the artistry and psychology of gaming

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The Sims

The Sims

I’ve always been a bit of a tomboy. Shopping sees me break out in nervous sweats; foundation is something you lay down before you build a house, not something you slap on your face, and shoes are for wearing and not collecting. This is reflected in my choice of games; action adventure, horror, FPS, I am not in to games marketed at women, especially as I believe that the ‘girl gamer’ is not a demographic; we’re simply girls who enjoy gaming and we have as diverse a range of interest as the male gamers. But something I’ve always had in common with my ovary buddies is The Sims. I can play it for hours and never get bored, the pull is irresistible. Before my computer exploded in a fit of virusy rage, it was my go to game whenever I felt a little overwhelmed with work. Yes I know it’s counterintuitive but the frequency with which I went on The Sims was inversely proportional to how far away my deadline was. It is a very cathartic game.

I was first introduced to The Sims by a friend of mine on a play date when we were about 9. This was when I had already discovered the majesty of Spyro on the PlayStation 1 and that killing things with fire was super fun. Unsurprisingly, as soon as I got on to The Sims, my main objective was to try and kill them. But my friend stopped me in horror, explaining to me that I was going about it all wrong. This wasn’t about killing your sims, this was about nurturing them through life, raising them and customising them, tending to their needs and helping them achieve their goals. I didn’t get it. Not at all. And I didn’t get it for a few hours but she guided me through it, doling out the disapproving looks when I removed the pool ladder until I felt guilty enough to return it. Helping me direct my sims to bed so they didn’t collapse in the hallway and irritate all their family members. And then something amazing happened; two hours in and I started to care. I suddenly cared about these pixel people, I wanted to nurture them and let them enjoy themselves. I wanted them to work hard to earn money so they could but the things they needed. I didn’t want to kill them any more, I would have missed them. I was hooked.

Then The Sims 2 came out and the step up from 1 to 2 was phenomenal; in terms of a sequel, it was incredible what they managed to achieve. Suddenly you could have children that were actually babies and that you had to raise to adult hood; the sims now has life time aspirations and wants and needs that contributed to them. This added so many reasons to be attached to your sims; you’d watched them grow up, you’d shape their personality and invest time in achieving their goals, getting them their dream job or swimming pool. This particularly appealed to me because like your more traditional game, there were goals to accomplish and rewards to be gained. In terms of AI, the sims’ personalities did feel very distinct and even though on the surface it just seems like your usual simulation game, the level of variety and randomness they managed to achieve was astounding, as well as the addition of genetics and familial bonds. The developers were also very savvy in the additional features they added beyond that of family simulation. They added comprehensive building capabilities to the game to draw in a whole new demographic of architects and building enthusiast. There were many players, men and women alike who purchased the game primarily to take advantage of the house building capabilities and extensive decorating options. Team that with a phenomenal online presence and custom content making abilities and you were on to a winner.

The graphics really are amazing in the new Sims 3 and the building capabilities unlimited.

For many women, The Sims is a game they could truly become involved in. It is highly immersive; you become wrapped up in the lives of your pixel people. It takes the idea of customization to the extreme and this is where it succeeds. Customization, as I’ve mentioned many times before, is key to a game achieving success within the female demographic. The Sims is the most thoroughly expansive and complete customization experience you can have in a video game these days. You can choose every aspect of their face, their hairstyle, their name, their job and of course their clothes. Women enjoyed choosing male sims as well, because the level of customization was still so high that they felt very much in control and very close to the ‘action’ regardless of the gender. There is literally no end to the level of customization available due to the incredible online presence and the huge range of content developed by normal players every day. If you can think of it, it’s available; like Rule 34 only less disturbing. And if it’s not available, you can create it yourself or request its creation. The Sims is very much a community game; the solidarity is also a very attractive draw. You’re never far from thousands of people who share your passion and who will aid you with all aspects of the game, from technical difficulties, to helping you find certain features (there are so many thousands within the game that it is very easy to go years without finding them), to teaching you how to create your own content for the game. Simming is a shared experience.

