The Simulation Game

Electric Dreams Chapter Six: The Rise of the Simulation Game[1]

Following the success of the Apple Macintosh, the IBM PC, and their many imitators, the personal computer in the 1980s emerged as a full-fledged mass-consumer product, purchased for American homes in the millions.

But once they brought these objects home, what could users do with these strange new machines? In the wake of VisiCalc, financial management was one obvious application, although few home users had much need for the powerful data-crunching made possible by spreadsheets. Word processing was another popular choice. The opportunity to instantly alter an already-typed document through cutting and pasting was a profound change in the dynamics of writing. The famously prolific science fiction writer Isaac Asimov moaned that if he’d had his Radio Shack TRS-80 for his entire career, he could have published three times as much.[2] Other commentators worried about trading the permanence of handwriting and typing for the eternal fluidity of computer text, with its endless temptation to tweak and tinker.[3]

But these applications, as new and influential as they were, only scratched the surface of the PC’s ever-expanding graphics and processing power. For the many users who sought not just utility, but the opportunity to test the possibilities of these new machines, it was a less immediately practical genre of software which offered the greatest opportunity for exploration: the computer game.

The computer game is a paradigmatic example of a cybertopian space. Computer games allow players to lose themselves in imaginary worlds, with incredible flexibility to mold characters and environment. And because the computer game is such a new medium, these worlds are in continual flux, as new game designs imagine new ways to shape a world.

In the late 1980s, a fresh genre of computer game emerged which took this always-implicit “world-building” aspect of gaming to a whole new level: the simulation game. SimCity, first released in 1987, placed the player in the role of “mayor” of an imaginary town, responsible for developing and managing all aspects of the city as it grows. Civilization, released in 1991, expanded this model even further, putting the player in the role of leader of an epoch-spanning empire. This chapter will look at these two pioneering simulation games, to understand how the computer made it possible to build new kinds of worlds. We’ll then turn to more recent games to examine the legacy of these two innovators.

Before going further, a historiographical note. Since their original release, these two games have become popular franchises. SimCity has spawned the direct sequels SimCity 2, SimCity 3000, and SimCity 4, along with spinoffs SimEarth, SimAnt, SimLife, SimFarm, SimHealth, SimGolf, SimTown, SimTune, SimIsle, SimCopter, SimThemePark, and Streets of SimCity. The most successful spinoff, The Sims, has become a franchise in its own right, generating numerous add-on packages, the sequel The Sims 2, and The Sims Online. Civilization has spawned Civilization II, Civilization III, and many add-ons and imitators. Each new version of these games has added more user options, more sophisticated artificial intelligence, and more sparkling graphics. As each new generation is released, the previous generation is sent to the bargain bins, and earlier generations disappear altogether. Eventually, old software becomes unplayable. Games programmed for Windows 3.1 crash on new Windows XP systems. Games stored on 5 ¼ inch floppy drives are uninstallable on contemporary 3 ½ inch drive systems, to say nothing of computers with only CD-ROM drives.

This situation is much different from that of other media such as film and television. In this postmodern age, the history of Hollywood lives on as a palimpsest in video stores and cable channels, as contemporary movies play on next to 1970s disaster flicks, 1950s comedies, and even silent films. Computer game culture, on the other hand, embraces the cult of the new, as each new release is hyped for pushing the boundaries of graphic technology.

This situation is beginning to change a little at the margins, as computer game culture grows old enough to develop historical memory and nostalgia. Fans of “retrogames” argue that more recent games have lost the elegance and simplicity of earlier games, becoming more examples of “bloatware.” Recently, companies have begun marketing recreations of beloved games from the 1970s and 1980s. Thanks to Moore’s Law, an entire library of original Atari games can now fit inside a single joystick, which plugs directly into your TV to provide a complete stand-alone retro-gaming system. Meanwhile, die-hard retrogamers circulate bootlegged ROM files containing the digital code originally stored on old game machines’ chips. To play a game stored on a ROM file, the file is fed into a software emulator such as MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator), running on a modern computer.[4] The result is not just a recreation of the original game, but a resurrection, allowing the old software to live again.

Some earlier generations of games remain commercially viable in new technological contexts. The original SimCity would be considered horribly primitive by contemporary computer game standards. But it’s now available on the PalmPilot PDA, whose memory, microprocessor, and graphics can’t handle the more complex software of recent games. It’s also available for free online as a Java program, playable online without a permanent download.

This chapter will try to avoid the twin temptations of whiggism and nostalgia – the conviction that everything’s getting better, or that everything’s getting worse. Instead, I’ll try to understand the original SimCity and Civilization – ancient by contemporary standards – in the context of their own times. At the same time, I’ll attempt to assess their legacy for today’s games.

In addition to these historical challenges, writing about computer games also brings up methodological questions. What, exactly, is the “text,” when every game may come out differently? How much can we generalize from one game player’s experience? My own solution is to attempt a mix of phenomenology, reader-response criticism, and textual analysis. I have chosen to write much of this chapter in the second person, to try to capture the experience of playing the game. Not every player, of course, will experience a game in the same way – that’s part of the magic of interactive art. But games depend on rules, structures which control every player’s field of choices. This analysis will attempt to understand how these games structure players’ range of possible experiences, and to what effect.

The Power of Interactivity

First, though, let’s talk briefly in more general terms about the medium of the computer game, and how it may differ from other mediums.

There was a great Nintendo commercial in the 1990s in which a kid on vacation with his Game Boy started seeing everything as Tetris blocks. Mount Rushmore, the Rockies, the Grand Canyon – they all morphed into rows of squares, just waiting to drop, rotate, and slide into place. The effect was eerie, but familiar to anyone who’s ever played the game. The commercial captured the most remarkable quality of interactive software: the way it seems to restructure perception, so that even after you’ve stopped playing, you continue to look at the world a little differently.

[Insert Figure 6.1. Caption: Tetris]

This phenomenon can be dangerous – as when I once finished up a roll of quarters on the arcade racing game Pole Position, walked out to my car, and didn’t realize for a half mile or so that I was still driving as if I were in a video game, darting past cars and hewing to the inside lane on curves. Likewise, when the whole world looks like one big video game, it may become easier to lose track of the human consequences of real-life violence and war. One powerful exploration of this theme is Orson Scott Card’s classic science fiction novel Ender’s Game, in which videogaming children are recruited to fight a remote-control war. In a perverse case of life imitating art, the U.S. military has now begun sponsoring the development of computer games as both training systems and recruitment tools. America’s Army, the “Official U. S. Army game,” is available for free download from the Army’s website, and is also handed out by local Army recruiters. Full Spectrum Warrior was first developed in-house by the Army, then outsourced to a computer game designer.[5] And commercials for Microsoft’s X-Box Live, a networking add-on to the game system, portray teenage gamers unwittingly losing to American soldiers stationed halfway around the world.

But if computer games can be exploited to glamorize violence while evading its consequences, the distinct power of software to reorganize perception also has great potential. Computers can be powerful tools for communicating not just specific ideas, but structures of thought – whole ways of making sense of the world. Just as Tetris, on the simple level of spatial geometry, encourages you to discover previously unnoticed patterns in the natural landscape, more sophisticated programs can teach you how to recognize more complex interrelationships.

Any medium, of course, can teach you how to see life in new ways. When you read a book, in a sense you’re learning how to think like the author. And as film theorists have long noted, classical Hollywood narrative teaches viewers not just how to look at a screen, but how to gaze at the world. But for the most part, the opportunities for these media to reorient our perceptions today are limited by their stylistic familiarity. A particularly visionary author or director may occasionally confound our expectations and show us new ways to read or watch. But in general, the codes of literary and film narrative are set. We may learn new things in a great book or movie, but we almost always encounter them in familiar ways.

Software, by contrast, is a relatively new medium. And because the computer industry keeps following Moore’s Law, doubling processor power every 18 months, the ground keeps shifting under the medium’s accepted norms and structures.[6] At the time SimCity and Civilization were released, genres had begun to form (adventure, sports, arcade, etc.), but they remained fluid, open-ended. Even today, when the industry appears much more “mature,” there’s still plenty of room to invent entire new game forms, as Will Wright did with The Sims in 2000. The rules and expectations for computer applications are still not set in stone. Each new program must rethink how it should engage the user, and the best software succeeds by discovering new structures of interaction, inventing new genres. What would be avant-garde in film or literature – breaking with familiar forms of representation, developing new modes of address – is standard operating procedure in the world of software. Every software developer is always looking for the next killer application – the newest paradigm-buster.

