Lessons from The Sims

As I mentioned previously, I haven't played a Sims game in many years. Things have apparently increased in complexity since I played the original game. The Sims 3 has spawned some interesting ideas, and I've been curious to see how different people describe their experiences with the game.

Alice and Kev is an experiment about homelessness in The Sims 3, courtesy of games design student Robin Burkinshaw. The blog follows the lives of the angry and meanspirited Kev and his insecure daughter Alice.

From the introduction:

I created two Sims, moved them in to a place made to look like an abandoned park, removed all of their remaining money, and then attempted to help them survive without taking any of the game's unrealistically easy cash routes.

Homelessness can be a touchy subject, and the first thing I thought of when starting to write about this was Peter C. Hayward, who recently spent a month in Melbourne pretending to be homeless. I believe this was intended as a life experience, as well as raising money for StreetSmart Australia. There is at least some good in raising money for a worthy cause. But I, along with many others, considered it an inappropriate stunt.

Burkinshaw and Hayward are both exploring homelessness in a very artificial way. While Hayward has prompted a lot of venom on the Internet, the reactions I've seen to Alice and Kev have been far more positive. As someone interested in the potential of games to make people think about their lives, I am tempted to say that's because virtual spaces are a much safer and more appropriate for this kind of experiment. They cannnot truly represent the reality of homelessness, but I doubt anyone expects them to. That doesn't have to make the exploration entirely worthless. But, I am also aware I'm examining this through privileged eyes.

That people can genuinely feel for the plight of virtual people is fascinating to see. There are a range of charities linked from the blog, and I can hope that the project can translate into wanting to do some good in the real world.

Alice and Kev

Alice and Kev. Two Sims sleeping on park benches surrounded by long grass.

The Sims, while a simplified model of reality, can make us think about real life in new ways – either by teaching genuine lessons, or by making us think about where the limitations of the simulation are, and how real life might differ. I've recently enjoyed some posts on freakrevolution.com which explore these ideas.

Everything I need to know I learned from tiny pretend people discusses several lessons that arose with a mother playing The Sims with her son. It demonstrates a simple but genuine intersection between virtual experiences and life. More recently, The Sims 3 is corrupting our children (and us) describes the simulation failing to live up to the author's view of what makes people happy. It's not nearly as negative as the title makes it sound! The important thing, I think, is that even when the message a game seems to be sending doesn't quite sit right, there may be value in being prompted to think about it.