As I’ve said before, The Sims is a building tool, but it’s also a story telling tool. Since it first began, people have been using the in-game screenshot camera to set up scenes and write stories to go with them or even to go the extra mile and record movies. They’ve ranged from dramas, to horrors to romances and even witty accounts of everyday experiences within that sim family. The possibilities are endless and this ties in with the idea of customization; it isn’t just the sims themselves that can be customized, but the way you play the game is entirely up to you, it’s an entirely creative medium; if you want to live our your fantasies, you can create sims of yourself and live a normal life. If you want to build remarkable houses, all the building tools are there along with thousands of wallpapers and design features. If you want to tell stories with elaborate sets and interesting characters, you have the perfect visual tool to achieve that. No two people will play the game in the same way; it’s truly a personal experience but with a strong sense of solidarity between all players, regardless of their style.

There is undoubtedly the emotional connection forged as well, which particularly resonates with female players. Psychologically it has been proven that men derive enjoyment from the visual aspect of games alone whereas for women, this often needs to be accompanied with an emotional link too. Yours sims become characters within your story, and the same way in which we become attached to John Marston while playing Red Dead Redemption, so too do we become attached to these sims but on a much longer lasting scale. The effect is heightened by how much input you have into their lives and the way in which you can shape their future. Also, just achieving a specific goal or ‘winning’ is not a great enough incentive for many women to play games, however, in The Sims, you cannot really win or lose. In a sense, ‘winning’ is getting the sims the high powered job they always craved, or the ten grandchildren they always longed for, and this is far more significant to female players than unlocking a trophy or beating a boss because it carries greater emotional weight.

In a wider games industry context, I think The Sims is incredibly significant in what skills it develops in its female fanbase (although of course there are men who play it too but they are far outnumbered for once.) Modding for The Sims isn’t easy; it requires you to learn mesh construction, texture mapping,  photoshop, even programming, animation and core registry editing. These skills are very specific, significant  and easily applicable to a job in the industry and may even help to convince more women to join it due to how much they enjoyed the modding and customization process. These skills are often self-taught and discovered through exploration, promoting very valuable skills that I’d love to think might lead a women to the industry, eventually ending the vicious circle that leads to bad female characters and less female gamers.

Do you know what this means? No? Me neither.

People often criticise the sims and its players of doing nothing but simulating real life. “Where’s the fun in that?” they cry. “I don’t want to come home from work and then play a game where I’m controlling people at work!” For those who have never played it, it’s a legitimate question but The Sims is definitely not about real life. It has always been an escapists dreams, a thoroughly fantasy realm. There are no taxes, no real crime, no diseases or illnesses, getting promoted is a breeze if you invest a little time in your sims skills and learning; there’s none of the exhausting slog. Children grow up fast and you can easily see their needs; no random crying without knowing the reasons, money can be created by cheats if you just want to build beautiful houses or have your sims live the high life. Each expansion pack brings in a new fantasy creature like aliens, werewolves, zombies, robots or vampires. The first sims game even had a magic expansion pack where you could cast spells and turn people into toads. The Sims has never taken itself seriously; the sims speak their own made up language and have hilarious mental breakdowns if you repeatedly fail to cater to their desires. They pee themselves if they can’t reach the bathroom in time and then shuffle around looking incredibly awkward. Sims don’t have sex, they have ‘woo hoo’ and cheating on your spouse doesn’t hold the same sort of implications as real life; more often than not, the cuckolded spouse gets into a huge fight with the offending lover and they battle it out with fists and headlocks.

There are little hints of real life, but a far less stressful and a far more hilarious version than we’d ever experience. It’s a game, but not as traditional gamers know it. However, it’s importance within the female market cannot be undermined or denied, it’s managed to achieve something incredible where so many other games have not and has also managed to become the best selling PC game of all times, showing us that girls really would game if they just had the right games. Although I could never substitute my more ‘hardcore’ traditional console games, The Sims provides an incredibly different experience and I think it’s merit in the gaming world in no way deserves to go unnoticed.

8 Comments

  1. Druick, my best friend from college, is always trying to get me to join the Simnation and I have to keep telling him no. I’ve played sim games before and know how addicting they are and how I let myself get deeply involved into them. I remember even going through the process of mentally naming my crew in Gazillionaire (which I think was right before your gaming time) even though you never saw them and they were nothing more than just a number for a variable. I’d get so sad when the space pirates would rob us and kill some of the passengers ;/\; Knowing how well Sims has their formula down to me was the “all the more reason not to” because it is so addicting and at the time I only had one computer and it was a work computer (so putting an addicting game on my work computer would kill my will to work so easily). Even without playing a sim game I’m still caring about my “pixel heroes” (I could go on and on about my Pokémon…I know you have around a hundred hours but when you’ve got over 2700 hours like I do…let’s just say I’m not letting them go without a fight).