What makes interaction with computers so distinctively powerful is the way computers can transform the exchange between “reader” and “text” into a feedback loop. Every response you make provokes a reaction from the computer, which leads to a new response, and so on, as the loop from the screen to your eyes to your fingers on the keyboard to the computer to the screen becomes a single cybernetic circuit.

Granted, there are many different kinds of software, and different levels of engagement with computers. Using a word processor is a fairly disengaged activity. You see the words appear on the screen as you type, but the rest is up to you. Surfing the internet offers a moderate degree of engagement, as the term “browsing” implies. The feedback is incremental rather than fluid – each new page offers a series of discrete options, each surfing choice brings up a new page of hyperlinks. And then there are computer games, where the computer responds almost instantaneously to every action of the player, which in turn provokes a new reaction from the player, and so on.

If the feedback loop between user and computer is what is most distinctive about human-computer interaction, then computer games are in many ways the quintessential software products. Looking more closely at the dynamics of computer games, then, can help us understand the new interactive possibilities opened up by computer software.

The Early History of Video Games and Computer Games

Playing games on computers was first made possible by the introduction of minicomputers in the late 1950s. Freed from the IBM punch card bureaucracy, programmers for the first time were able to explore the possibilities opened up by hands-on interaction with computers. Games were among the first programs attempted by the original “hackers,” undergraduate members of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club. The result, in 1962, was the collaborative development of the first computer game: Spacewar, a basic version of what would become the Asteroids arcade game, played on a $120,000 DEC PDP-1.[7] Computer designer Brenda Laurel points out this early recognition of the centrality of computer games as models of human-computer interaction:

Why was Spacewar the “natural” thing to build with this new technology? Why not a pie chart or an automated kaleidoscope or a desktop? Its designers identified action as the key ingredient and conceived Spacewar as a game that could provide a good balance between thinking and doing for its players. They regarded the computer as a machine naturally suited for representing things that you could see, control, and play with. Its interesting potential lay not in its ability to perform calculations but in its capacity to represent action in which humans could participate.[8]

As computers became more accessible to university researchers through the 1960s, several genres of computer games emerged. Programmers developed chess programs sophisticated enough to defeat humans.  The first computer role-playing game, Adventure, was written at Stanford in the 1960s: by typing short phrases, you could control the adventures of a character trekking through a magical landscape while solving puzzles. And in 1970 Scientific American columnist Martin Gardner introduced Americans to LIFE, a simulation of cellular growth patterns written by British mathematician John Conway. LIFE was the first “software toy,” an open-ended model of systemic development designed to be endlessly tinkered with and enjoyed.[9]

In 1972 Pong, a tennis game designed by Nolan Bushnell, became the first hit arcade videogame. By the mid-1970s, the video game arcade had emerged as a new kind of public space. The first home video game system, the Magnavox Odyssey, was also released in 1972, but home videogames didn’t really take off until the release of a home version of Pong in 1975. Atari followed this up with a cartridge-based system which allowed one unit to play a range of individually purchased games. At the same time, the rise of the personal computer created another market for game software. By the 1980s, computer game software production had become an industry.

[Insert Figure 6.2. Caption: Pong]

How to make sense of these new kinds of texts? As designers, fans and critics began to think about the computer game medium in the 1980s and 1990s, one popular perspective was to describe computer games as being like movies, only more so. Computer game development companies, the argument went, were “The New Hollywood.”[10]

The “New Hollywood” analogy helped conceptualize the process of computer game design. Although in the industry’s infancy it was possible for one programmer to write and market a game single-handedly, by the mid-1980s computer game production had become a complex collaborative process among many specialists. The introduction screens for modern games read like movie credits, listing producers, programmers, artists, musicians, and actors. At the top of the credits are the designers, the equivalent to movie directors. In the computer gaming world, designers like Ultima’s Lord British and SimCity’s Will Wright are respected as auteurs with unique personal visions.

The difference between the New Hollywood and the Old, according to the analogy, is that computer games are “interactive cinema,” in which the game player takes on the role of the protagonist. But how to define interactive? How can the designer give the player a sense of control over the game, while still propelling the player through a compelling narrative? The solution, dating back to Adventure and Zork, has been to set up the game as a series of challenges, tasks and puzzles. You muddle through the universe of the game – exploring settings, acquiring objects, talking to characters, battling enemies – until you’ve accomplished everything necessary to trigger the next stage of the plot. In the process, you’re expected to regularly make mistakes, die, and restart the game in a previously saved position.[11] Out of the flaws in this system, a whole cottage industry of hint books and web sites has developed, to help players stuck halfway through their adventures.

While the phrase interactive cinema has lost favor today, the related concept of “role playing” continues to be an influential framework for thinking about the player’s relationship with the characters onscreen. This model presumes that identification in computer gaming works like identification in movie-watching, only more intensely. When you watch a movie, you can only fantasize about being the hero. But when you play a computer game, you can actually “be” the hero, at least in the sense of controlling all the hero’s onscreen actions yourself.

But this common-sense assumption of how identification in computer games works distorts critical differences between the way we experience the two mediums of games and films. Classical Hollywood cinema is structured in every way to facilitate losing yourself in the fantasy onscreen. The stop-and-go nature of the puzzle-solving paradigm, on the other hand, discourages this level of identification. Contemporary role playing games such as the Final Fantasy series develop complex narratives which alternate interactive gameplay with “cut-scenes” – computer-animated episodes which advance the game’s storyline. But while these games can be compelling, rarely are the characters memorable in the way that a favorite film character is memorable. The marriage of interactive gameplay and static, scripted scenes remains an awkward match. Often, players will skip past the cut scenes after they’ve played them through once, anxious to get back to the gameplay. Revealingly, the most successful current mix of gameplay and cut scenes, the Grand Theft Auto series, resolves this dilemma with camp. The game’s lighthearted, self-mocking tone makes it easy to laugh off the stagey dialogue and hackneyed characters. What’s not clear yet is whether adventure game designers can create characters players can actually care about within the constraints of the gameplay/cut scene format.[12]

[Insert Figure 6.3. Caption: Grand Theft Auto]

If the role playing model is of limited use for explaining how identification works in adventure games from Zork to Grand Theft Auto, it falls apart completely when we turn to even less movie-like games. Simulation games could never be mistaken for interactive cinema. There are no characters and story, in the conventional sense. Instead, as we shall see, there is only process and space.

Simulation and Subjectivity

SimCity actually had its start as a wargame. As the game’s creator, Will Wright, explains,

SimCity evolved from Raid on Bungling Bay, where the basic premise was that you flew around and bombed islands. The game included an island generator, and I noticed after a while that I was having more fun building islands than blowing them up. About the same time, I also came across the work of Jay Forrester, one of the first people to ever model a city on a computer for social-sciences purposes. Using his theories, I adapted and expanded the Bungling Bay island generator, and SimCity evolved from there.[13]

Nervous that the product Wright came up with would appear too educational, distributors Broderbund took extra steps on SimCity’s initial release to make sure it would be perceived as a game, adding “disaster” options and prepackaged scenarios – earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns, even an attack from Godzilla. But as a 1989 Newsweek article on the game points out, “these are excess baggage.”[14] What turned SimCity into a giant software hit, spawning numerous bootlegs, imitations, and spin-offs, was the pleasure Wright discovered in the simulation process itself.

Here’s a description of the original game from a Maxis catalog:

SimCity makes you Mayor and City Planner, and dares you to design and build the city of your dreams. . . . Depending on your choices and design skills, Simulated Citizens (Sims) will move in and build homes, hospitals, churches, stores and factories, or move out in search of a better life elsewhere.[15]

Beginning with an undeveloped patch of land and an initial development fund, you create a city by choosing where and what kind of power plants to build; zoning industrial, commercial, and residential areas; laying down roads, mass transit, and power lines; and building police stations, fire departments, airports, seaports, stadiums, and so on. While playing the game eventually comes to feel entirely intuitive, the system is quite complex. Every action is assigned a price, and you can only spend as much money as you have in the city treasury. The treasury begins at a base amount, then can be replenished yearly by taxes, the rate of which you can adjust. As you become more familiar with the system, you gradually develop strategies to encourage economic growth, build up the population of the city, and score a higher “approval rating” from the Sims. Which of these or other goals you choose to pursue, however, is up to you; Maxis likes to refer to its products as “software toys” rather than games, and insists,

when you play with our toys, you set your own goals and decide for yourself when you’ve reached them. The fun and challenge of playing with our toys lies in exploring the worlds you create out of your own imagination. You’re rewarded for creativity, experimentation, and understanding, with a healthy, thriving universe to call your own.[16]

