Banal lives, exciting games – why is The Sims so popular?

As one of the world’s best selling games, The Sims has enjoyed widespread success. The game’s popularity can be examined in a multitude of ways: through identity construction, narrative, construction of imagined worlds and inhabiting virtual spaces, and spectatorship.

All these elements are worth consideration as they form aspects of most popular contemporary media texts.

The game offers players the opportunity to explore particular identity and character stereotypes available within the framework of the game; it also allows the player to explore the possibilities of their imagination in an alternate world. There are issues of voyeurism in popular media texts preceding the emergence of ‘god’ games, which can be understood in more depth when considering theories of narrative and play.

Virtual vs. real

The Sims presents a matrix that conceptualises the material or concrete. It permits the virtual (the imagination, dreams, or memory) to become ‘real’. The Sims demonstrates that experimental ‘what ifs’ experienced in games can allow players to understand and reflection on complex issues in new ways (Molesworth & Denegri- Knott). In addition to the appeal of materialising the imagination, the Sims also provides the gamer with the appealing nature of voyeurism. To understand the reasons why gamers enjoy the voyeuristic aspect of the Sims, we can firstly try to understand what it is about the power of ‘spying’ in media texts that appeal to contemporary audiences. The Truman Show, a commercially successful film released in 1998, portrayed a man whose life was a simulated reality, and “…watched by millions” (IMDB 1998). Perhaps this film signalled the arrival of the “reality” genre. Soon after, more and more reality television shows (for example, The Biggest Loser, The Amazing Race, Survivor, Big Brother) found their place in the mainstream media industry. These shows became an instant success because of their simulations of real life, and garnered huge audiences of both lovers and haters of the shows. It has been suggested that “…people who watch reality television have above-average trait motivation to feel self-important and, to a lesser extent, vindicated, friendly, free of morality, secure and romantic, as compared with large normative samples” (Reiss 2004). Analysing the personal traits of audience members, however, still does not explain why people watch and embrace media that adhere to the “reality” genre. Annette Hill states that the attraction to most shows, especially Big Brother type shows, is because of the “…social and performative aspects of the program” (2002). Hill elaborates, stating that: “…audiences look for the moment of authenticity when real people are “really” themselves in an unreal environment” (2002). This is a concept that can apply to different media platforms, including video games.

The popularity and widespread appeal of The Sims can also be attributed to its ability to provide the player with the opportunity to create alternate realities, and to venture into virtual realms of the imagination. Although it allows the gamer to explore these worlds, he or she must also follow basic guidelines to keep their characters’ lives progressing, in order to participate in these ‘new’ or ‘better’ lives. The success of an avatar is, by and large, measured by tracking personal wealth. The game at times can seem fast-paced and moves along through a simulated life-time quite rapidly, so the player must keep track of their personal wealth so they can go onto get new material, bigger homes and a higher paying job (Macedonia, 2003). The game contains an inherent approach to replicate real life situations. To obtain good jobs, your avatar/s are required to network with friends, if they miss work they risk termination (Macedonia). Although the gamer must participate in these mundane events and chores, there is also the potential to live out fantasies in the unfolding events. Scenes in The Sims that are fanciful are conjured up in consumers’ imaginations. The imaginations can be actualised through performances that is staged in the marketplace advances a specific relationship between market offerings and the imagination (Molesworth & Denegri-Knott, 2007). The Sims is a first person player, appearing as a personal movie because gamers can project themselves into dramas “in which we are producers, director and star… Computer screens are the new location for our fantasies, both erotic and intellectual. We are using life on computer screens to become comfortable with new ways of things” (Molesworth & Denegri-Knott, 2007:19).

Narratological style

Many academics and game critics argue that narrative detracts from gameplay, and is counter-productive to the gaming experience. In the case of The Sims, this is quite the opposite. The potential to create engaging storylines within the framework of the program is what makes it popular amongst avid fans, and also what makes it boring to gamers who tire of having to play for hours in order to find or create a significantly smaller amount of interesting content. As a human life simulation game, the Sims lacks the intense action of first person shooter games. It does not thrive on the cinematics employed in many leading survival horror or machinima games. Instead, it draws upon the input of the player to create the story, action and drama. As it does not feature the aspects of these other successful genres, we can surmise that it adopts a more natural flow of events. In a sense, because there is an ebb and flow to the game, we are not in a constant state of over-stimulation that can desensitise our reactions to events in the game world. We can enjoy satisfaction in achieving certain, self appointed personal goals (Iversen) because we journey through evolving states of anticipation, anxiety, and finally achievement. These events and goals I refer to are parts of the everyday lives of our Sim characters. We choose their jobs, houses, partners, friends, setting the framework of narrative expectation (Iversen: 3), but we cannot completely control the characters themselves. They still have a sense of autonomy, and can refuse to perform a certain action even if repeatedly asked, or instructed to do so. It is perhaps for this reason that players often design Sims and their surroundings very similar to their own reality. If we have a fictional character who we can relate to we are more likely to be able to understand their motivations or requirements to survive.

