What I learned from The Sims: lessons from the virtual world

“A symbol always transcends the one who makes use of it and makes him say in reality more than he
is aware of expressing.”
–Albert Camus

“Evil, in this system of ethics, is that which tears apart, shuts out the other person, raises
barriers, sets people against each other.”
–Rollo May

When I was young I played a lot of video games.  I was good at them, and I ended up learning more about computers from 15 years of playing games than I did in four years at college and 3 years of graduate study.  Certainly Nintendo and the old Sierra games for PC like “King’s Quest” offer different lessons than courses in Artificial Intelligence, but if a young gamer pays attention to what he is doing, there’s a lot to be learned from games. I quit playing video games when I went off to university at age 18 — as much as I liked them, it seemed like I should probably spend more time in the real world, studying, playing football, and hanging out with real people doing real things rather than crushing people in Madden football or achieving global domination in Sid Meier’s Civilization.  16 years later, with the exception of a few Wii games and a bit of online poker, I haven’t really felt the impulse to come out of video game retirement.

But that changed recently.  I spent the past week visiting my parents, in their beautiful home an hour from Knoxville, Tennessee.  I grew up in Connecticut, but my Dad retired about 10 years ago and built a house there.  A day after I arrived, the Department of Justice decided to launch a crusade against online poker, seizing control of 3 major online poker websites and indicting executives at the company where I spent about 13,000 hours trying to build the best poker product in the world. Imagine you spent five years creating a great movie that people all over the world watched every day.  You felt good about your work, proud of what you accomplished, because this movie gave joy to hundreds of thousands of moviegoers every single day.  The most dedicated moviegoers even turned your creation into careers– they became bloggers, critics, and professional movie watchers.

All of your hours spent in heated argument about how to film a certain scene, the countless takes to get the right feel, the all-nighters required to give the moviegoer a great experience — they were all worth it, because they made people happy (some people really hated the ending, in which the hero’s perfectly played hand is beaten by the cruel gods of fate, but they still enjoyed the film).

Then one day a group of people who hate your movie persuade the American government that the movie is illegal and no one should be allowed to see it.  They prohibit anyone in your home country from seeing it, and close down any cinema that shows it. Remember, this is a country to which you recently wrote a love letter to and which you defend while living abroad, even though you are treated like a leper by others when you act patriotic. And all of these things happen when you are sitting at home relaxing in your parents house, enjoying the beautiful spring weather and the NBA playoffs in the evenings. So what do you do, feeling depressed, worried about those people you laughed and cried with while making this film?  Do you do your taxes, as you had planned?  Work on the updated version of the Pokertrackerguide as you had planned?  Hang out at Waffle House and stuff yourself with all the chocolate chip waffles and grits you can get for $4?

I wound up doing something comforting, something that forced me to focus on something other than the absurdity of the news stories that I tried not to read.  I bought a video game that I had been curious about for a while: The Sims.


I always thought that The Sims was a stupid idea.  The idea of controlling a virtual human who is sitting in front of a virtual laptop seemed idiotic.  The whole concept seemed similar to playing poker for play money – if you’ve got the money to play the real thing, why waste your time playing with fake chips? But then I read a Chuck Klosterman article called “Billy Sim”.  Klosterman, a pop-culture journalist and music critic, wrote an article detailing his journey into the Sims, hoping his virtual self would give him some insight into his real life.  He concludes that the game illustrates that “even eternally free people are enslaved by the process of living,” but I felt that he had played the game poorly and failed to develop a winning strategy in his virtual life.

Ever wonder how your life would turn out if you took those guitar lessons when you were young and impressionable? In the virtual world of the Sims, you can rewrite your past and see what would have happened.  Or maybe you’re just curious how simulated humans would react to your life choices.  In the virtual poker world, I loved running simulations to see how different strategies would turn out if you executed them millions of times.  The idea of a real-life simulator — a laboratory that would allow me to see how the choices I make in life would pan out — intrigued me.