[Insert Figure 6.4. Caption: SimCity]

Expanding upon the “software toy” ideal, science fiction writer and computer game critic Orson Scott Card argues that the best computer games are those which provide the most open-ended frameworks to allow players the opportunity to create their own worlds:

Someone at every game design company should have a full-time job of saying, “Why aren’t we letting the player decide that?” . . . When [designers] let . . . unnecessary limitations creep into a game, gamewrights reveal that they don’t yet understand their own art. They’ve chosen to work with the most liberating of media – and yet they snatch back with their left hand the freedom they offered us with their right. Remember, gamewrights, the power and beauty of the art of gamemaking is that you and the player collaborate to create the final story. Every freedom that you can give to the player is an artistic victory. And every needless boundary in your game should feel to you like failure.[17]

Playing SimCity is a very different experience from playing an adventure game. The interaction between player and computer is constant and intense. Gameplay is a continuous flow. It can be very hard to stop, because you’re always in the middle of dozens of different projects: nurturing a new residential zone in one corner of the map, building an airport in another, saving up money to buy a new power plant, monitoring the crime rate in a particularly troubled neighborhood, and so on. Meanwhile, the city is continually changing, as the simulation inexorably chugs forward from one month to the next (unless you put the game on pause to handle a crisis). By the time you’ve made a complete pass through the city, a whole new batch of problems and opportunities has developed. If the pace of the city’s development is moving too fast to keep up with, the simulation can be slowed down (i.e., it’ll wait longer in real-time to move from one month to the next). If you’re waiting around for things to happen, the simulation can be speeded up.

As a result, it’s easy to slide into a routine with absolutely no down-time, no interruptions from complete communion with the computer. The game can grow so absorbing, in fact, that your subjective sense of time is distorted.[18] David Myers writes, “from personal experience and interviews with other players, I can say it is very common to play these games for eight or more hours without pause, usually through the entire first night of purchase.”[19] You look up, and all of a sudden it’s morning.

It’s very hard to describe what it feels like when you’re lost inside a computer game, precisely because at that moment your sense of self has been transformed. Flowing through a continuous series of decisions made almost automatically, hardly aware of the passage of time, you form a symbiotic circuit with the computer, a version of the cyborgian consciousness described by Donna Haraway in “Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The computer comes to feel like an organic extension of your consciousness, and you may feel like an extension of the computer itself.

This isn’t exactly the way the SimCity user’s manual puts it. The manual describes your role as a “combination Mayor and City Planner.” But while that title suggests that you imagine yourself playing a specific role along the lines of the interactive cinema model, the structures of identification in simulation games are much more complex. Closer to the truth is the setup in the simulation game Black & White, where you’re simply a god – omnipotent (within the rules of the game),  omniscient, and omnipresent. While in some explicitly political simulations, like Hidden Agenda and Crisis in the Kremlin, your power and perspective is limited to that of a chief of state, in games like SimCity you’re personally responsible for far more than any one leader – or even an entire government – could ever manage. You directly control the city’s budget, economic and residential growth, transportation, police and fire services, zoning, and even entertainment (the Sims eventually get mad if you don’t build them a stadium, along with other amenities). While each function is putatively within the province of government control, the game structure makes you identify as much with the roles of industrialist, merchant, real estate agent and citizen, as with those of mayor or city planner.

For example, in SimCity, the way a new area of town is developed is to “zone” it. You decide whether each parcel of land should be marked for residential, industrial, or commercial use. You can’t make the zones develop into thriving homes or businesses; that’s determined by the simulation, on the basis of a range of interconnected factors including crime rate, pollution, economic conditions, power supply, and access to other zones. If you’ve set up conditions right, an empty residential zone will quickly blossom into a high-rise apartment complex, raising land values, adding tax money to the city’s coffers, and increasing the population of the city. If the zone isn’t well-integrated into the city, it may stay undeveloped, or degenerate into a crime-ridden slum. But while you can’t control the behavior putatively assigned to the residents the Sims, the identification process at the moment of zoning goes beyond simply seeing yourself as the Mayor, or even as the collective zoning commission. The cost of zoning eats up a substantial portion of a city’s budget – much more than it would cost a real city. This is structurally necessary to limit your ability to develop the city, so that building the city is a gradual, challenging process (something close to a narrative, in fact). The effect on gameplay is to see the process less as zoning than as buying the land. Not to say that you think of every SimCity building as being owned by the government. But at the moment of zoning, you’re not playing the role of mayor, but of someone else – homeowner, landlord, or real estate developer, perhaps.

We could see playing SimCity, then, as a constant shifting of identifications, depending on whether you’re buying land, organizing the police force, paving the roads, or whatever. This is part of what’s going on. But this model suggests a level of disjunction – jumping back and forth from one role to the next – belied by the smooth, almost trance-like state of gameplay. Overarching these functional shifts is a more general state of identification: with the city as a whole, as a single system.

What does it mean to identify with an entire city? Perhaps attempting to map roles onto the player’s on-screen identification misses the point. When a player zones a land area, she or he is less identifying less with a role than with a process. And the reason that the decision, and the continuous series of decisions the gamer makes, can be made so quickly and intuitively, is that you have internalized the logic of the program, so that you’re always able to anticipate the results of your actions. Losing yourself in a computer game means, in a sense, identifying with the simulation itself.

Cyborg Consciousness

To get a better sense of what it might mean to identify with a process, let’s turn to Civilization. Actually, the full title of the game is Sid Meier’s Civilization. Meier is the game’s inventor and original designer, and is known in the computer gaming world for his skill in designing absorbing, detailed simulations. His early games Pirates and Railroad Tycoon each helped shape the emerging genre in the 1980s. Civilization was hailed on its release as one of the greatest computer games ever. The sequels have been similarly honored.

The manual for the original Civilization introduces the game this way:

Civilization casts you in the role of the ruler of an entire civilization through many generations, from the founding of the world’s first cities 6,000 years in the past to the imminent colonization of space. It combines the forces that shaped history and the evolution of technology in a competitive environment. . . . If you prove an able ruler, your civilization grows larger and even more interesting to manage. Inevitable contact with neighbors opens new doors of opportunity: treaties, embassies, sabotage, trade and war.[20]

What does it feel like to be cast “in the role of ruler of an entire civilization through many generations”? The game follows the conceit that you play the part of a single historical figure. At the beginning of the game, you’re given a choice of nation and name. From then on, from the wanderings of your first settlers to your final colonization of outer space, the computer will always call you, for example, “Emperor Abraham Lincoln of the United States.” Of course, nobody lives for 6,000 years, and even the most powerful real-life despots – to say nothing of democratically elected leaders – could never wield the kind of absolute power that Civilization gives even titular presidents and prime ministers, just as the “mayor” in SimCity is so much more than a mayor. In Civilization, you’re responsible for directing the military, managing the economy, controlling development in every city of your domain, building Wonders of the World, and orchestrating scientific research (with the prescience to know the strategic benefits of each possible discovery, and to schedule accordingly). You make not just the big decisions, but the small ones, too, from deciding where each military unit should move on every turn to choosing which squares of the map grid to develop for resources. In Civilization, you hold many jobs simultaneously: king, general, mayor, city planner, settler, warrior, and priest, to name a few.

How does this tangle of roles become the smooth flow of gameplay? The answer, I think, is that you do not identify with any of these subject positions so much as with the computer itself. When you play a simulation game like Civilization, your perspective – the eyes through which you learn to see the game – is not that of any character or set of characters, be they kings, presidents, or even God. The style in which you learn to think doesn’t correspond to the way any person usually makes sense of the world. Rather, the pleasures of a simulation game come from inhabiting an unfamiliar, alien mental state: from learning to think like a computer.

Let me clarify that in talking about “thinking like a computer,” I don’t mean to anthropomorphize, or to suggest that machines can “think” the way humans do. As discussed in Chapter Three, artificial intelligence researchers have learned, often to their chagrin, the limitations of computer cognition. Contemporary computers can only systematically, methodically crunch numbers and follow algorithms. They can’t replicate the less linear, more fluid ways the human mind works. My point is that using simulation games can help us intuitively grasp the very alien way in which computers process information, and so can help us recognize how our relationships with computers affect our own thoughts and feelings.

