|the international journal of computer game research
volume 1, issue 1
Gonzalo Frasca holds a Master Degree in Information Design and Technology. His research interests focus on videogame design theory and cultural studies. He has worked for Hewlett Packard and CNN, where he was Editor of Science and Technology at CNNenEspañol.com. Currently, he spends his days -and some nights- playing on his computer at the Cartoon Network, where he works as a videogame designer.
He has recently finished his MA thesis "Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a means of critical thinking and debate", that was presented at the Georgia Institute of Technology under the supervision of Dr. Janet Murray. The full text is available at www.jacaranda.org/frasca
by Gonzalo Frasca
Now that you know my little dirty secret, you will understand why I find most fantasy-related videogames quite boring. I have always preferred stories about human affairs and social issues to magic spells and mean dragons. This is why I always salute any attempt to bring human characters to videogames. With such a bias, it is obvious that I had great expectations about The Sims. But even before I start this review, let me spoil its conclusion to you: it does not matter that much if The Sims is a great game or not. The Sims is a landmark in videogame history because it has opened a Pandora's box by replacing the usual troll and sci-fi monster with plain humans. And guess what? Grandmothers and store clerks are way cooler than gnomes and elves.
That being said let me tell you a short story. In October 1999, Andrew Stern introduced "Babyz", his new product, at the Digital Arts and Culture Conference in Atlanta. This was the third installment of a series that included Catz and Dogz. These two virtual pets were actually quite fun, and playing with them was much more rewarding than doing it with Tamagotchi, the Japanese virtual pet that became wildly popular in the mid-nineties. The artificial intelligence behind Babyz seemed to be much more developed than the one implemented in Dogz, but maybe it was just that people might project more brainpower on a virtual human than on a virtual animal.
Stern's presentation went on normally for a while, until the audience started asking questions. Suddenly, the unexpected happened. The questions that people were asking were not about frame rates, levels or secret codes, but about everyday life situations. I remember a couple that was really concerned about the lack of handicapped virtual babyz. Others were a bit concerned about the amount of time that people "wasted" playing with virtual babies while real orphans where starving for affect. I really do not care if the discussion was driven by real concern or political-correctness. The fact was that a game about humans engaged the audience to take a critical look at both the simulation and reality. While this kind of effect is the main goal of artists working in other media (notably Brecht and Boal in drama), this was the first time that I witnessed it to such a degree among videogame players.
It seems that as soon as you simulate human behavior on a computer, things go awry. After all, our culture has several myths to remind mortals that we should not play God (remember to what happened to Doctor Frankenstein after he crafted his creature). In Life on the Screen (1995) Sherry Turkle identifies different kinds of reactions towards simulation. Some people are what she calls "simulation deniers". They simply do not accept simulations, probably because they feel that any simulation is not a completely accurate representation of the system that is being modeled.
Little computer people
When I was about 10 years old, I went to a friend's garage and discovered a quite disturbing scenario: the whole place was taken over by an enormous model featuring four electric trains, with cool details such as small houses and even a little plastic dog. I never got the chance to see the locomotives working, since the owner, my friend's dad, was never around - and for some reason, children simply can not play with grown-up's toys. Maybe it was because of this is that I spent as much time as I could just watching the model and imagining every single possible detail of that fantastic world.
For an external observer, it is impossible to understand why a grown-up would spend hours just watching trains going around. But, of course, that misses the whole point. Will Wright, The Sim's designer, has mentioned in several interviews that his main design strategy was influenced by Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics , particularly the section when McCloud explains how the reader fills in the gaps of what happens between each panel of the illustrated story. Because of this, Sims speak gibberish, and dream and converse by using icons rather than words. Unlike other failed attempts to realistically simulate human life and language, Wright came up with an elegant solution that not only works but also encourages the players to project their thoughts on the cute little computer people.
However, it is important not to project too much onto the game: The Sims is not as much about human relationships as it is about life administration. While the game deals with pleasing your friends or cheating on your partner with your neighbour, the main activities remain managing money, unclogging toilets and doing a lot of cleaning. This is probably the reason that made me stop playing, after a whole week of not being able to turn the computer off and appraising my acquaintances in terms of "neat, outgoing, active, playful and nice". Certainly, it was quite ironic that I spent many days cleaning my virtual house up, while my own apartment was not in, to put it in a nice way, great shape.