After a few hours figuring out the basic rules of the game, I began to notice that my tendencies with the commands I issued my virtual self gravitated towards the same behaviors that I exhibit in real life.  The game offers a variety of career options. You can be a super-villain, working your way up to becoming a Godfather-like figure in the virtual community.  You can also be a rock star, “living the dream” of most adolescent American boys.  I also had the option of fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a professional athlete, ordering my virtual self to push himself physically through difficult workouts.  But none of these options really attracted me — my Sim ended up rarely leaving the house, sitting at his desk tapping away on his keyboard most of the day.

The Sims model of the real world is created by simplifying the choices we face in various areas of real-world life.  There are choices to be made about day-to-day living (What should I eat for breakfast? How hard should I work? How much should I sleep?), as well as choices regarding longer term goals and “dreams” (Do I want to be an astronaut, a master thief, or a Gold Digger)?  I was surprised to discover my lack of interest in the many options that the game designers offered me. A look at the options your Sim has when he or she goes to work illustrates the simplification of the real world choices we have on the job. Whenever your Sim is working, you have the option of selecting an item in a drop down menu that gives you the following choices:

–Business as Usual
–Work Hard
–Take it easy
–Meet co-workers
–Hang out with co-workers
–Suck up to Boss
–Develop your talents

Without thinking too much about it, I found myself alternating between “Work Hard” and “Develop your talents.”  Not surprisingly, this resulted in the “mood meter” of my Sim reading “strained” and “tense” after 8 hours of hard work.  Despite this fact, I really hated the occasional necessary switch to “Take it easy” when my Sim became too stressed, tired, and miserable to be effective.  These Sims seemed soft.

Eventually, after earning enough money to climb past my basic Maslow hierarchy needs, I quit my Sim job as a journalist and spent the majority of my day at home in front of the computer, alternating between writing novels and developing my writing skills.  An observer might think this was boring and defeated the purpose of the game, but my Sim (and I) happily spent the days tapping away at our keyboards. When my Sim got too tired and his “fun” meter got low, I ordered him to spend time with his virtual girlfriend, who he discovered was a “bookworm”.  His virtual apartment was pretty spartan, but in general he was happy and progressing towards his “lifetime wish” of becoming the great American author (worth 30,000 happiness points).  I’m pretty sure my rapidly aging Sim is going to die before he gets there, but it looks like it’s going to be close.

As I continued playing the game, the choices increased in subtlety and complexity, and I found myself thinking about the “meta-game,” the second level thinking required by the player who tries to “win.” In order to maximize your Sim’s happiness, you have to figure out what the creators of the game “want” you to do.  Unlike the real world, you know that the virtual world has been created by game designers who think like me, and if I can figure out their model of the real world, I can maximize my “score” and achieve enlightenment for my Sim.  The game is constantly offering you different opportunities to increase your “lifetime happiness points.”  The implicit goal of playing is to maximize your happiness points, and you can either accept or reject these opportunities as they are offered. As a programmer and former video game expert, I instinctually tried to deduce the set of rules that the game programmers use to determine the lifetime happiness score.

For example, buying a TV will increase your happiness points, but if you have a limited supply of money, it might prevent you from buying the computer you need to write your first novel, which is worth more lifetime happiness points than the TV. What do the game designers want us to choose here?

Klosterman’s essay provides a hint to the answer of this question.  In his essay, he concludes that the only way to make his Sim happy is by satisfying the consumerist wishes of his virtual self, noting that buying a $300 mirror and a $150 designer chair seems to be the point of the game (think Ed Norton/Tyler Durden character in Fight Club).  Frustrated, Klosterman calls the creator of the game, Will Wright, and voices his complaint.  Wright responds,

“Materialism is the red herring of the game. […] The more you play, the more you realize that all the stuff you buy eventually breaks down and creates all these little explosions in your life. If you play long enough, you start to realize that those things won’t really make you happy.”

So, in direct words from the creator of the game, we are told that this short-term fulfillment of a Sim’s material wishes is really a distraction from the longer-term “lifetime happiness” goals which offer a larger reward.