In describing computers as, in a sense, nonhuman actors with associated states of consciousness, I’m borrowing a technique of Bruno Latour’s, who in his novelistic history Aramis, or the Love of Technology, tells the story of a failed French experimental mass transit program from several perspectives – including that of the train itself. Latour writes,

I have sought to show researchers in the social sciences that sociology is not the science of human beings alone – that it can welcome crowds of nonhumans with open arms, just as it welcomed the working masses in the nineteenth century. Our collective is woven together out of speaking subjects, perhaps, but subjects to which poor objects, our inferior brothers, are attached at all points. By opening up to include objects, the social bond would become less mysterious.[21]

Latour’s conceit is one way to attempt to account for the interpenetration of our lives with technology, to make visible the often unnoticed role of technology in our daily experience and sense of selves.

The way computer games teach structures of thought – the way they reorganize perception – is by getting you to internalize the logic of the program. To win, you can’t just do whatever you want. You have to figure out what will work within the rules of the game. You must learn to predict the consequences of each move, and anticipate the computer’s response. Eventually, your decisions become intuitive, as smooth and rapid-fire as the computer’s own machinations.

In one sense, the computer is your opponent. You have to know how to think like the computer because the computer provides the artificial intelligence which determines the moves of your rival civilizations. Like Kasparov playing Deep Blue, IBM’s championship-winning chess computer, you have to figure out how the computer makes decisions in order to beat it.

But in this role of opponent, the computer is only a stand-in for a human player. When multiple players compete, the AI isn’t even needed. And in terms of strategy, the computer opponents in Civilization are no Deep Blue. Their moves are fairly predictable. The confrontation between player and AI masks a deeper level of collaboration. The computer in Civilization is not only your adversary, but also your ally. In addition to controlling your rivals, it processes the rules of the game. It tells you when to move, who wins each battle, and how quickly your cities can grow. It responds instantly to your every touch of the mouse, so that when you move your hand along the mousepad, it seems as if you’re actually physically moving the pointer on the screen, rather than simply sending digital information to the computer. It runs the universe which you inhabit when you play the game. “Thinking like the computer” means thinking along with the computer, becoming an extension of the computer’s processes.[22]

This helps explain the strange sense of self-dissolution created by computer games, the way in which games suck you in. The pleasure of computer games is in entering into a computer-like mental state: in responding as automatically as the computer, processing information as effortlessly, replacing sentient cognition with the blank hum of computation. When a game of Civilization really gets rolling, the decisions are effortless, instantaneous, chosen without self-conscious thought. The result is an almost-meditative state, in which you aren’t just interacting with the computer, but melding with it.

The connection between player and computer in a simulation game is a kind of cybernetic circuit, a continual feedback loop. Today, the prefix “cyber” has become so ubiquitous that its use has diffused to mean little more than “computer-related.” But the word “cybernetics,” from which the prefix was first taken, has a more distinct meaning. Norbert Weiner coined the term to describe a new general science of information processing and control.[23] (He took it from the Greek word kybernan, meaning to steer or govern.) In particular, he was interested in feedback: the ways in which systems – be they bodies, machines, or combinations of both – control and regulate themselves through circuits of information. As Steve J. Heims writes in his history, The Cybernetics Group,

[The cybernetic] model replaced the traditional cause-and-effect relation of a stimulus leading to a response by a “circular causality” requiring negative feedback: A person reaches for a glass of water to pick it up, and as she extends her arm and hand is continuously informed (negative feedback) – by visual or proprioceptive sensations – how close the hand is to the glass and then guides the action accordingly, so as to achieve the goal of smoothly grabbing the glass. The process is circular because the position of the arm and hand achieved at one moment is part of the input information for the action at the next moment. If the circuit is intact, it regulates the process. To give another stock example, when a man is steering a ship, the person, the compass, the ship’s engine, and the rudder are all part of the goal-directed system with feedback. The machine is part of the circuit.[24]

The constant interactivity in a simulation game – the perpetual feedback between a player’s choice, the computer’s almost-instantaneous response, the player’s response to that response, and so on – is a cybernetic loop, in which the line demarcating the end of the player’s consciousness and the beginning of the computer’s world blurs.

There are drawbacks to this merging of consciousness. Connected to the computer, it’s easy to imagine you’ve transcended your physical body, to dismiss your flesh and blood as simply the “meat” your mind must inhabit, as the protagonist of Neuromancer puts it.[25] This denial is a form of alienation, a refusal to recognize the material basis for your experience. The return of the repressed comes in the form of carpal tunnel syndrome, eyestrain, and other reminders that cyberspace remains rooted in physical existence.

But the connection between player and computer does enable access to an otherwise unavailable perspective. In the collaboration between you and the computer, self and Other give way, forming what might be called a single cyborg consciousness. In “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna Haraway proposed the figure of the cyborg – “a hybrid of machine and organism” – as an image that might help us make sense of the increasing interpenetration of technology and humanity under late capitalism. Haraway’s point was that in this hyper-mechanized world, we are all cyborgs. When you drive a car, the unit of driver-and-car becomes a kind of cyborg. When you turn on the TV, the connection of TV-to-viewer is a kind of cybernetic link. The man steering the ship in Heims’s example is a cyborg.  And most basically, since we all depend on technology to survive this postmodern world – to feed us, to shelter us, to comfort us – in a way, we are all as much cyborgs as the Six Million Dollar Man.

Simulation games offer a singular opportunity to think through what it means to be a cyborg. Most of our engagements with technology are distracted, functional affairs. We drive a car to get somewhere. We watch TV to see what’s on. We use the office computer to get work done.[26] Simulation games, on the other hand, aestheticize our cybernetic connection to technology. They turn it into a source of enjoyment and an object for contemplation. They give us a chance to luxuriate in the unfamiliar pleasures of rote computation and depersonalized perspective, and grasp the emotional contours of this worldview. To use the language of Clifford Geertz, simulation games are a “sentimental education” in what it means to live among computers.

Geertz’s famous essay, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” discusses how a game can encapsulate and objectify a society’s sense of lived social relations:

Like any art form – for that, finally, is what we are dealing with – the cockfight renders ordinary, everyday experience comprehensible by presenting it in terms of acts and objects which have had their practical consequences removed and been reduced (or, if you prefer, raised) to the level of sheer appearances, where their meaning can be more powerfully articulated and more exactly perceived.[27]

This dynamic is particularly powerful because it is not just an intellectual exercise, but a visceral experience:

What the cockfight says it says in a vocabulary of sentiment – the thrill of risk, the despair of loss, the pleasure of triumph. . . . Attending cockfights and participating in them is, for the Balinese, a kind of sentimental education. What he learns there is what his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility (or, anyway, certain aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally in a collective text.[28]

Through the language of play, computer games teach you what it feels like to be a cyborg.

Cognitive Mapping

In The Condition of Postmodernity, geographer David Harvey argues for the primacy of spatialization in constructing cognitive frameworks: We learn our ways of thinking and conceptualizing from active grappling with the spatializations of the written word, the study and production of maps, graphs, diagrams, photographs, models, paintings, mathematical symbols, and the like.[29] Harvey then points out the dilemma of making sense of space under late capitalism: “How adequate are such modes of thought and such conceptions in the face of the flow of human experience and strong processes of social change? On the other side of the coin, how can spatializations in general . . . represent flux and change . . . ?”[30]

Representing flux and change is exactly what a simulation can do, by replacing the stasis of two- or three-dimensional spatial models with a map that shifts over time to reflect change. And this change is not simply the one-way communication of a series of still images, but a continually interactive process. Computer simulations bring the tools of narrative to mapmaking, allowing the individual not only to observe structures, but to become experientially immersed in their logic.

Simulations may be the best opportunity to create what Fredric Jameson calls “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping: a pedagogical political culture which seeks to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system.”[31] Playing a simulation means becoming engrossed in a systemic logic which connects a myriad array of causes and effects. The simulation acts as a kind of map-in-time, visually and viscerally (as the player internalizes the game’s logic) demonstrating the repercussions and interrelatedness of many different social decisions. Offering an escape from the prison-house of language, which seems so inadequate for holding together the disparate strands that construct postmodern subjectivity, computer simulations point to a radically new quasi-narrative form through which to communicate structures of interconnection.

Sergei Eisenstein hoped that the technology of montage could make it possible to film Marx’s Capital. But the narrative techniques of Hollywood cinema developed in a way which directs the viewer to respond to individuals rather than abstract concepts. A computer game based on Capital, on the other hand, is possible to imagine. As Chris Crawford notes (paraphrased by David Myers), “game personalities  are not as important as game processes  – ‘You can interact with a process . . . Ultimately, you can learn about it.’”[32]

A simulation doesn’t have characters or a plot in the conventional sense. Instead, its primary narrative agent is geography. Simulation games tell a story few other media can: the drama of a map changing over time. You begin Civilization with a single band of prehistoric settlers, represented as a small figure with a shovel at the center of the main map which takes up most of the computer screen. Terrain is delineated on this map by icons representing woods, rivers, plains, oceans, mountains, and so on. At the beginning of the game, however, almost all of the map is black; you don’t get to learn what’s out there until one of your units has explored the area. Gradually, as you expand your empire and send out scouting parties, the landscape is revealed. This process of exploration and discovery is one of the fundamental pleasures of Civilization. It’s what gives the game a sense of narrative momentum.

