SIM-ply obsessed

March 2, 2006, midnight | By Katy Lafen | 14 years, 10 months ago

Blazers spend hours creating fantasy lives in popular computer game

To her horror, pop star Britney Spears opened her front door to discover a social worker with a warrant in hand, waiting to take her neglected newborn baby into custody. Yet despite evidence in the media that suggests otherwise, this incident was not Spears's fault - it was sophomore Ixchel Montenegro's.

Montenegro had been playing "The Sims," an enormously popular computer game, and had gotten tired of hearing about Britney Spears in the news all the time. "I didn't really care about my Spears family, so I let them slide a little," Montenegro says, laughing. Montenegro's Britney was actually quite different from the one in the tabloids; she spoke a strange gibberish language, wet her pants every few days and was composed entirely of computer pixels.

"The Sims," released in 2000, was the first computer game of its kind, says Clive Thompson, a science and technology writer for The New York Times who recently wrote an article on "The Sims" for "Psychology Today." The game allows players to create imaginary characters, construct their homes and control their lives. Since its release, "The Sims" has been translated into 16 different languages and expanded with more than 10 extended versions. In 2003, it became the world's highest-selling computer game, with a global fan base of over 29 million, according to Electronic Arts, the company that owns "The Sims." The game is no less popular among Blazers, many of whom spend hour upon hour in front of the computer perfecting - and sometimes purposefully ruining - their Sims' worlds.

Playing God

Montenegro is much kinder to the Beckhams than she is to the Spears family. She built her Beckham family a spacious mansion and provided them with all the best utilities and furnishings money - or "Simoleans," as they are called in the game - could buy. "I wanted them to have the best life possible," she explains. "I love soccer and I love David Beckham,
so I didn't mess their lives up."

For Montenegro, who started playing "The Sims" about two years ago, the main attraction of the game is its open-ended nature. The game leaves just about every aspect of the Sims' lives up to the players: social interactions, career paths, house design - even when to visit the bathroom.

Computer designer Will Wright developed the original concept of "The Sims" in 1984 with this idea in mind. He had been working on a typical "shoot-'em-up" military game when he realized that he enjoyed designing the landscape that was to be bombed more than actually bombing it, says Thompson. Wright decided to develop a game where people would be able to push the limits of worlds they create.

The main appeal of "The Sims" lies in the gender-neutral ideas of the game. It doesn't conform to the stereotypes of typical "guy games" or "girl games," says David Silver, an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington and founder of The Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies. Instead, players control their Sims as they follow everyday routines that both sexes can relate to. "I have no idea how to attack a dragon, but I do know how to cook, study and wash dishes. That attracts people," he says.

While this familiarity may play a role in sophomore Olivia Bozik's love of the game, she mostly enjoys feeling in complete control of her computer people. Even though she spends a large amount of time playing the game, she sometimes forgets just how much power is at her fingertips. When she first started playing two years ago, she did not realize that the houses should be equipped with fire alarms. "The husband made something in the oven, but it caught fire, and he died," she says. "Oh my god, I felt so bad!" Soon after, the dreaded Grim Reaper arrived to take the man's soul away to the Sim nether land, leaving the wife to mourn her husband's ashes in the kitchen.

Behind the imitation

Since then, Bozik has gotten better at keeping her Sims happy. Yet no matter how much experience she has with the game, it is always challenging to balance the different aspects of the Sims' lives, she says. Children must be sent to school, adults must be sent to work and cleaning must be done, or else appliances can break. "It's really tough in families with kids. You definitely have to prioritize," she says.

Wright incorporated many theories of human psychology and economics into the game to dictate how the Sims deal with everyday dilemmas. According to an article by Thompson in "Psychology Today," Wright used ideas from Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" theory to determine how the simulated people in the game would act when presented with choices. When given the option of cleaning the toilet or satisfying a strong urge to eat, a Sim will almost always choose the latter.

To attain a high level of reality, Wright also found ways to represent the minor decisions people make every day out of convenience. "You're in line at a grocery store, and you see the one next to you is moving faster. Do you join that one and risk it slowing down, or do you stay where you are?" Thompson asks. These smaller decisions play into how the Sims navigate through their homes, usually taking the easier route whenever possible.

Yet even with all this attention to detail, "The Sims" is still no more than a computer game. And, as in most computer games, there are plenty of "cheats," not-so-secret codes that, when typed in to the computer, can bend the rules. Using one such cheat, players can rack up an endless supply of money, allowing Sims to buy the most expensive items available.

Silver finds fault with this aspect of the game. "Ultimately, it gives a lesson that is incorrect. It suggests that, to be happy, you need a lot of stuff, a very American concept," he says. Bozik agrees, explaining that when the Sims are indulged with the highest end products, they receive points that build up and eventually result in special prizes increasing their happiness.

Still, Silver believes that worthwhile lessons can be gained by playing "The Sims" when players do not use any of the cheat codes. "When we're children, we just think of life as the current minute. 'The Sims' allows you to think about life in the long term," he says. "If you want to build a house, you have to save money. If you want a good job, you need to study."

"A great way to explore"

The game may also serve as an outlet for teens who are unsure of themselves by allowing them to try other identities, Silver says. "You get kids who rarely speak to members of the other sex suddenly living in houses full of women or men, shy kids being really loud in the game. It's a great way to explore, like an identity workshop," he explains.

For senior Ryan Downey, playing "The Sims" provided a break from the problems he was having with his peers at school in sixth grade. Whenever Downey played, he felt free to create his character any way he wanted. "I'd always try to keep the personality of the Sim similar to myself, but then I'd go crazy with other things. I could have rippling abs of steel and wear a suit constantly," he says.

Montenegro especially enjoys the design aspect of the game and occasionally makes her own sketches of rooms and houses. Though she doubts that she will ever pursue a career in interior design, she uses the game to design customized houses for her Sims. "It's a good way to pretend I'm a designer," she says.

Though Montenegro generally restricts herself from playing on weekdays so she can focus on her schoolwork, she always leaves plenty of time on the weekends for "The Sims." "Once you start, you get so addicted to it, and you can't pull yourself away. It's kind of a waste of time, and it's kind of weird, but I have fun," she says.

Katy Lafen. Katy Lafen loves the Beatles, the Rutles and Spinal Tap. More »

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