The problem of simulating reality is that it can easily become too real. I remember a guy in school who said that he did not like Ultima Online because, after a while, it became the equivalent of "having a lousy job". I felt similarly in The Sims: like an underpaid virtual house maid. The problem is that simulating relationships as the ones portrayed by Chekhov is currently impossible, because, unlike The Sims, they are not based just on actions but also rely heavily on dialogue. Nevertheless, The Sims is still fun enough and should work fine until somebody comes up with a game where players could go through the process of divorce with zillions of different wives or husbands, modifying variables such as age, number of children, economical situation or causes for divorce. I bet that you could learn more about human nature from such a game than from all Ingmar Bergman´s films.
The family album
According to the designers of the game, the family album is a feature that has evolved in an unexpected way. Originally, it was simply intended for allowing players to take snapshots of particular moments in their Sim's lives, and then build a family album that could be easily published online. What the designers did not anticipate was that players would use this feature to craft stories starring their Sims. Suddenly, the family album became a comic book. Most of the stories are quite dull, but there are some exceptions. If you want to check this out by yourself, I suggest starting by the "Ventura Family Album": a story about a woman and her abusive husband.
Creating these family album stories is not an easy task. Since Sims are quite autonomous, the author has to wait until she gets the "right" snapshot to add to the sequence, a job that can be very time-consuming. Unlike other action videogames, where players record their performances on video in order to analyze or show off their skills, the family album storytellers' do not focus on the game itself but use the feature as a narrative tool.
While I understand that the family album option may be compelling to many players; what I would like to see in future versions is a feature that would not only allow to create narrations, but also simulations. In other words, instead of crafting a pre-chewed narrative, I would love to be able to use my Sims to create a small game or simulation that could be played - not viewed- by my fellow players. Instead of simply telling the story of an abusive husband, it would be great if I could define the rules that govern my idea of what an abusive husband is. I would then let him free within a constrained environment so players could experiment with it. Instead of delivering a concrete husband, I would create a potentially violent husband. My view of this situation would not be conveyed through a series of descriptions and events, but through the set of rules that I selected to govern my virtual abuser. Actually, it would be great if other players, who disagreed with my concept of "abusive husband", could modify my code and post their own versions.
One of the most controversial features in The Sims is its consumerist ideology. Literally, the amount of virtual friends that you have depends on the amount of goods that you own (obviously, the bigger your house, the better). Nevertheless, I met some people that firmly believe that The Sims is a parody and, therefore, it is actually a critique of consumerism. Personally, I disagree. While the game is definitively cartoonish, I am not able to find satire within it. Certainly, the game may be making fun of suburban Americans, but since it rewards the player every time she buys new stuff, I do not think this could be considered parody.
This takes us to the fascinating and yet unexplored realm of simulation rhetoric: what are the characteristics of parody in a simulation? Is ergodic parody possible at all? Parody is a genre that works well in representational forms such as narrative, but I am not sure if there is an equivalent in simulation. While traditional representation just mimics characteristics of a referent, simulation also models its behaviors. A movie that makes fun of consumerism just depicts events that are watched by its audience, but a simulation make the players perform those actions and I think this is not quite the same. A parody or not, The Sims is designed in a way that makes it hard to have fun unless you buy a lot of stuff.
One has to be careful when reviewing simulations. Given the current state of development of the field; human and social simulation is at a very early stage and designers must trim down human behavior to make it fit our cute little Pentium III computers. At the "Entertainment in the Interactive Age" conference, Will Wright claimed that while he believed human nature could not be expressed by the five traits that define each Sim (neat, outgoing, active, playful and nice), he had to select just a few characteristics due to time and technical constraints. With such a limited set, the final product will definitively carry the bias of the selected traits.
While the only objection that I would make to the game is its blatant consumerism, this is not The Sims' most important ideological claim. The Sims' most powerful statement is that human life, both on its personal and social levels, can be simulated. Hopefully, more videogames will soon be staged in living rooms and bedrooms instead of in a galaxy, far, far away. And maybe, just maybe, some day videogame advertisements will focus more on ideas than on polygon counts. I am looking forward to seeing that.
Maxis: The Sims. Electronic Arts 2000.
Melbourne House: The Hobbit (ZX Spectrum version). Melbourne House 1982.
Stern, Andrew et al. Babyz. PF.Magic/Mindscape 1999.
Turkle, Sherry: Life on Screen. New York: Simon and Schuster 1995.
Entertainment in the Interactive Age. Conference at University
of Southern California. January 20-30 2001.