Playing at life

As ever more complex computer games take on the trappings of simulated lives, what are they teaching players about their actual lives?

Zeus. Zeus Williams. Despite his name, he's a regular suburban guy, with a barbecue, wall-to-wall carpeting, and a tank of goldfish he can't seem to keep alive. He has no superpowers, no grenades, and if you don't take him to the toilet twice a day, you have a mess on your hands.

He may be an unlikely action hero, but the game he's part of, The Sims, was the top-selling computer game in the United States last year, beating out scores of popular action titles. So what's the secret to this unassuming Sim's success?

Ask Kelly Dunagan. She and her boyfriend, Galen Davis, created the character a year ago on Galen's PC. They named him, applied his skin, built his house, dragged him out of bed every morning, and even found him a wife.

Why would two busy college kids spend precious time washing Zeus' virtual dishes, when they could be whiling away their study hours leaping off rooftops and blowing up villains in any number of high-action computer games on the market today?

"I have no idea," Kelly, a Stanford University sophomore, admits. "I don't know why it's so fun. When I think about it, it's really stupid. I don't want to spend all my time playing Sims.... But then your guy needs to shower, and he starts to get grumpy. He's stomping his feet. So what are you going to do?"

The Sims, a product of interactive entertainment software company Electronic Arts, is one of a growing number of computer games on the market that have been popularly dubbed "God games."

In a traditional computer or video game, a player identifies with a single character, who must navigate a predesigned landscape with a particular goal in mind.

But in a "God game," players can not only manipulate the actions of characters, they can design the spaces in which those characters live, and how they interact. And players don't win or lose - they earn points for what the game judges to be their characters' "good" social behavior, and lose points for "bad."

So Zeus loses points when Kelly leaves him alone in his room for too long. "He has to have friends over way more than regular people do," she complains, "Pretty much every night, or else he gets depressed. I don't know anybody who has to see their friends that much."

The extraordinary popularity of the game, and the great number of social simulation games now being developed, raises the question: As games take on the trappings of simulated lives, what might they be teaching players about their actual lives?

This isn't just a question for the concerned parents of a few monosyllabic teenagers. Computer gamers no longer fit the narrow profile of what cultural historian Tim Burke, at Swarthmore College, jokingly calls "unwashed geeks in their basements."

Rather, a recent survey by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA), a trade group representing major US computer and video-game companies, found that nearly 60 percent of Americans - or about 170 million people - now play computer and video games.

What's more, in 2000, computer and video games generated $6.02 billion in sales worldwide - nearly double what they totaled in1995.

And in statistics that fly in the face of old assumptions about isolated computer-game players, almost 60 percent of players in the IDSA survey said they play games with their friends. A third reported playing with siblings, and about a quarter play with spouses or parents.

Henry Jenkins, professor and chair of the new Comparative Media Studies Department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, is not surprised. "Despite our stereotypes of the lone gamer," he says, "the tendency in recent years has been moving toward social forms of [game] play."

Besides, for every popular computer game on the market, there are scores of fan sites, chat groups, and gaming tips available on the Web. Also, in the last few years there's been a huge surge in the development of live online games. An online version of The Sims is scheduled for launch early next year. For networked players, computer games like these can be anything but antisocial.

Professor Jenkins believes our society is "at a threshold point with games. There's been an enormous burst of creativity over the last few years," stemming from a combination of better technical capabilities, more adults playing games and demanding mature and complex content, and a strong mandate in the game industry to expand its market to women.

Built-in ethical dilemmas

"You add to that the ethical dilemmas the industry faced post-Columbine, and its attempt to figure out 'How do we move away from violence-oriented games?' All of that adds up to a period of real ferment, creativity, and innovation in the industry that will transform what people think about games."

With so many people now playing computer and video games, and at a time when fingers point to violent games each time a suburban teen opens fire at a high school, the question of what messages games impart is more relevant than ever.

It's one that Burke, of Swarthmore, has thought a lot about, as he plays and researches the social impact of The Sims.

"Critics of the game tend to fall into two camps. There are those who say, 'Look at this stupid game. It sets up a pattern of endless climbing the social ladder to attain material things. It's ridiculous.' But on the other side, there are people saying: 'Isn't this interesting? The game's emphasis on material gains makes us think about what else there is [to value].' "

But game designer David Galiel, founder of the online entertainment company Planetary Arts, thinks The Sims doesn't make enough use of its potential to get players thinking and talking about the practical and moral questions that a social simulation of its kind raises. "There are books and movies and television series - few and far between - that have changed the world and become part of our regular vocabulary," he says. "There's no game that's done that. The Sims won't do it," because it doesn't "allow enough varieties in behavior without making a judgment about them."

But Jenkins argues that the values built into a game don't have to be restrictive. "For example," he says, "The Sims has no taboo about homosexuality. Men can kiss men, women can kiss women. You can imagine [the game designers] creating some kind of negative polarity in which two men repelled each other.

"But instead, the design team decided to say 'this is an acceptable alternative within the simulation.' So in fact, [a game's values structure] can be equally a progressive ideology that's teaching players to respect alternatives that some parts of their social upbringing might be more narrow about."

Kana Ryan, producer of The Sims, says the team of designers, programmers, and producers who worked on the game struggled with the divisive social questions that such a lifelike simulation raises: What kinds of relationships to permit, how far to go with sex, and whether to allow violence. She says those questions were easy to answer about child characters, because "there's a line that you draw."

But with adult characters, "it got really difficult." They decided not to show nudity or sex, only kissing. They wondered "Do we allow fighting?" They settled on some cartoonish fighting, "but there are actually bad consequences to that fighting," Ryan points out.

So The Sims, just like any other game, makes value judgments. Jenkins argues that's why it's important for players - like any media consumers - to question the premises of the games they choose: " 'Cause no one is going to say [to you] 'These are the values and assumptions of the universe.' You have to discover those through action."

Burke believes the complex questions computer games raise for players "can sometimes lead to profound forms of interaction. Even if two players are interacting through a crude medium and manipulating simple characters, sometimes that can serve to spark conversations about life as it's actually lived."

Designing Women

Part of the shift in the demographic of game players is the change in the number of women now playing, buying, and designing computer games. A recent IDSA study found that in the year 2000, 43 percent of computer and video-game players were women. Fifty percent of online game players are also women, and women are increasingly making inroads into the computer-game industry.

Kana Ryan is one of those. She stumbled into the industry by accident, after a job designing technical software for IBM. From there, she moved into educational software, and then on to Maxis, to work on simulation games for young children.

Will Wright, creator of The Sims, has been designing games for years. In 1989, he came out with a wildly popular urban-planning simulation called SimCity. But SimCity was still designed, like most computer and video games, primarily by men, and played by a largely male audience.

So when it came to The Sims, Mr. Wright surrounded himself with a team that included more women producers and designers than almost any other place in the industry. "We're not even talking about half the team," Ryan remembers, "but it did make a difference."

Ryan says when the team began working on the idea for the game, Wright envisioned a house-building simulation in which the Sim people were mostly useful as "the feedback mechanism: They tell you what they think of the house." It was two of the female designers, Ryan remembers, who first began to ask, "'How can we make these people more interesting? How can they be the focus?'... The social stuff was born out of that discussion and influence."

Mike Sellers, senior designer working on the next iteration of The Sims, confirms that the game's next installment will pay even more attention to social dynamics. "Creating more complex and believable social interactions is one of our main focus areas," he says.

But for now, the basic irony of the game - that players win points for virtual social prowess, while glued to their computer screens - is not lost on Ryan.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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