In “Nintendo and New World Travel Writing,” Henry Jenkins and Mary Fuller, scholars of American popular culture and the English Renaissance, respectively, compare two seemingly disparate genres which share a strikingly similar narrative structure.[33] Nintendo games and New World travel narratives, like simulation games, are structured not by plot or character, but by the process of encountering, transforming and mastering geography. Fuller writes, “[b]oth terms of our title evoke explorations and colonizations of space: the physical space navigated, mapped and mastered by European voyagers and travelers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the fictional, digitally projected space traversed, mapped, and mastered by players of Nintendo video games.”[34] Borrowing from the work of Michel de Certeau,[35] Jenkins labels these geographical narratives “spatial stories.” He describes the process of geographic transformation as a transition from abstract “place” into concrete “space”:

For de Certeau, narrative involves the transformation of place into space.[36] Places exist only the abstract, as potential sites for narrative action, as locations that have not yet been colonized. Places constitute a “stability” which must be disrupted in order for stories to unfold. . . . Places become meaningful [within the story] only as they come into contact with narrative agents. . . . Spaces, on the other hand, are places that have been acted upon, explored, colonized. Spaces become the locations of narrative events.[37]

Likewise, gameplay in Civilization revolves around the continual transformation of place into space, as the blackness of the unknown gives way to specific terrain icons. As in New World narratives, the process of “colonization” is not simply a metaphor for cultural influence, but involves the literal establishment of new colonies by settlers (occasionally with the assistance of military force). Once cities are established, the surrounding land can be developed. By moving your settlers to the appropriate spot and choosing from the menu of “orders,” you can build roads, irrigate farmland, drill mines, chop down trees, and eventually, as your civilization gains technology, build bridges and railroads. These transformations are graphically represented right on the map itself by progressively more elaborate icons. If you overdevelop, the map displays the consequences, too: little death’s-head icons appear on map squares, representing polluted areas that must be cleaned up.

[Insert Figure 6.5. Caption: You begin Civilization with a single band of settlers, the unexplored terrain a black void.]

In its focus on the transformation of place into space, Civilization seems like an archetypal spatial story. However, Civilization differs from the geographic narratives Jenkins and Fuller describe in an important way, one which demonstrates the distinctive qualities of simulation games. In addition to the categories of space and place, Jenkins borrows two other terms from de Certeau, maps and tours:

Maps are abstracted accounts of spatial relations (‘the girl’s room is next to the kitchen’), whereas tours are told from the point of view of the traveler/narrator (‘You turn right and come into the living room’).[38] Maps document places; tours describe movements through spaces.[39]

Tours, in other words, are the subjective, personalized experiences of the spaces described abstractly in maps. You start your journey with a map. Then, as you navigate the geography, that abstract knowledge becomes the embodied first-hand experience of a tour. The maze of the Nintendo screen gives way to a familiar, continually retraced path that leads from the entrance to safety. The daunting expanse of the New World is structured by the personal account of one traveler’s journey.

In the spatial stories Jenkins and Fuller discuss, then, the pleasure comes from two transitions, one involving geographic transformation, the other individual subjectivity. Place becomes space as unfamiliar geography is conquered through exploration and development. And maps become tours as abstract geography is subjectively situated in personal experience. As we have seen, Civilization is certainly engaged in the transformation of place into space. But in simulation games, the map never becomes a tour. The game screen documents how the player has changed the landscape, but these transformations are always represented in the abstract terms of the map. The point-of-view always remains an overhead, god’s-eye perspective.

[Insert Figure 6.6. Caption: As your civilization grows, you can transform the lands with roads, bridges, mines, irrigation, and other “improvements.”]

What’s the import of this distinction? We might assume that the continued abstraction of the map would indicate a measure of detachment, compared to the ground-level engagement of a tour. But as we have seen, simulation games seem singularly skilled at “sucking you in” to their peculiar kind of narrative. The difference is that the pleasure in simulation games comes from experiencing space as a map: of at once claiming a place, and retaining an abstracted sense of it. The spatial stories Fuller and Jenkins discuss respond to the challenge of narrating geography by getting inside the map – they zoom in from forest-level so we can get to know the trees. Character may not be a primary criteria for these stories, but the stories still depend on individual subjective experience as the engine for their geographic narrative. Geography itself is not the protagonist; rather, the protagonist’s experience of geography structures the narrative.

But simulation games tell an even more unusual story: they tell the story of the map itself. Drawing a steady bead on the forest, they teach us how to follow, and enjoy, its transformations over time. We need never get distracted by the trees. Because simulation games fix the player in a depersonalized frame of mind, they can tell their story in the abstract, without ever bringing it to the level of individual experience. The map is not merely the environment for the story; it’s the hero of the story.

The closest analogue I can think of to the distinct kind of spatial story that simulation games tell are works of “environmental history” such as William Cronon’s Changes in the Land.[40] Cronon attempts to tell a version of American history from the perspective of the land, turning the earth itself into his protagonist. The limitations of the written word, however, make it difficult to fully treat an abstract entity as a character. You can’t easily employ the devices normally used to engage the reader with a human protagonist. As a result, the book is still a rather dry read. It may offer a new perspective, but it can’t engage the reader enough to give an emotional sense of what this perspective feels like.[41]

The clearest way to conceptualize space is not with words, but with images. A map captures the abstract contours of space; any verbal description begins the process of turning that map into a tour. This is why any good work of geography is full of maps; the reader is expected to continually check the words against the images, translating language back into visual understanding. Simulation games are a way to make the maps tell the whole story. As a still frame is to a movie, as a paragraph is to a novel, so is a map to a simulation game. Simulation games are maps-in-time, dramas which teach us how to think about structures of spatial relationships.[42]

Ideology

In one sense, every map is always already a tour. As geographer Denis Wood points out in The Power of Maps,[43] a map is the cumulative result of many subjective judgments. Map always have a point of view. The ideological work of the “scientific,” god’s-eye view map is to make the traces of those subjective decisions disappear. Critics of computer games worry that the technological aura of computers further heightens this reification, leaving game players with the impression that they have encountered not just one version of the way the world works, but the one and only objective version.[44]

This perspective would leave little room to imagine resistance. But the structure of the computer gaming experience does allow for variant interpretations. You can win Civilization in one of two ways. You can win by making war, wiping the other civilizations off the map and taking over the world. Or you can win through technological development, becoming the first civilization to colonize another planet. I haven’t emphasized the military aspect of Civilization because I don’t enjoy wargames all that much myself. My strategy for winning Civilization is to pour all my efforts into scientific research, so that my nation is the most technologically advanced. This allows me to be the first to build Wonders of the World which, under the game’s rules, force opponents to stay at peace with me. In the ancient world, the Great Wall of China does the trick. By modern times, I have to upgrade to the United Nations.

That’s just one strategy for winning. I think it’s probably the most effective – I get really high scores – but, judging from online discussions, it doesn’t appear to be the most popular. Most Civilization players seem to prefer a bloodier approach, sacrificing maximum economic and scientific development to focus on crushing their enemies.

The fact that more than one strategy will work – that there’s no one right way to win the game – demonstrates the impressive flexibility of Civilization. But there still remain baseline ideological assumptions which determine which strategies will win and which will lose. And underlying the entire structure of the game, of course, is the notion that global co-existence is a matter of winning or losing.

There are disadvantages to never seeing the trees for the forest. Civilization’s dynamic of depersonalization elides the violence of exploration, colonization, and development even more completely than do the stories of individual conquest described by Fuller and Jenkins. Military units who fight and die in Civilization disappear in a simple blip; native peoples who defend their homelands are inconveniences, “barbarian hordes” to be quickly disposed of.

