When conjuring up the image of a ‘gamer’, what might come to mind is someone void of human interaction, sitting in a dark room wearing a headset shooting imaginary bad guys on a screen. While this may be a familiar portrayal for some of us, there was always another kind of game which held my attention, and that of many others, for hours on end, right from the release of the first version in the early 2000s until now, where I admit the shortcut still sits on my desktop.
You’ve probably heard of it, and I’ll venture a guess and say you’ve probably played it at least once. The concept is simple – an imagined, virtual world in which you can design virtual people and buildings, and then control every aspect of their virtual lives. However, far from the fantastical worlds of many games, the world of The Sims is extraordinarily ordinary. While the player has complete control, they have complete control over things like: what the sim will eat that day, or if they will do their homework, or which neighbour they will decide to befriend.
It seems strange, then, that the Sims is such a successful game, when it seems like a literal simulation of every day life. While this is true, the ‘God-like’ power that exists within the sims is admittedly enthralling. The player’s sim can climb any career ladder regardless of their background, can fall in love with anyone they choose, and (by use of a cheat code) sims can enjoy limitless wealth. There is also another, perhaps more sadistic, side to complete control within the game. The player can kills sims in all manner of different ways, including taking the ladders out of swimming pools and deleting doors from rooms, starving their sims, or even drowning them in their own puddle of urine.
Simple, then. Is complete control, whether aspirational or sadistic, the reason that The Sims is so addictive? A study published in Game Studies: the international journal of computer game research in 2006 suggests otherwise. For part of the study, a group of university undergraduates were required to play The Sims 2 as if they would normally, and then rank the importance of a series of 25 gameplay characteristics. Characteristics which ranked in the top 5 most important included ‘I want my Sims to have exciting lives’ and ‘I work hard at achieving my goals for my Sims’, whereas characteristics which ranked in the bottom 5 included ‘It’s fun to make my Sims tease or insult other Sims’ and ‘I like to make my Sims cheat on their partners’. These results suggest that, while it may be fun to drown the occasional sim in its own puddle of urine, when investing in a game of The Sims, these particular players wanted positive outcomes for their virtual people. The study proposes that this is because the participants’ sims were reflections of themselves – for around 70% of the participants, at least one of the sims they designed was similar to themselves.
For me, this is an interesting analysis of why The Sims is so much fun – rather than securing joy from God-like control over every aspect of a virtual life, it is the ability to reflect our own ambitions in another world. Does this give me more hope for humanity? I’d have to say yes.
(And with valentines day looming, don’t worry – you can always create the person of your dreams on The Sims instead. Plus, if they break up with you, instead of crying about it, all you have to do is drown them in their own puddle.)
Link to study: