Tag Archives: The Sims

Simming It Up

I really like The Sims. Always have, ever since I started playing the original game seventeen-odd years ago.

But because I am the way I am, I gotta ask myself why do I like this game?

The premise of The Sims is wonderfully simple: it’s a simulation of life. You create and customize a Sim and then play God with their life, telling them to go to work, eat, fall in love, and so on. Part of the game’s challenge is a sort of resource management: how can you keep your Sim’s needs met so they can be happy. You don’t want them passing out or starving to death, do you?

But it’s quite easy to get into that rhythm, and the game’s sequels have streamlined the process in their iterations (I recall press around The Sims 3 touting that Sims would need less bathroom breaks). It’s really not that difficult to keep your Sims happy and for them to advance in their careers and all that. So the question there is: Now what?

That’s the real beauty of The Sims. You can do anything. In the first game, my focus was on bringing my couple to the top of their career, which was actually pretty tough at the time, given that it entailed keeping needs met and having a large number of friends (to the point that I’d create additional families only for them to befriend my main Sims and facilitate promotions). And building houses, that’s a lot of fun too. Expansion packs made for new (mis)adventures, like adding in pets and hotels, offered new ways for the Sims to do their things.

The Sims 2 added in aging and made child sims less useless, so creating a multigenerational family was a lot of fun. The Sims 3 let you explore the neighborhood in a big way, and now The Sims 4 has streamlined everything a lot, while really refining its mechanics. There’s so much to do.

The thing I really like about The Sims is the ability to construct narratives. But they don’t have to be ones that are explicitly written, rather they can exist all in my head. Right now I’m going for having a Sim outlive five spouses, which is delightfully morbid, but I figure in the process Raina Higginthorpe is gonna have a wonderful relationship with Armin Woghoni, a (not-quite-mad) scientist. Naturally, this has meant building an underground swimming pool and, below that, a secret lab. Oh, and expanding the modes suburban house up a couple floors and building a rocket on the roof. Because why not? And also I like building secret lairs and stuff. And this is The Sims, so I can do this!

Anyway, Raina and Armin have a daughter, Alana, who’s quite close with her father. When he dies in a mysterious case of Pushing The Big Red Button after going to space, she decides that, when she becomes an adult, she’s going to become an intergalactic space ranger, presumably to solve the mystery. None of this is in the text — seriously, it’s all in my head. Raina, meanwhile, is gonna remarry and continue her black widow streak, all while the family as a whole amasses more money and their house starts to look more and more like a castle.

I enjoy the silliness of it all, the process of making a story with very low commitment and all. It’s similar to why I enjoy playing tabletop RPGs, this ability to create a narrative about kinda random events. I suppose I can see this being unappealing if this sort of unstructured play isn’t really your jam when you play video games, but hey, I dig it, and it’s a fine way to spend this vacation.

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In Search of Story

I have spent entirely too much of my life playing The Sims. Seriously, since I was first sent a copy of the game by my cousin in 2002 I’ve logged endless hours in the original game and its sequels. I’ve bought expansion packs and borrowed them from friends.

What I’m saying is I’ve played a lotta Sims.

Now, The Sims is one of those games that there are many ways to play. Personally, I got through my burning/starving/drowning phase relatively quickly (though I do enjoy revisiting it) and moved on to trying to make my Sims as rich as possible. When Sims 2 introduced family trees I’d craft magnificent family ties and recently in Sims 3 I’ve been trying to create some mildly bizarre characters with the intention of forming a dynasty and/or soap opera-esque melodramas.

All this to say, within The Sims I am constantly creating stories. It may be Jack and Tracy falling in love, Paul Tay fathering two dozen children by half as many women, or Hope the firefighter-adventurer fighting fires and adventuring. Within The Sims, a game with ostensibly no real goal. I find myself actively seeking out narrative.

Why?

When you tell someone about the time you ran into Mike Wilson from High School at the grocery store you don’t just say “I ran into Mike Wilson at the grocery store and it was odd.” No, you make it into a story: “So the other day I was at the grocery store [set up], and you won’t believe who I saw [build up]. Mike Wilson from High School [inciting incident]!”

See, story is how we process things. We, as people, naturally want there to be an arc to events. We want the end to be resolved — it’s what the whole notion of getting closure is all about. To this effect, we see narrative everywhere.

