Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Simulating 'The Sims' Experiment

Sometimes the inner scientist/psychologist/sociologist geek inside of me cannot be contained. I learn about an experiment in human behavior and I cannot help but test it myself. Such was the case when I began reading Chuck Klosterman’s book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. In it, he talks about the video games The Sims and Sim City, and how introspective, yet flawed, he thinks they are.

Klosterman says that The Sims has been criticized as being voyeuristic, but he feels it is exactly the opposite. Klosterman uses himself as an example and says that he created a character that resembled himself as closely as he could. He made the Sim character look like him, act like him, and live a life very similar to his own. Contrary to being voyeuristic and getting an inside look at the (virtual) lives of others, he is actually watching himself live out his own life virtually. And he thinks it’s pretty mundane. In fact, he says that while playing The Sims, he’s forced to consider tedious tasks that he doesn’t give much thought to in real life, such as getting up for work or going to the bathroom.

I’ve never played The Sims or Sim City and never saw the appeal of it for exactly those reasons. I barely have time to live my own life, let alone moving a virtual person through life. But my daughter plays, so I decided to sit down and watch her play and see whether Klosterman’s observations held true.

This observation by Klosterman intrigued me the most: He says that while playing The Sims, he asked his 6-year-old niece Katie how he could have a house if he didn’t have a job? How could he afford to put food in his fridge? Where did he go to college? Did he have health insurance?  Katie tried to brush off his questions with answers such as “You just have money.” Klosterman asked,”But where did I come from?”  She replied, “You’re just here.”

What struck him as curious about this is that “…If she had been playing with her Barbie Dream House and I asked her why Barbie had four pairs of shoes but only two decent outfits, Katie would have undoubtedly spent the next half hour explaining that Barbie purchased the extra shoes while shopping in Hong Kong with Britney Spears and planned to wear them to a cocktail party in Grandma’s basement…”  Katie is perfectly willing to make up back stories for her tangible toys, but not for the virtual world she has created in The Sims. Somehow, the rules were more fixed and she wasn’t as inventive playing this video game as she would be playing with physical objects.

So, I had to test this. Would my daughter respond differently?

When I got home from work, we went up to her room and there I saw her Barbies and various stuffed animals posed in play on her bed. I asked her what they'd been playing. She wouldn't tell me, but it was obvious there was plenty of back story and make-believe going on.

So then I suggested she play The Sims. She readily agreed. But first she needed to know which game I wanted to play. Of course, I didn't want to play any game; I just wanted to watch her play. But she explained that she'd created different characters and different worlds. We could play with the Glee family she'd made (in which Emma and Schuster are married, and so are Quinn and Finn). Or we could play with the girl character she made who's a movie star. Or the characters that she and her friend made that are loosely based on themselves, but are living their fantasy lives.

"You mean, you didn't make a character that's you?" I asked.


I had to insert a leading question here, since this was, after all, a sociology experiment.  "Oh. Don't most people make characters that are like them?"

She shrugged. "Sometimes, but it's more fun to make up people you want to be."

I agree. And I noticed that all of her scenarios included plenty of back story. So, Chuck Klosterman, maybe The Sims is a little more imaginative and voyeuristic than you thought. Maybe you're one of the few, rather than the majority, who plays out your own life virtually?  I don't know. I only tested one subject, but in your book, so did you. What I've discovered is that my research did not support your theories. But I'm always game for another experiment.

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