Simulacra of Control digital ethnography of the video game sims

What would you do if you had complete control over an imaginary, digital world?

What would you do if you had the power to modify someone's looks down to the tiniest details?

More importantly, what would that say about you? What would it say about our culture?

Let's find out.

The Sims was first released in early 2000 and after 14 years, the franchise is still running successfully with the latest installment, Sims 4, released in 2014. The game has broken several records over the years and its most notable accomplishment is the Guinness World Record for the best selling PC game of all time (the Sims sold 16 million copies, despite the original projection of only 160,000 units). The games have changed significantly, however the core idea behind the game remains the same. In the end, each installment, expansion and stuff pack aims to provide a simulation of life; but is that what we're getting and why we want to keep playing? Let's look at the trailer of the latest installment.

The trailer promises the sort excitement you've never experienced before. However, it does so by showing us a #goof, a #creeper, a #freespirit and others. Meaning that in the Sims, you can be anyone you want to be. Or, alternatively, you get to create and control anyone you could possibly want. The entire clip feels like a never-ending party, with each character opening the door for a new narrative, a new story waiting for its player. The game itself is a simulation of life, however this trailer fails to show any negative events that can occur. Thus, the Sims isn't selling an exact simulation of our world, but a rather enhanced and idealized version.

Electronic Arts, the company that acquired Maxis, the original creator of the Sims, and that produces all the Sims games, gathered data about what we do with our sims characters. It's interesting to look at the lifestyle choices we make when there is nothing to lose.

Sims, or their players, seem to care more about love than they do about fortune. The top aspiration (a goal for a character's life) is love and not fortune. In the real world it can often seem that money is the sole motivator for most of our choices. However, when money isn't an issue, as it isn't in the Sims because a simple one word cheat code can provide a character with a lifetime supply of simoleons (sim money), love apparently comes first. That opens the door for even more discussion. Why do only 2% of sims get a divorce? They seem to be more in love than the most U.S. adults. Furthermore, most sims die from old age. Cancer doesn't exist, but death of laughter does and it is very common. Again, the Sims removes the negatives from our world and brings in silly alternatives.

EA released another infographic several months after the first one, and little seems to have changed, but it provided some new information as well.

Wait, what? Tech Guru is the dream career? Apparently so. Among other things, it is interesting to note that the top traits we choose for our characters include romantic, cheerful, and active. It almost sounds like a New Year's resolution list. Why do we seek these specific traits? Why don't we want our characters to be slobs, or kleptomaniacs or have a poor sense of humor? In addition, how come the divorce rate is 34% less than the U.S. average? If we were to say that we're projecting our own needs and wants onto our characters, then could we say that all we want from life is to be more romantic, fit, happy and have a long lasting marriage? As well as that computer science genius Silicon Valley career.

I had a chat with a fellow simmer to find out what her motivations are and why do we seek the things we seek with our sims.

I found it interesting that Emy said she's drawn to Sims when she feels her own life is out of control. However, I wasn't too surprised as I share the same sentiment. It's a way of escaping from the real world into a simulated one. When I was a kid, I'd use my doll houses and my imagination to do the same, but over the years I've lost that superpower, thus games like Sims are there to fill that gap.

I was curious to find out how other simmers felt and met up with another player, Caitlyn. Turns out, Caitlyn shares some of the same feelings Emy and I do about our motivations for playing.

"I enjoy the control of it and I think most of the people would... I don't personally enjoy playing God in real life, but then in the game I'm just like let's go for it." - Caitlyn

The part that caught my attention is the distinction that Caitlyn made between liking control in the game, but not seeking it in real life. Again, we see the this trend: the virtual reality quality of the Sims allows us to do things that are out of character for us but that we still desire, or at the very least, find entertaining. After all, I hardly know anyone who'd trap a person in a pool with the goal of killing them, but know far too many people who've done it to their Sims characters. However, that makes me wonder, are those actions truly out of character simply because we'd only participate in them in a game?

The stakes in the game change once we relate our character to the outside world. For example, if we decide to make ourselves, I've noticed that there is more emotional attachment to the character's life. After a very long day during midterms, my roommate returned from class and wished to relax with Sims.

"I just need to feel in control of something..." - Soraya

Unfortunately, as my roommate isn't a highly experienced simmer, she accidentally burned her sim in a fire after about an hour of playing. To make the matters worse, she made her character look like her and gave it her first and last name. Thus, upon the character's death, I found her crying as she had formed an emotional attachment to the object and was defeated with the loss of control. She didn't keep playing after that incident and when I asked her why is that, she cited the lack of control as the main reason.

In the end, although the Sims is marketed as a life simulation game, it in fact provides us with an experience that is less lifelike and more catered to our unfulfilled desires. A true simulacra of control, and not life.

play with life?

I'm merely glad that no human is controlling me the way we can control our characters. This team of comedians envisioned what that would be like.

Thanks for reading!

Created By
Andjela Padejski
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