    I’ve lost track of how long Druick would spend designing house (and would pride himself on how he wouldn’t use any money cheat codes either). He even would occasionally use it to design real world house blue prints. I know it was something he talked about several times and would really go into detail about it but that did link him into it even deeper because he found a way of using it to help further a future potential career.

    While I have heard many of the points for those who have not played of “why play?”, I haven’t heard what occurs when cheating on your spouse causes until now XD

    It is a game I am still curious about and greatly appreciate it for just ripping down walls that gamers before it had turtled themselves into but at the same time I have to wait my turn very carefully because I know I will be sucked in and lose myself and fall behind on important things after sucked in ^^’

    • Haha, I know how you feel! I feel the same way about WoW, I’m sure I’d enjoy it but I can’t risk it. Although, I don’t have an addictive personality at all so I might be able to get away with it…then again, I’d have to spend money and I don’t like doing that either! You have 2700 hours on pokemon?! Is this collective over all the games or just on one game? I bow down to you my friend, that is first rate impressive right there!

      The building capabilities really are a heck of a lot of fun and really comprehensive, people do design houses in it or make houses from blueprints like you said, I’ve done it a few times but I’m terrible! Still amazing fun though and really satisfying.

      Actually, the sims is hilarious in that respect, real tongue in cheek humour. And there are so many features and animations, that you can go for ages never seeing it happen and when it does, it’s like discovering a cookie at the back of your cupboard! It’s really exciting :P

      I love the discipline and I know the feeling well so I won’t try and push you to try it, I don’t want to be responsible for your general life failure :D Thank you again for your comment!

  2. I have always believed that Sims is a porn game aiming as its audience the consumerist bourgeois. I understand when you say it’s not about the real world, but it’s about the middle class material wet dream. I can’t find anything intriguing about these games as I don’t think a respectable person should care for such a lifestyle is the real life (family, dream house, dream pool, etc), let alone in a video game.

    There’s no wonder that Will Wright is a republican conservative.

    • Your thinking intrigues me. So you consider it to be something I’d describe as a ‘hidden curriculum’ enforcer, as in it subconsciously teaches those who play it capitalist values such as the value of work (meritocracy), money, family etc. It’s all relative though, my idea of success is qualifying as a vet, whereas my cousins idea of success is to get married and have a child. Neither one of us is qualified to belittle someone else’s pinnacle of success and neither one of us is less respectable than the other because of our desires. I wouldn’t consider it shameful to desire a family, or a dream home or a pool, it’s a personal thing, not my thing but everyone is different.

      • It wouldn’t be shameful to desire such thing; but it would be shameful if they were ALL your life and more importantly, if it became the meaning of your life.

        Maybe I’ll write an article about it soon. ;)

  3. Your article was fantastic. I just about fell off my chair laughing at the first few paragraphs because it reminded me of my first miniature golfing experience. I’d only ever been to a driving range, and the goal there is to hit the ball as hard as possible. I think you can see where I’m going with this, but it’s the first thing I thought of when you described trying to kill your virtual people. Apparently the life simulator genre has come a long way from Little Computer People on the Apple 2. I used to get so mad at that game as a kid because all Geoff ever wanted to do was play cards. Fact: 3-year-olds don’t know how to play Poker or Blackjack.

    • Thank you so much, I think we all know that feeling; we just want to do it our way without really understanding the bigger picture. I couldn’t understand why my friend didn’t want to work out every possible way to kill them! The first 5 minutes playing it and I’d already realised that you could starve them, burn them or drown them. But I was reformed pretty fast. Not that it isn’t fun to kill them sometimes anyway….

  4. I haven’t played The Sims in years, but I used to love it. I’d go on the internet and download custom-made furniture, clothes, and hairstyles for my Sims. I actually never made “death trap” houses or forced my sims to swim endlessly in a ladder-less pool until they drowned. I dunno what it was about that game, but it was terribly engrossing. I got The Sims 2 when it came out, but played it only once. I think by that point, I’d kinda moved on from the game. It was fun for those few years though.

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