Monotony and a desperate search for substance in The Sims
Like many others, I picked up the recent Humble Origin Bundle, which included The Sims 3 and the expansion Late Night. It was the first game I installed and played, because I’ve always been curious as to why people found it to be so compelling. Now I know – and I sort of hate it and love it for showing me.
“The things that you achieve in it are all achievable in reality too.”I played the original years ago when it was first released. Looking back, I did enjoy that one because it was basically like playing house when I was in kindergarten. Playing house has kids imitate adult roles. It’s that old paradox of we want to be adults when we’re children, but once we reach that stage we long being children again. The world has lost its innocence, and a sort of romanticism sets in that paints a much prettier picture than what was actually reality. The Sims 3 is a return to that time, when we thought ourselves masters of our own fates. Although there are some obstacles, the player essentially decides where their sims will go in life. And that is profoundly unfulfilling.
The Sims 3 is escapism at its best and worst. It’s the epitome of escapism because you could create an exact mirror of yourself, but have that sim live a far more exciting and uncomplicated life than your own. Chances are you won’t be a world-famous rock star or a renowned author. In The Sims you can. And it’s the worst, because it doesn’t transport you away from the mundane. Escapism ought to be something you can’t do an real life, such as slaying dragons in Skyrim, or wouldn’t want to do in real life, such as running over pedestrians in Saints Row. The Sims, though, doesn’t have anything outrageous about it. The things that you achieve in it are all achievable in reality too. There’s no intrinsic point in putting your sim to write a novel, and watch them tap away at the keyboard until that bestselling novel churns out from the printer. It would make much more sense to devote your time to actually start writing a novel. Even if no one else would actually see the final product, it’s a healthy activity. That’s a nice and simple solution. “Just do something worthwhile with your life!” But of course things aren’t that straight-forward.
It ultimately comes down to wish-fulfillment. Learning how to write, paint, play music or something else competently is hard work. In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests that you shouldn’t talk about too many – if any – details about your writing projects, because the praise and encouragement you’ll be getting will be almost as satisfying as actually finishing your writing. And so you become lazy. Just to make it clear, I’m not saying that The Sims 3 will necessarily distract you from important life choices, but it feels superfluous.
It’s also plainly a boring game. The sim does a set of mundane chores, like cooking bland meals, showering, taking out the trash, etc., before a carpool comes around and picks up the sim, taking them to work, where they get basic commands about what they should be doing during the workday. When they return home, exhausted after a long day, they eat a microwave meal and unwind in front of the TV, before heading to bed. To me, it serves as a bleak reminder of how you can work hard towards a target, stomaching burning boredom and existential ennui, only to find that once you reached that goal, it wasn’t worth it. Especially so in The Sims 3, where when you reach whatever goals you’ve set there’s just a feeling emptiness. For all you’ve really been doing is guide a digital character around, achieving things that you could easily achieve yourself. I highly doubt that was what Maxis wanted you to feel.
Yet, I feel compelled to play it.
“In The Sims 3 you do these effortless but time-consuming tasks, simply because of the promise of a reward further on.”That’s because it’s also a Skinner box, which takes its name from an experiment by psychologist B.F. Skinner. In the Skinner box (officially named an “operant conditioning chamber”) the scientists would place a mouse. In front of it was a lever. When the lever was pulled, the mouse would occasionally receive a food pellet. Occasionally being the key word here. Eventually the mouse figured out that if it incessantly pulled the lever it would eventually get food, a reward for its mundane effort. This experiment is often applied to videogames too, especially online games. In The Sims 3 you do these effortless but time-consuming tasks, simply because of the promise of a reward further on. The experience in itself isn’t enjoyable, but you go through with it anyway.
After a few weeks in-game, you already have a sense the monotony that the game holds. Since your sims have the same needs as the rest of us, most of the time is spent looking forward to the weekend, when something breaks that monotony. In his review of Late Night for Gamespot, Kevin VanOrd depressingly articulates this as “[the game] captures the essence of a night out with friends.” That strikes me as utterly pointless when, you know, you could have a night with friends. This is something that doesn’t need to be emulated by games. Curiously, it was the same story in The Sims: Medieval where you had to play for ages before the game got even mildly interesting. It seemed odd that a King or Queen would have to do something as banal as chop wood, or hunt because surely they would have someone do that for them. For reasons unknown, it hid away all the entertaining stuff, saving it for the resilient few who managed to stomach the monotony.
“When I’ve finish playing it, all I feel is empty”Besides that, it’s simply a badly designed game. Your sims have very little autonomy of their own, which makes sense enough given the premise of the game, but when they don’t follow orders either, it gets even worse, forcing you to wait impatiently for them to finish even basic actions like taking a dump in the morning. The pathfinding is atrocious, and one of my sims actually pissed her pants because there was an asshole in her way to the bathroom in the club. Suffice it to say that she dumped her date immediately and sped home to her apartment to cry herself to sleep. Not to forget that they take ages to go from location to location, meaning that once you’ve ordered them to go shopping they’ll spend half a day just getting to their car.
The Sims represents everything I despise in games. It has no relevance to my life, and provides no alternate role or world for me to explore. When I’ve finish playing it, all I feel is empty. Perhaps I’ve been wrong all along. It could just be an elaborate examination of the post-modern world. The ideologies that ruled and ravaged the 21st century have dissipated, God is dead, and man now drifts without aim. Thus, in the desperate need for substance, we turn to virtual worlds, to live imaginary lives.
It’s probably not, though.
But I think I’ll keep playing anyway.