What makes this palatable, at least for those of us who would get squeamish in a more explicit wargame, is the abstractness of Civilization. Any nation can be the colonizer, depending on who you pick to play. Barbarian hordes are never specific ethnicities; they’re just generic natives. It’s interesting to note that Sid Meier’s least successful game was a first attempt at a follow up to the original Civilization, the 1994 release Sid Meier’s Colonization. A more historically detailed game, Colonization allows you to play a European nation colonizing the New World. In addressing a more concrete and controversial historical subject, Meier is forced to complicate the Manifest Destiny ethos of Civilization. The Native American nations are differentiated, and behave in different ways. You can’t win through simple genocide, but must trade and collaborate with at least some Native Americans some of the time. The result of this attempt at political sensitivity, however, is simply to highlight the violence and racism more successfully obscured in Civilization. There’s no getting around the goal of Colonization: to colonize the New World. And while you have a choice of which European power to play, you can’t choose to play a Native American nation. (This ethnocentrism reflects the demographics of computer game players, who, like computer users, remain disproportionately white.)[45]

Civilization’s level of abstraction also leads to oversimplification. The immense timespan of Civilization reifies historically specific, continually changing practices into transhistorical categories like “science,” “religion,” and “nation.” Art and religion in Civilization serve a purely functional role: to keep the people pacified. If you pursue faith and beauty at the expense of economic development, you’re bound to get run over by less cultivated nations. Scientific research follows a path of rigid determinism; you always know in advance what you’re going to discover next, and it pays to plan two or three inventions ahead. And you can’t play “The Jews” in Civilization, or other diasporic peoples. The game assumes that a “civilization” equals a distinct political nation. There’s no creolization in Civilization, no hybridity, no forms of geopolitical organization before (or after) the rise of nationalism. Either you conquer your enemy, or your enemy conquers you. You can trade supplies and technology with your neighbors, but it’s presumed that your national identities will remain distinct. Playing a single, unchanging entity from the Stone Age to space colonization turns the often-slippery formation of nationhood into a kind of immutable racial destiny.

From the Forest to the Trees: The Sims

If Civilization rests on ideological premises we may choose to question, the distinct dynamics of computer gaming give the player the chance to transcend those assumptions. Computer games are designed to be played until they are mastered. You succeed by learning how the software is put together. You win the game by deconstructing it. Unlike a book or film that is engaged only once or twice, a computer game is played over and over until every subtlety is exposed, every hidden choice obvious to the savvy player. The moment the game loses its interest is when all its secrets have been discovered, its boundaries revealed. That’s when the game can no longer suck you in. No game feels fresh forever; eventually, you run up against the limits of its perspective, and move on to other games.

In the years after its debut in 1987, SimCity inspired numerous sequels and spin-offs. These games for the most part built on the original’s gameplay rather than reinventing it. In 2000, however, SimCity creator Will Wright released a game which would transform the simulation genre. The Sims is a “people simulator.” You control a household of characters, who can be roommates, lovers, or combinations of parents and children. You are responsible for each character’s every activity – sleeping, eating, working, socializing, even using the toilet. The result is like a dollhouse come to life, and it’s a truly engrossing experience. The Sims is the inverse of SimCity. While SimCity is about the big picture, The Sims allows you to drill down to the level of individual “Sims.” The latest version of SimCity, in fact, SimCity 4, links the two levels, allowing you to import characters from The Sims into SimCity.

The Sims quickly became the top-selling computer game in the United States. In 2003, four of the top six best-selling computer games were Sims products, including The Sims Deluxe and three expansion packs. (SimCity 4 was number seven.)[46] The Sims 2, released in September 2004, was an even bigger hit. It sold more than one million copies in just its first ten days of release, marking the biggest video game launch in the history of Electronic Arts, the game’s publisher. Combined cumulative sales of all Sims games topped 41 million units by October 2004. This discussion will concentrate on the original Sims game, while keeping in mind subsequent developments.[47]

Part of the success of The Sims can be explained by how it has reached a deeply underserved audience: women gamers. While most computer games, from Doom to Civilization, prioritize violence and conflict,[48] The Sims emphasizes interpersonal relationships. It also presents female characters of less outsized proportions than Tomb Raider’s Laura Croft. 56 percent of Sims players are women, compared to 43 percent of gamers overall.[49]

Prior to The Sims, there had been some American computer games with a focus on character, such as games in the role-playing genre. But these characters were almost always heroic archetypes thrust into larger-than-life fantasy and science fiction scenarios. There is also a tradition of romance-oriented “relationship simulation” computer games in Japan, but none of these games had been successfully imported into the American market. The Sims was the first American game to allow you to explore a character not through the modalities of fantasy or adventure, but of drama – the everyday.

So, how does The Sims construct this imaginary everyday world? The game is designed to be flexible and open-ended, but it does set some core rules. The primary measure of your moment-to-moment success is each character’s “Mood” bar. When the Mood bar is full, the Sim is happy, and is more responsive, energetic, and productive. When the bar runs low, the Sim is sad, and grows lethargic and unresponsive. The key to your long-term goals for the Sim – whether they center on career, family, or whatever you choose to value – is making sure that the Sim stays happy as she or he goes about her or his daily tasks.

[Insert Figure 6.7. Caption: The Sims]

The Sim’s mood, in turn, is a reflection of the state of satisfaction of eight basic “Needs”: Hunger, Comfort, Hygiene, Bladder, Energy, Fun, Social, and Room. (The Sims 2 adds more existential needs, called “Aspirations.”) Each one of these needs is tracked on a separate bar. A filled bar means the need is totally fulfilled at the moment; an empty bar means the need is totally unfulfilled. Various actions satisfy a Sim’s needs. Eating satisfies hunger, washing satisfies hygiene, and so on. As time goes by, each bar runs down, until the need is again satisfied.

In order to satisfy many of these needs, you need to buy products. To buy products, you need money. You start the game with a set amount of money, then get a job and go to work to earn more. (Kids go to school instead of work, and “earn” grades instead of money.) Work and school are represented in the game only through their absence. The Sims take off for their jobs and classes, but the game interface stays at the house. If nobody’s left at home, the hours rush by at accelerated speed, until the Sims return.

So, to get ahead in the game, you need to buy stuff. Much of the gameplay is spent in “Buy Mode.” The game clock pauses, and a menu of consumer options pops up: appliances, furniture, decorations, and so on. Each item has a game function. A stove is needed to cook food, for example. The more expensive the stove, the more satisfying the food, filling the “Hunger” meter more fully.

The economics of The Sims has inspired one easy criticism: that it’s a consumerist fantasy that turns life into one big shopping spree. A review of the game in The New York Times, for example, was titled, “The Sims Who Die with the Most Toys Win.”[50] Given the large number of women who play The Sims, this critique fits snugly with familiar gender stereotypes about women as shopping-obsessed overconsumers. But this analysis misses a complicating factor: the critical currency in The Sims is not money, but time. The gameplay is a continuous balancing act, a race to juggle multiple needs before time runs out and the day is over. Misallocate time, and the results are disastrous. If you miss too much work, you’re fired. If you skip too much school, a truant officer hauls you off to military school. If you go too long without using the bathroom, you pee your pants. If you don’t eat, you die.

The Sims, then, is a reflection not only of consumerism, but also of what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “the time bind” – the constant pressure on Americans today, particularly working mothers, to juggle the competing demands of work and home.[51] The game is even grittily pessimistic about the possibilities of raising children in a two-income family. A Sim couple can make a child (the sex is chastely blurred out – the game is rated T by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, for “content that may be suitable for persons ages 13 and older.”)[52] But with the new responsibilities a baby brings, if both Sim parents work outside the home, inevitably either one of the characters will miss work and get fired, or the baby will wind up so neglected that a social worker shows up and takes it away. (In Sims 2, you can hire a nanny, but as in real life, this requires substantial funds.)

A third economy in The Sims is personal relationships. In order for a Sim to advance in her or his job and make more money, the Sim needs to collect friends. Sims make friends by interacting with other Sims, both within the household (controlled by the player) and in the neighborhood (controlled by the computer). Sims talk to each other, but they don’t speak English; rather, they speak “SimSpeak,” gibberish which conveys emotion through intonation, but not precise meaning. They can also engage in a wide range of social behaviors, such as dancing, back rubbing, tickling, and kissing. A group of bars just like the eight Mood bars track how well the Sim is liked by each of her/his acquaintances. Another challenge of the game, then, is to orchestrate relationships to build up each Sim’s number of friends, as well as find romantic partners for each Sim. (Taking a progressive stand, the game includes the possibility of gay and lesbian as well as straight romances. Gay couples can’t make babies, but may adopt one.)[53]

Given these themes, the appeal of the game to girls and women struggling to define their roles in contemporary America makes sense. The Sims is not simply an escapist fantasy, but a model with which to experiment with different sets of personal priorities, as reflected in different game strategies.