I also thought this quote from Wright was too good to omit:

If there’s any core question with The Sims, it’s got to be, “What is the purpose of life?” Is it to be loved? Is it to be successful? They’re the same questions you could ask if you never knew the game existed.

This sums up my attraction to the Sims — if my virtual Sim lives in the same way I do, will he be happy?  Does Will Wright think my philosophy of life will provide happiness?

I’ve heard a lot of talk recently (I’ve seen a bunch of great TED talks on this idea) of creating games on Facebook that offer a reward system that promotes some social good, like saving electricity.  If you save enough electricity, you earn enough points to get a discount from Amazon, or whatever.  It’s a great idea.

The enthusiastic TED speakers believe that life is a game, and by creating the right incentives and “scoring system,” we can all achieve more lifetime happiness points.  The most entertaining part of the Sims experience for me was trying to map the Sim world to the real world.  What were the “game designers” thinking when they created the universe?  Are there game designers?  If so, how does the scoring system they’ve created work?  How do I earn more lifetime happiness points? When will Americans be allowed to play online poker?

So here’s what I learned:

  • Tunnel Vision: rather than walking around and smelling the flowers and enjoying the weather, I tend to become obsessive about the things that I like.  The Sims presents you with lots of things that will make your Sim happy — cooking waffles, watching TV, buying things… I found that if the “wish” was easy to fulfill and didn’t take a lot of time or money, I would acquiesce and grudgingly fulfill the wish and make my Sim happy.  But if it required a significant amount of time or effort, I would reject the wish and sit down at my computer to write.  An interesting thing about the game design was that this didn’t make my Sim unhappy.  Much like the real world, conscious rejection of material wishes in favor of focusing on longer-term goals can provide greater life happiness in the long run.
  • Consumerism is for suckers:  I’ve always felt that if I have a room with a computer, a desk, and a device I can watch movies on, I have all the tools I need to make myself happy.  Whenever I end up in an apartment with several rooms, I seem to always end up putting everything in one room and spending all of my time there.  My Sim ended up living in the same small house for the entire game, but he bought a great computer, a home gym, and a top of the line shower.  This made him happy.
  • Be Excellent to Each Other: The game offered a variety of different ways to “do Evil.”  You can choose to be mean to other Sims, you can manipulate your boss to get ahead at work, and you can skip work sometimes without much of a penalty.  I never had any real desire to do any of these things, except for the occasional curiosity about how the programmers would punish or reward these actions.  My virtual self ended up being a fairly boring but “good at heart” Sim, and he seemed to be fairly happy.  I suspect that the game designers, like reality TV producers, do their best to inject drama when things get too comfortable in the game.  Eventually I had a Sim daughter, and I was horrified to discover that after her infancy, the lifetime wish she was assigned was to become the “Emperor of Evil.”   Fathers, lock up your daughters?
  • Life is short, play hard: As mentioned earlier, despite evidence suggesting that there is more to gain from doing other than working hard on the job, I gravitated to making my Sim work hard.  I guess I have faith in the idea that hard work eventually pays off, so I pushed my Sim past his comfort levels in support of this belief.  Although he occasionally whined and forced me to provide him with some “fun” (ironically, playing video games was one of his favorite activities), for the most part the hard work paid off in getting him closer to his lifetime wish of “illustrious author.”


Hopefully, the Sim government won’t suddenly decide to burn all of the books my Sim wrote.  Luckily, as of yet I haven’t seen any new laws being snuck into Sim Congress, UIGEA style.  The rules in Sim world don’t seem to change, so I’m optimistic that my Sim books will exist in the virtual world even after my Sim dies.  But even if my virtual books disappear for a while, it’s ok, I’m optimistic that the books will somehow find their way back into the hands of the folks who want to read them.  Even if they don’t, I can be happy that for a while, they provided entertainment for a few hundred thousand kindred bookworms who enjoyed reading as much as I do. My virtual Sim will have to be content with the knowledge that he did his best to maximize his lifetime happiness points, and more importantly, to live a life doing what he thought was right.

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