Like in sports. According to friends of mine who actually know about these things, a lot of investment in something involves the narrative of the adventure. Look at the recent Women’s World Cup; the US was once again facing Japan in the finals. Where last time Japan won, this time the US were able to pull of a victory. It’s exciting because, for the Americans, there was a comeback narrative. Had the US won the last three World Cups too, another victory wouldn’t have had as much impact as this one did. Even look at the Men’s World Cup, where interest in the US team piqued when, hey, they had a chance of making it to the Round of 16. Suddenly, there was a story to the sport.

Narrative shapes everything. Much of American propaganda in the Cold War had the country presenting itself as the underdogs against the Evil Empire of the Soviets. Because an underdog narrative is far more sympathetic than one of domination. Creating a story around the war inspired patriotism and helped make sense of it all. Just as it’s more interesting for a Sim who’s been having a real lousy go of it to turn their life around, the United States painting itself as the dogged good guys trying to do right legitimized their cause.

Because we want life to make sense. So much of The Sims is about making something happen. Drowning a family is (sociopathic) fun in and of itself, but it’s more fun if you make their best friend watch. There’s a lot more fulfillment to be found in making a Sim pursue a career rather than to hop from job to job (unless there’s a reason for that too). In chaos, be it life, war, or The Sims, there’s a want for order: story gives it that order. Because yes, there is a purpose to slowly starving virtual people.

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Merited Futility

I like playing video games, I really do. I write about them a lot too. Gaming is great: it’s a great form of catharsis, sometimes carries unique stories, and it’s just plain fun.

Which then makes it odd when I say I have trouble justifying gaming. See, it sometimes feels like a waste of time. After all, outside of the magic circle in which gaming takes place, it has no effect on, well, anything. That’s what a game is, isn’t it?

This applies more so to digital games. Physical games, such as sports, have the benefit/excuse of being exercise. At least the guy playing soccer all day is getting a workout. Digital games don’t have that. You’ve seen the gamer stereotype: overweight, friendless, hasn’t seen daylight in a while. Unless you’re a championship DoTA/StarCraft player there’s not much real world application to gaming.

Or is there? Digital gaming is all about problem solving, whether the problem being solved is how to take out that squad of Elites or what’s the best way to use those portals to make that friendly cube land on a red button. It could be argued that these skills could be given real world applications. Everything I know about rocket science I learnt from Kerbal Space Program, for example. Studies have also been done that show that people who play a lot of FPS’s are better at taking in lots of information at once and thus are better drivers, soldiers, and surgeons. Cool.

But this is all minutiae. Rocket science is hardly a useful everyday skill unless you’re a rocket scientist (compared to the running skills built by playing soccer). So where then is the merit of games? Graeme Kirkpatrick thinks that games are aesthetically pleasing. He figured that the movements of the player’s hands translated onto the screen are a sort of dance. The way, for example, an adept player can make Pac-Man spin in place reflects skill and ability. It’s like what a ballerina does, only less feet and balance and more hands and reflex.

I like this argument. It makes gaming sound like it’s, y’know, worthwhile. By this logic video games are like dancing. I can begin to justify spending all day playing a game like FTL because the way I decide how to utilize my ship’s power while ordering my crew about is a dance in and of itself. There’s value there, if only on an aesthetic level. I’m not wasting my time.

But what about a game like The Sims or Kerbal Space Program? There’s not much dancing going on there. Sims just has you clicking about and Kerbal is a lot of mathing than it is epic mid-flight space maneuvers. They lack the need for agility and reflexes that characterize Kirkpatrirck’s dancing. They aren’t dancing, so where’s there value? Kerbal gets the “it’s science!” justification (sometimes, anyway), but what about The Sims? Where’s the value in playing The Sims?

While discussing Kirkpatrick’s idea with a friend, he dismissed my rationale for liking it by pointing out that he didn’t need an excuse to play games. Games — video games — are their own activity and have their own merits. Sure, you’re usually indoors and most of the time you’re alone, but where’s the harm? They’re fun. Like derping around on the internet or watching TV, they’re just another way of fun. Not only that, but beating a game is a valid accomplishment. Spending a couple weekends collecting all the trophies in Uncharted 2 is something. It’s not fair to just write it off; to do it required not only skill but a great deal of patience. And if nothing else, the perseverance to do that is commendable.

So I’ve decided to play games for their own sake. I’m not ‘wasting my time,’ this is what I do. Sure, maybe I’m learning skills in tenacity, problem solving, or rocket science, but importantly it’s fun. I play games because they’re fun. And that’s enough.

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