There’s plenty of room to experiment, since you control not just one member of the household, but all of them, commanding them individually while coordinating their interactions with each other. Gameplay is not just a constant juggling act from one task to the next, but from one character to another. The currently “active” character in any moment of gameplay is represented by a diamond over the character’s head. (In a twist on that Tetris commercial, recent commercials for The Sims represent everyday real-life situations as if they were taking place in the world of the game, complete with diamonds floating overhead. Like the Tetris ad, the commercials highlight how playing the game restructures your perception of the world outside the game.)

Identification in The Sims, then, is multiple and shifting. You can bounce from one side of a flirtation to the other, conducting a romance. Unlike SimCity, however, the identification remains personalized, even through the shifts. The game interface may present a god’s-eye perspective – it’s a third person overhead view, never POV – but the game never disengages to the Olympian heights of the main map screens in SimCity and Civilization. More than any adventure game, The Sims allows you to develop characters you can really care about.

MMORPGs: From Personal Computer Gaming to Interpersonal Computer Gaming

The Sims may be a game that values interpersonal interaction, but as originally designed, it was a solitary experience. Concurrent with the success of The Sims, however, was the second major gaming phenomenon of the turn of the millennium: the rise of multiplayer online gaming.

Online game environments had been around for many years. In the 1980s and 1990s, many players participated in MUDs, or “Multi-User Domains,” also known as “Multi-User Dungeons,” since the majority of the spaces were organized around fantasy themes.[54] Nonetheless, MUDding remained a largely subcultural activity, text-based, far removed from the flashy world of cutting-edge computer gaming. In 1997, however, Ultima Online debuted as the first MMORPG – “Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.” The even more successful Everquest followed in 1998. These slick, 3D games capitalized on the rise of the internet to transform personal computer gaming into interpersonal computer gaming. In these games, a player controls a character within a giant fantasy world, interacting with thousands of other online players.

The world of MMORPGs is now a massive business. Everquest has 420,000 subscribers, each of whom pays a monthly fee on top of the original purchase price of the game. Star Wars Galaxies, the online version of the venerable franchise, boasts 470,000 subscribers. Final Fantasy Online, played through the Playstation 2 network adapter, has 500,000 subscribers worldwide.[55] Other online games include the superhero-themed City of Heroes, the Tolkein adaptation Middle-Earth Online, and The Matrix Online.

Online games have become rich, engrossing fantasy spaces, complex societies with their own newspapers, social events, and economies. This last aspect has become particularly interesting to many economists, who have begun to study the emergence of complex economic systems among players.[56] Many successful veteran players sell game artifacts online, through eBay, to less advanced players – for real-world money. Some players have managed to make livings by arbitraging game items: buying low off eBay, then reselling at higher prices. Julian Dibbell recounts his experience as a professional Ultima Online arbitrageur in a fascinating weblog, Play Money.[57]

Seeing the success of the MMORPGs, Maxis brought out The Sims Online in 2002 to great publicity, including a Newsweek cover story.[58] Surprisingly, the game has been a bust, with only 80,000 players.[59] It appears players preferred the simulated social engagement of The Sims to the online “real thing.” The game has been marred by large numbers of “griefers” who harass other players. The game also received negative publicity when Peter Ludlow, a philosopher of language who was participating in the game while studying it, was booted off the system. He had been publishing an online newspaper, The Alphaville Herald, about the game, including candid discussion of problems with the game. Maxis asserted its ultimate right to control its collective fantasy space. But the subsequent hue and cry demonstrated the growing public awareness that online game worlds are significant public spaces. Stories on the controversy appeared in The New York Times and on CNN, the BBC, and The Daily Show. Ludlow has now moved to another MMORPG with a more flexible philosophy, Second Life, and publishes The Second Life Herald.

[Insert Figure 6.8. Caption: The Second Life Herald]

The New Lively Art

This discussion of a few influential games can only scratch the surface of a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. Henry Jenkins has suggested that we think of computer games as “the new lively art,”[60] an emergent form joining the other popular arts surveyed by Gilbert Seldes in his 1924 classic, The Seven Lively Arts.[61] In the last few years, a community of scholars have emerged to interrogate the aesthetics, ideology, and economics of computer games.[62] In 2001, the first peer-reviewed journal in the field, Game Studies, was launched.

As game studies has struggled to move beyond the interactive cinema paradigm, it has turned to the analysis of what is distinctive about games as games. To that end, Espen Aarseth and others have proposed a new term to label the field: “ludology,” from the Latin word “ludus,” for game.[63] Their work parallels my own efforts to distinguish the distinct properties of computer games. However, in their desire to claim new disciplinary territory against poachers from English and film departments eager to claim games as just another form of storytelling, some ludologists reject the concept of narrative altogether as a useful tool for interpreting computer games.[64] As this chapter has demonstrated, while computer games cannot simply be described as narrative, even fluid, open-ended games like SimCity and The Sims have many story-like aspects.

Henry Jenkins in a recent essay proposes a sensible middle ground between the narratologists and the ludologists. Expanding the concept of “spatial stories,” Jenkins suggests that we understand game design as “narrative architecture,” and designers as “world builders” rather than storytellers.[65] The phrase “world building” comes from the genres of science fiction and fantasy. It describes the projects of creators such as L. Frank Baum, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Gene Roddenberry, each of whom developed an elaborate fictional universe which spread beyond the bounds of individual stories. The focus on world building clarifies the utopian dimensions of game design: the designer’s role is not merely to tell a story, but to imagine an entire new world.

One useful extension to this world building model is to consider Fredric Jameson’s argument in “World Reduction in Le Guin: The Emergence of Utopian Narrative.”[66] Jameson examines the surprising barrenness of the landscape in Ursula Le Guin’s classic science fiction novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, compared to our usual presumption that world building is a process of excess. (Think of Tolkien’s many volumes of appendices and histories, fleshing out the world of Middle Earth.) Jameson concludes that another way to think of the SF spatial story is as a process of “world reduction” – boiling down a universe to uncover its most essential aspects. In a sense, this is what all games must do: decide which aspects of a universe are important to gameplay, and which are peripheral. In this sense, we can understand games such as SimCity, Civilization, The Sims, and Everquest as projects both of world building and world reduction. Simulation games give the player the opportunity to create elaborate fantasy universes. But they necessarily limit the parameters of play. Civilization reduces its world to expansion and war; The Sims to time, money, and friends.

The power of world reduction may also help explain the challenges faced by the sequels and expansions to these original simulation games. The original SimCity and Civilization were forced to reduce their worlds to basic abstractions because the computers of 1987 and 1991, respectively, didn’t have the capacity for greater complexity. The games used bold, chunky graphics because of the limits of monitor resolutions and graphic cards. Their algorithms for modeling economic growth were limited because of the processing power available to calculate them. These restrictions were frustrating, but also imposed discipline: designers were forced to carefully chose their models, reducing their worlds to a bare minimum. Subsequent games have been liberated from these restrictions as Moore’s Law has zoomed onward. But as a result, they can grow so complex and detailed that their underlying premises are swamped in excess detail.

This irony – that simplicity may convey information more powerfully than detail – is developed in Scott McCloud’s wonderful Understanding Comics, a theorization of comic book art presented in the form of a comic book starring McCloud himself.[67] One of McCloud’s key points is that in comic art, simplicity evokes universality. We can think of comic drawing as a continuum, from the almost pure abstraction of a stick figure or smiley-face on one end, to photo-realism on the other end. One might assume that the greater detail of photo-realism would inherently be a more effective artistic technique. But McCloud points out that many of the most powerful, evocative comic characters are the most abstracted. Think of Charlie Brown, Pogo, or Nancy. Their very simplicity encourages identification, empowering the reader to fill in the details. Similarly, the early computer games, out of technological necessity, embraced an aesthetic of abstraction, starting with the simple dots and lines of Pong. As computer games have grown more technologically advanced, this abstraction has been replaced with a quest for “realism” through the most detailed rendering of 3D spaces and textures. But this so-called progress comes with a cost.

