Coded blue.

Wednesday 13 September 2006

Screenshot Sims2

Pic of the day: Behold the shortness of simulated life and the popularity of babies.

Sims 2 as spiritual exercise

OK, "spiritual" may be too strong a word for it, but I will argue that it is deeply meaningful in several ways, both to the religious and the secular player.

The Sims 2 is a "people simulator", which is already outrageously pretentious. But it is still a better description than "dollhouse", which was supposed to be its original name. With dolls, nothing happens unless you make it so. The dolls are simply a projection of your own will (or your subconscious, if you get engrossed enough in the play). Not so the Sims. They have their own personalities, albeit simple. They will act on their own if allowed. They have wants and fears, but their actions are rarely if ever based on these; rather they tend to act according to their "needs", which are usually more basic than the wants. The interplay of these forces makes a decent emulation of human behavior, just simpler. Well, simpler than some of us at least!

Already at this point, the keen observer will be compelled to look at his or her own life. Is there a similar discrepancy there between what we wish for and what we actually do? A popularity Sim may wish to get fit, but unless he is born or raised to be active, he will still choose the couch and TV ten times out of ten. This is where your job as a guardian angel is to nudge him in the right direction without running him into the ground. But how would we like if someone tried to do that to us in real life? (Presumably most men like it, since they marry...)

In a manner of speaking, you can say that the Sims have a soul but not a spirit. Like the ur-human transported into a modern world, they have a well developed intelligence for satisfying their needs, even subtle needs, as long as it does not require planning ahead, making sacrifices, acting on their ambitions. It is up to the player to supply the Sims' spirit, that inner drive that seeks to make meaning rather than just survive.

(In a religious context, that reminds me of the famous painting of God and Adam, where Adam seems to already be alive but passive, not yet touched with the divine spark. Many Sims players do indeed refer to themselves as the Sims' god. In that case, it raises some pretty disturbing theological questions. I doubt this game will have a deep effect on theology in general, but it is a fascinating thought.)

Speaking of survival, the Sims are mortal now. If they don't use the Elixir of Life, their maximum life span is approximately 80 "days" (which roughly correspond to years in human lives). Each day has 24 hours, but their hours only last one of our minutes. So in a few days of playing you will have passed through a Sim's entire life and they will die from old age. (Provided of course they have not died by accident before. They are particularly prone to electrocution, it seems.) Raising a Sim child, watching him or her go through the various phases of life, and then seeing them reduced to a headstone... you don't need to be a closet goth to feel the impact of that.

A central understanding in all religions and most philosophies that deal with personal matters, is this: All things that have form are subject to change and eventually decay. Some Buddhists go so far as to spend time contemplating and visualizing the gradual decay of their corpse after death. A less morbid practice is summed up in this saying which I sometimes found among my Christian friends: "Contemplate the brevity of life, the certainty of death, and the length of eternity." You certainly don't have to be a Christian, or even religious, to notice that a lot of things dissolve under such a perspective. "The problem with people" said Kierkegaard, "is that they take too many things seriously. Death is serious."

Death and love, would my old Norwegian teacher from high school perhaps have added. According to him, all poetry was about death and love. And indeed, it is an open question whether one could exist without the other. This is all too clear in The Sims 2, where the imperative to breed is painfully obvious. Not all Sims have aspirations of family or romance, but all of them are mortal. Your Sim may have a lifetime goal of earning a fortune, and when he has reached this, he will be happy. But when he dies, all that is left behind is an urn, an empty house and a modest inheritance for his best friends, if any. And the question almost asks itself: Was it worth it?

The Sims now have genes. Their children will both look and act like their parents, although their behavior may be different in one or two ways from their parents. For instance two shy parents will often get an outgoing child. But generally if the parents are neat, the children will grow up neat. If the parents are lazy, their children tend to be lazy as well. Your Sims can encourage traits in their children if they are strong in that area themselves, but otherwise not. A lazy parent is not able to make their child more active, for instance. But by and large, children will grow up to be disturbingly similar to one or both of their parents, in looks and in action. In this way, you the player can see that a part of the original Sim does indeed live on in their children.

Over the span of several generations, the original traits are gradually bred out, at least if you let the Sims follow their own somewhat random loves instead of breeding for some particular trait. So in the end, it will be strangers living in your house anyway, seen from the perspective of the first ("founder") Sim. But at least it is a gradual process.

But because the game takes so much time (especially when there is a whole family to look after) it is easy to lose sight of the larger perspective and get hooked up in some detail. Then again, it is even easier in real life. In the game, you are likely to wake up frequently because events happen that remind you of what is really important in life. Or at least in a simulated life. Your mileage may vary.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: General election
Two years ago: Talking about the weather
Three years ago: Enjoyable Saturday
Four years ago: Quality or quantity?
Five years ago: Millenium, by Veidt
Six years ago: Norway vs The World
Seven years ago: Men at work

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