles: Flirt Up Your Life. Released in 2004, it trades on the notion that voyeuristic kicks are the heart of The Sims' appeal, adding full-frontal nudity and polygonal heavy petting to the mix. Though there is a dumbed-down "build" mode, boasting a decent array of trendy furnishings, the game's single-minded emphasis on shagging flatmates puts it more in line with Big Brother than Trading Spaces. The idea of playing to a particular subset of The Sims fanbase is a savvy one, though, and it would be interesting to see a clone that foregrounds interior design as dramatically as Singles does sex.
In the time since the initial writing of this piece, The Sims has been officially superseded by two different titles from developer Maxis-the long-awaited Sims 2, and a painfully hip, console-centric spin-off called The Urbz: Sims in the City. Whether and how these games extend the interior design schema of the original, and the manner in which players have been playing, are obvious avenues for further inquiry. What is certain is that players have been playing. Where home makeover shows have hit a cool spot in the burn cycle of Reality TV, The Sims seems stubbornly immune to the saturation/exhaustion that now plagues the likes of Trading Spaces. In late 2004, The Sims 2 debuted to record-breaking first-week sales, in excess of a million copies. Over a year later, the game remains, alongside its Nightlife expansion pack, a top-ten fixture on the PC sales charts. Worth noting is that Maxis released, almost simultaneously with the game, a free utility called "Homecrafter Plus", enabling players to more easily produce their own custom furnishings. In the virtual dollhouse, at least, signifying play continues apace.
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