TCS Daily

Sims Rules for a Complex World

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 8, 2004 12:00 AM

A while back, I speculated that videogames were good for children. My focus there was primarily violent computer/videogames (and porn!), but on further reflection I think that even non-violent videogames just might be helping America's kids.

I came to this realization when I heard my daughter and one of her friends having an earnest discussion:

"You have to have a job to buy food and things, and if you don't go to work, you get fired. And if you spend all your money buying stuff, you have to make more."

All true enough, and worthy of Clark Howard or Dave Ramsey. And it's certainly something my daughter has heard from me over the years. But they were talking about The Sims, which has swept through my neck of little-girl-land faster than a mutant strain of flu through Shanghai. Thanks to The Sims, they know how to make a budget, and how to read an income statement -- and to be worried when cash flow goes negative. They understand comparison shopping. They're also picking up some pointers on human interaction, though The Sims characters seem a bit dense in that department at times. (Then again, so do real people, now and then).

And, shortly, The Sims 2 will up the stakes. Among other things, it will allow you to "Mix Genes: Your Sims have DNA and inherit physical and personality traits. Take your Sims through an infinite number of generations as you evolve their family tree." What more could a father want, than a game that will teach his daughter that if you marry a loser, he'll likely stay a loser, and your kids have a good chance of being losers, too?

All joking aside, though, I'm impressed with the things that these games teach. I've written before about the value of videogames in teaching warlike skills, but of course those aren't the only skills they can teach, just the ones for which there was a large and early market. But as computers improve, and people get more and more used to computers, I think we'll see a lot more games that teach as they entertain. SimWorld isn't the real world, of course. But it's a world in which actions have consequences, and not necessarily happy ones. (Your Sim characters can die, if you let them screw things up too much). It's a world in which traditional middle-class virtues, like thrift and planning, generally pay off. In short, it's a world that's a lot more like the real world than the worlds of movies, popular songs, and novels -- the places where children and adolescents have traditionally gotten their non-parental information on how life works.

And kids find this stuff more interesting than movies, popular songs, and novels, at least to judge from the degree of addiction that The Sims seems to have produced among my daughter's crowd. Which means that we've got not merely a powerful teaching tool, but a powerful teaching tool that people want to learn from. It's not quite A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, the computerized tutorial from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, but you can see things moving in that direction.

What's more, it's a powerful teaching tool that people buy. It's not something decreed by the government, but the creation of a free market that had entertainment, not instruction, as its primary goal. And it's teaching something that all too many kids get neither in school nor at home.

I don't think that The Sims will replace the schools. But I do think that it's interesting to see a consumer product providing an education that is, in some ways, more rigorous than many schools provide. Writing about wargames, shortly after 9/11, Dave Kopel and I wrote:

"So here's the funny thing. While the official American culture around, say, 1977, was revolted by anything military, a bunch of the nation's smartest young males -- the 'leaders of tomorrow' -- were reading Panzer Leader and Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart's Strategy, and of course Sun Tzu's Art of War -- which wargamers were reading long before it became a business-school cliché.

"This was no accident. Many of those who founded the wargame publishing business feared that, with the anti-militarism caused by the Vietnam, and (later) with the adoption of the all-volunteer army, American society would become estranged from all things military, leaving ordinary citizens too ignorant to make meaningful democratic judgments where war is concerned. They hoped that realistic simulation games would teach important principles."

I wonder if the creators of The Sims had something similar in mind?


TCS Daily Archives