The Sims (and The Sims 2) are both often defined as emergent narratives. That is, the game events are not pre structured or predetermined, but they do have a certain level of logic and expectation (Jenkins). For example, the game revolves around the construction and maintenance of life, interpersonal relationships, and the pursuit of happiness for both the Sim and the game player. We anticipate that we will need to assist, encourage, or enable them to find friends, jobs, and meet basic survival needs. However we still have the final say in what their career path will involve, whether they have children, whom they maintain relationships with, and so forth. It seems that the player must learn to find a fine balance between many requirements needed to keep the Sim happy, and find time to participate in story-worthy activities in order to keep the game interesting and meaningful (Iversen p4). The Sims is participant in the shifting definitions of author and consumer in regards to media texts. Evidence of this lies in the fact that players can build a record of their Sims lives through the Family Album story tool, enabling them to photograph their Sims in action and store these images (Pearce).

The Sims allows us to build the action, the storyline and the progression of events, but whether it actually offers the framework for what can be considered narrative is debatable. Sure, the game lets us simulate real-life events, but these segregated events tend to happen one after another, without causation that constitutes a story. The innovations of The Sims 2 rectify some of these problems by allowing the gamer to access more tools for establishing narrative. The use of ‘cheats’ means the gamer can avoid the mandatory parts of real-life simulation, instead exploring more ‘fun’ activities. The video mode allows the user to record parts of the story they want to construct. In this way, there are similarities between Big Brother and The Sims which also stretch into the narrative aspect of the game. We play for lengthy periods of time, building up hours and hours of visual material, and then along the way we select which parts of it are ‘storyworthy’, editing them into a flowing storyline. There is the dual satisfaction of both playing the game, and culling the appropriate material so we have a visual record of our achievements. This is another example of the innovation of The Sims – unlike predecessors in life simulation games in the 1990s such as Jones in the Fast Lane, we do not simply play from beginning to end. We also sidetrack into other activities within the game to enhance our gameplay and sense of achievement.

Constructing identity

The Sims has been described as a kind of narrative Lego; almost like a “domestic drama kit” that allows the player to project his or her own experience or desirable life-story onto the semi-autonomous characters that the gamer controls (Pearce, p. 7). Similarities have also been drawn between the game and early forms of doll-play, in which young girls have traditionally been instructed or introduced to domestic routine (Reid-Walsh). Likewise, toy theatres in the 19th century England tapped into the popularity of the theatre in the education of middle class boys, The Sims gives the player the chance to create and manipulation what essentially are virtual dolls. Just like a dollhouse, we are given the omniscient point of view reinforcing our god role. Another aspect of identity that has proven to be popular amongst players is the potential for “secret experimentation with gender” (Gergen 1991, p. 46). This can include scenarios such as gender-swapping, pairing an avatar with multiple romantic partners in order to live out a fantasy; and other such gender curiosities that in reality might cause social persecution. By placing a created character into situations that a person might otherwise be able to experience, a person can ‘trial’ social interaction while having the safety net of playing a video game (Gergen 1991, p. 22).

Personal identity creation and perpetuation is a major factor of appeal to people who play The Sims and other life simulation activities. Not only can a person validate their sense of self by indulging in specifics of identity creation of ‘Sim’ characters, but they also have the opportunity to validate the identities of people they know and even bring in stereotypes from the real world. Key theorists in the field have christened this the act as a way of “putting on a mask” (Lu 2005). Representationally, you can be whoever you want to be; you can be with whoever you want to be with, and you can even mistreat whoever you don’t like without suffering real life social repercussions. By playing The Sims a person can create their own notions of how they see themselves physically and socially and, in some cases, create representation of their ideal self and others (Stammberger 2002). For example, a person that doesn’t have many friends in reality could create a character in The Sims with charisma to spare, which in turn would earn them numerous friends within the game.

Redefining identity

The game’s relationship to real-life identity construction emerge in a specific case study that reveals links with players’ self-reflection and self-recreation. A prison in Ohio conducted a program for inmates due for parole, or inmates with a chance of leaving prison in the then-near future. This program included a session in which inmates were encouraged to play The Sims so that prison psychologists could theorise how inmates might handle leaving prison and having to deal with everyday tasks (Coyle 2003, p. 33). Originally, the game was meant to be used as a peripheral way of analysing an inmates’ sense of identity, until they started noticing patterns of identity from different groups of inmates (Coyle 2003, p. 33). The younger inmates were more inclined to play The Sims (which was expected, as demographically the Sims is generally popular among teenagers and young adults). Psychologically, this responded to the proven assumption that teenagers are still creating their sense of self and identity (Coyle 2003, p. 37). Although The Sims was introduced into the prison program as a tool for analysing the prisoners, program coordinators found that by allowing prisoners to play freely they got an insight into how they saw the world and how they might act on the outside. In some cases prisoners created characters that were their opposites, possibly as an acknowledgement of their faults that might have gotten in prison in the first place. In other cases they created characters in their own image but followed the rules of the game in which you have to conform to the norms of society, much like they would have to do if were released from prison. In all this, the prisoners claimed to have enjoyed the chance of creating identities, taking into account the fact that there are a lot of things that would seem enjoyable in comparison to being in prison (Coyle 2003, p. 38). Nevertheless, it is interesting to see that such is the appeal of The Sims that even prisoners can play it and derive some sort of pleasure out creating identities even if the appeal has a sense of novelty.