[Insert Figure 6.9. Caption: From Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics]

I have to admit that as of this writing, my favorite computer game stars a group of stick figures. Kingdom of Loathing is an online role-playing game. In the tradition of simple text-based adventure games like Adventure and Zork, you control a character who explores a world full of quests, battles, and treasures. But while almost all contemporary computer games update these classics by buffing them to a 3D, megapixel sheen, Kingdom of Loathing has a sketchy, hand-drawn look. The interface is simple, as well: almost all options are just a mouse-click or two away. There’s no motion, either, just a static series of web pages. In place of the text-based commands, the interface is streamlined process of pointing and clicking – every possible action is no more than a click or two away. The style perfectly fits the game’s silly, Monty Python-esque sensibility, in which the kingdom’s currency is “meat,” wizards are known as “Pastamancers” and “Saucerors,” heroes battle enemies such as “The Procrastination Giant” and “Ninja Snowmen,” and locations include “The Obligatory Pirate’s Cove” and “The Naughty Sorceress’s Lair.” But the game’s world is rich and compelling – there are hundreds of monsters to fight and treasures to discover. And a community of thousands of players has built up a vibrant economy, in which players trade meat for valued objects such as hell ramen, supermartinis, and hippopotamus pants. Kingdom of Loathing demonstrates one elegant balancing point between the giddy pleasures of world building and the bracing focus of world reduction.

[Insert Figure 6.10. Caption: Kingdom of Loathing]


[1]. Portions of this chapter have appeared as Friedman, “Making Sense of Software”; and Friedman, “Civilization and Its Discontents: Simulation, Subjectivity, and Space.”

[2]. At the time, it should be noted, Asimov was a paid spokesperson for Radio Shack, appearing in ads for the TRS-80. He later admitted that he continued to use his typewriter for rough drafts. (Asimov, I. Asimov, 471-6.)

[3]. See neo-Luddite works such as Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies; Slouka, War of the Worlds; Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil. For more on the neo-Luddites, see Chapter Eight.

[4]. See MAME – The Official Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator Site.

[5].  Kasavin, “Full Spectrum Warrior Review.”

[6]. The exponential rise in the processing power of home video game systems parallels that of computer systems, since they’re built on the same underlying microprocessor technology. However, since the product choices in video game systems are so much more limited, the increase in processing power comes in stages, rather than the smooth curve of most charts of Moore’s Law. Dell comes out with a new slate of computers running at slightly higher processor speeds every month. A video game company’s system, by contrast, typically lasts for 4-6 years, before being replaced with a new system with exponentially more processing power. The original Playstation, for example, appeared in 1995. The Playstation 2 appeared in 2000. The Playstation 3 is scheduled for release in early 2006.

[7].  See Levy, Hackers; Wilson, “A Brief History of Gaming, Part 1,” Laurel, Computers as Theater.

[8]. Laurel, Computers as Theater, 1.

[9]. See Levy, Hackers; Wilson, “A Brief History of Computer Games, Part 1.”

[10]. This widely-quoted phrase was coined by Electronic Arts executive Trip Hawkins in the early 1980s.

[11].  I’m certain the 1993 film Groundhog Day was made by computer game players – its plot perfectly captures the “oh no, not again” exasperation of playing the same sequence over and over, again and again, until you get everything right.

[12]. One intriguing current phenomenon in game design is a turn toward screenwriting techniques in an attempt to develop more emotionally engaging storylines. See Freeman, Creating Emotion in Games.

[13]. Will Wright, quoted in Reeder, “Designing Visions.”

[14]. Barol, “Big Fun in a Small Town.”

[15]. Maxis Software Toys Catalog, 4.

[16]. Maxis Software Toys Catalog, 10.

[17]. Card, “Gameplay: Games With No Limits,” 58.

[18]. See Myers, “Time Symbol Transformations, and Computer Games.”

[19]. Myers, “Computer Game Semiotics,” 343.

[20]. Shelley, Sid Meier’s Civilization Player’s Manual, 7.

[21]. Latour, Aramis, viii.

[22]. Where, one may ask, in this confrontation between computer and player, is the author of the software? In some sense, one could describe playing a computer game as learning to think like the programmer, rather than the computer. On the basic level of strategy, this may mean trying to divine Sid Meier’s choices and prejudices, to figure out how he put the game together so as to play it more successfully. More generally, one could describe simulation games as an aestheticization of the programming process: a way to interact with and direct the computer, but at a remove. Many aspects of computer gameplay resemble the work of programming; the play-die-and-start-over rhythm of adventure games, for example, can be seen as a kind of debugging process. Programming, in fact, can often be as absorbing a task as gaming; both suck you into the logic of the computer. The programmer must also learn to “think like the computer” at a more technical level, structuring code in the rigid logic of binary circuits.

[23]. See Weiner, Cybernetics.

[24]. Heims, The Cybernetics Group, 15-16.

[25]. See Gibson, Neuromancer.

[26]. Actually, one might argue that the pleasure many get out of driving for its own sake, or the enjoyment of watching TV no matter what’s on (what Raymond Williams in Television called “flow”), are examples of similar aestheticizations of the cybernetic connection between person and machine. We might then say that just as these pleasures aestheticized previous cybernetic connections, simulation games do the same for our relationships with computers.

[27]. Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” 443.

[28]. Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” 449.

[29]. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 206.

[30]. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, 206.

[31]. Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 54.

[32]. Myers, “Chris Crawford,” 27.

[33]. Fuller and Jenkins, “Nintendo and New World Travel Writing.”

[34]. Fuller and Jenkins, “Nintendo and New World Travel Writing,” 58.

[35]. See de Certeau, Heterologies; de Certeau, Practice.

[36]. Fuller and Jenkins cite de Certeau, Practice, 117-118.

[37]. Fuller and Jenkins, “Nintendo and New World Travel Writing,” 66.

[38]. Fuller and Jenkins cites de Certeau, Practice, 118-122.

[39]. Fuller and Jenkins, “Nintendo and New World Travel Writing,” 66.

[40]. Cronon, Changes in the Land.

[41]. One alternative might be to go ahead and treat an abstract object like a real protagonist, complete with an interior monologue. That’s what Latour does in Aramis. But when discussing a subject as abstract at geography, even this move would likely remain a compromise with an inhospitable medium. In giving voice to geography, one risks anthropomorphization, falling back into the synecdochical trap of substituting the king for the land.

[42]. One might also think about how simulations narrate other abstractions, such as economic relationships. In addition to being maps-in-time, simulations are also charts-in-time. The player follows not only the central map in Civilization, but also the various charts, graphs and status screens which document the current state of each city’s trade balance, food supply, productivity, and scientific research. In this aspect, simulations share a common heritage with the Apple II’s original killer application, the spreadsheet.

[43]. Wood, The Power of Maps.

[44]. See neo-Luddite critics such as Brook and Boal, “Preface”; Slouka, War of the Worlds.

[45]. See Kolko, Nakamura and Rodman, Race in Cyberspace; Nakamura, Cybertypes.

[46]. Entertainment Software Association, “2004 Sales, Demographics and Usage Data.”

[47]. “Electronic Arts Posts Record Sims 2 Sales,” Associated Press, September 29, 2004.

[48]. On the gender politics of computer games, see Cassell and Jenkins, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat. For one designer’s account of her own attempts to build games for girls, see Laurel, Utopian Entrepreneur.

[49]. “Women Get in the Game.”

[50]. Herz, “Game Theory: The Sims Who Die With the Most Toys Win.”

[51]. Hochschild, The Time Bind.

[52]. For more on sexuality in The Sims, see Consalvo, “Hot Dates and Fairy Tale Romances.”

[53]. See Consalvo, “Hot Dates and Fairy Tale Romances.”

[54]. On MUDs, see Turkle, Life on the Screen; Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace.”

[55]. Statistics from Meston, “The MMORPG Morass,” 64.

[56]. See Shapiro, “Fantasy Economics.”

[57]. Julian Dibbell, Play Money; Dibbell, “The Unreal Estate Boom.” See also Thompson, “Game Theories.”

[58]. Croal, “Sims Family Values.”

[59]. Meston, “The MMORPG Morass,” 64.

[60]. Jenkins, “Games, the New Lively Art.”

[61].  Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts.

[62]. For excellent surveys of the state of computer game and video game research, see Newman, Videogames; Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan, eds., First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game; Wolf, ed., The Medium of the Video Game; Wolf and Perron, eds., Video Game Theory Reader. Interest in computer games has also spurred new theorization of the broader culture of games, including board games, card games, and role-playing games. See Salen and Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals; Sholder and Zimmerman, Replay: Game Design and Game Culture.

[63]. See Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan, “Ludology,” 35; Frasca, “Simulation Versus Narrative.”

[64]. Henry Jenkins cites several examples of this perspective in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” 118. These include Adams, “Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers”; Costikyan, “Where Stories End and Games Begin”; Juul, “A Clash Between Games and Narrative” and “Games Telling Stories?”; and Eskelinen, “The Gaming Situation.” See also the responses by Jon McKenzie and Markku Eskalinen published side-by-side with Jenkins’s article on pages 118-121.

[65]. Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.”

[66]. Jameson, “World Reduction in Le Guin.”

[67]. McCloud, Understanding Comics.

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