God’s urban theatre

When playing The Sims (and many other video games), gamers are positioned as God. The player/s execute directives from a birds-eye-view perspective, and have the ability to do almost anything to their avatar/s. It is possible to create an ideal life only attainable in our wildest dreams; or a gamer can simply create individual/s and/or families with the intent of destroying them. The Sims invites us to make these arbitrary decisions, and then lets us “watch” what happens. There are some parallels between The Sims and voyeuristic ‘reality television’ products such as the genre-establishing Big Brother. This TV show in particular functions as a human zoo where a “…collection of creatures removed from their context in an emulation of their natural state” (Flynn 2002). Although Flynn’s quote proposed that the creature collection is diverse – a statement I find inaccurate in relation to the Australian version of the program – it’s still worth noting that the show’s success means audiences, for a while at least, find this type of action or narrative fascinating to watch. Big Brother and The Sims are both media texts that “…show that viewers are obtaining significant enjoyment from this fusion of cinema verite, soap opera and audience participation” (Flynn). Flynn also states that the social realism in Big Brother can extend to The Sims, classing it as “…‘a snoopy sociability’ in which the viewer is ‘an amused bystander to the mixture of mess and routine in other people’s working lives’” (2002).

The Sims allows the player to construct his or her own ‘urban theatre’. The player is able to choose a family, a home and even construct a whole neighbourhood, within which he or she can act out dramatic events (Molesworth & Denegri-Knott, 2007). These are things that people can do in their everyday lives, and so ‘the theatre created out of The Sims is a reflection of the themes underlying the everyday lives of consumers’ (Molesworth & Denegri-Knott). This theatre that is played out is a reflection of the social drama that is worked out on a digital stage. Players are able to interact with characters and are able to influence their development and sustain their psychological wellbeing (Molesworth & Denegri-Knott). Although players are able to choose from a range of subject positions and construct families that do not exist in the material world, they conversely may construct families which imitate their own (Molesworth & Denegri-Knott). The game reflects the main aspects of what happens in contemporary ‘everyday’ society, with the main theatrical dramas available: death, affairs, marriages, children, and career. These are replications of real-life ‘necessities’ which the gamer can manipulate into unfolding in the way they would like, or possibly even in a way that is more entertaining to them.

Social realism

It has been suggested that The Sims is “…not as much about human relationships, as it is about life administration” (Frasca 2001) especially in terms of managing money, unclogging toilets and educating yourself. All of these things are chores and knowledge that we learn in everyday life, so why is it so popular in a virtual scene from a spectators perspective? Galloway (2004) proposes that the success of the game lies in its ability to imitate social realism in gaming, and draws our attention to the “relationship between the game and the gamer.” By this, Galloway is implying that each person on an individual basis is attracted to different types of social realism and spectatorship within games, and that each gamer will find a certain game appealing depending on what sort of relationship or meaning they are able to construct within the framework. Social realism functions in gaming by allowing the player to create a multi-faceted world for their viewing pleasure. Games generally face three different phases of realism as Galloway (2004) describes:

  • narrative realism (where the user can relate or interact with the storyline;
  • realism in images (involving such things as paintings and photography); and finally
  • in action, in the ability to mimic real life actions and themes.

Although the narrative aspect of The Sims is limited, it does allow the gamer to apply any number of interrelationships and interactions within the unfolding storyline. The game’s possibilities of realism in terms of objects are that of your own creation and imagination. A player can make choices regarding the interior or architectural design of the house or neighbourhood. While the game lacks intense action and drama, its realistic reflection of the action of everyday life such as cooking, cleaning, washing and so forth is quite prominent. This is probably the major crux of The Sims: its ability to re-enact or perform real life situations, which relate wholly to our life in general, and can be simulated.

The Sims works on many different levels to appeal to audiences. It utilises the basic framework of god games and life simulation games, encouraging players to re-enact life experiences, and allows them to create impossible ones as well. It does this by letting us take on the role of God in the lives of semi-autonomous characters, all with different attributes depending on the way we design them. We can sneak peek into their lives, fulfilling our desires to spectate and be in control of events, but not a part of them. We can watch lives unfold that we will never experience, whether good or bad. Our imagination can run free, and we have a playing space in which we can live out our wildest dreams. These people that we create can either partially replicate our identities, or be our complete opposites, and they are all at our mercy. We can put our Sims through hell, or give them a truly satisfying life, depending on which is more entertaining for the player. Our entertainment is paramount, and this can be enhanced by the potential for us, the gamer, to create any content they like, and edit it into a format that makes us feel like the authors of an entertaining story. Whether the game truly offers diversity in terms of personality, or a realistic simulation of reality itself, is questionable. What is certain is that The Sims is part of a growing trend in entertainment and media. The consumer is also the author, at least in part. As we watch and play more games like this, the industry will probably integrate more opportunities for the new author-consumer to participate in the creation of material, not just consumption of it.

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