TCS Daily


The Sim of All Fears

By Douglas Kern - September 13, 2004 12:00 AM

It's Trading Spaces meets No Exit! It's Christopher Lasch Kabuki Theater! It's a Seinfeld episode without the jokes! It's "Puppet-Time -- With Erich Fromm!"

Well, actually, it's The Sims -- Electronic Arts' best-selling computer game simulation of existential angst, nihilistic despair, and the horror of not washing your hands after visiting the privy.

In The Sims, you design a congeries of Sims -- soulless automatons doomed to a meaningless existence of never-ending toil, dispassionate relationships, and dreary consumerism. Then you design a spiffy house for them to live in. As time progresses, you help your pet people meet their eight designated needs -- like fun, comfort, socialization, hygiene, and so on. Along the way, you can build your Sims' creativity, physical fitness, and chess-playing skills, while making friends (and perhaps enemies) around the neighborhood. And, of course, you will help your Sim visit the bathroom. Frequently. And you will remind him to wash his hands afterwards. Frequently.

Eventually you get bored with your Sims. Sim ennui descends. Days merge together in a grey shapeless blur for your little homunculi, full of little more than meals and television and numbing work and sleep -- with dreams ill-distinguished from reality. You search the purchase menus for coffee spoons with which your Sims can measure out their lives.

Sims collect paychecks from jobs, but you'll never actually see them working, nor will you ever see the fruits of the labor. They drift from friend to friend, relationship to relationship, sexual orientation to sexual orientation, infrequently reproducing, sometimes caring for their children, sometimes forgetting their children in pursuit of some novel distraction. Often they skip work to hang around the house in their pajamas and watch cartoons. Forget religion, political science, or ethics; Sims fret over the color of their wallpaper and the shape of the decorative trinkets scattered around their house. Lacking any capacity for sacrifice, suffering, or reflection, Sims do nothing of moral value or spiritual relevance. Their yearnings extend only as far as plasma TVs, amiable bedmates, hardwood floors, and another trip to the casino (available in an expansion pack, of which there are several thousand). They are Sim Last Men, looking into the abyss and giggling in Sminglish. They are the e-hollow men, the cyber-stuffed men, leaning together, simulated headpiece made of straw.

You start with Sims and you end up with Europeans! All they need is a "Denounce Bush and Those Cowboy Americans" function to complete the simulation.

Disgusted by the indolence and vacuity of my Sims, I hearkened back to Jonathan Edwards, and turned my game into Simmers in the Hands of an Angry Doug. I smote my Sims with psychotic neighbors, grease fires, and starvation. I was a cruel, tyrannical deity, you say? Not so; my homicides were acts of mercy. Absent the intervention of fire, electricity, or hunger, Sims live forever, locked in an eternity of self-improvement and false materialism and the dubious merits of pastel carpets. Yes, my little Sims shrieked and panicked as the flames from the kitchen drew closer, but secretly, I think, they embraced the soothing oblivion of sweet death.

What a great game!

The Sims presents an entertaining look at life, if life lacked purpose and emotional heft. Your Sims are merely electronic paper dolls with eight-pronged stomachs. They crave everything except the only things worth craving. Where's the little "need" bar for Transcendent Truth? What items should I buy for my Sims to teach them what values are worth dying for? And why does my Sim brawl with his enemies without consequence or concern, yet shake his fist at an uncaring God when his bed is aesthetically unpleasing?

No one turns to video games for moral direction. But much of the game's appeal diminishes after a few hours of play, because nothing of moral substance ever happens. To the extent that The Sims offers a means of "winning," it appears to be helping your Sims achieve total satisfaction in life. Your Sims have to work hard, meet people, and develop their skills in order to get better jobs and buy better stuff...which allows them to work even harder and meet even more people and develop even more skills, which allows them to get even better jobs and even better stuff...and pretty soon the game collapses into a John Kenneth Galbraith-style satire of capitalism. As for morality? Hey, player; you're the God. You impose morality. The Dies Irae is just an off-switch away.

Last week, Glenn Reynolds praised The Sims for the way it teaches the young 'uns about the importance of work and money for meeting the needs of life. Far be it from me to contradict the Blogfather, but: do today's kids really need help assessing the value of money? The question of this era isn't "how." How to make money, how to manage money, how to get ahead? Contemporary America can answer those questions. The real mystery is "why" -- why make money, why work harder than you must, why treat others as something other than a means to our ends? It's great that The Sims teaches children about budgeting money, but couldn't it also emphasize those qualities of life that aren't so easily budgeted?

Man is more than the sum of his appetites. Eight small bars at the bottom of a screen can only represent the lowest part of life -- not the highest. It's true that the hunger for spiritual direction can be controversial, and sometimes even dangerous. But the same could be said for anything powerful and good.

Contemporary liberalism dislikes transcendent truth in politics, fearing that it will lead to Doom III: bizarre demons from Hell invading the earth, ignoring rationality in pursuit of their dark chthonic desires. But perhaps the computer game with the fullest understanding of such truth is Civilization III, wherein Philosophy and Theology are necessary steps on the path of a civilization's development. In Civ III, Temple and Cathedral improvements exist in even the most secularized of civilizations, imparting happiness and social stability. If the best computer strategy game of all time can make room for the higher things, why can't The Sims?

In fairness, it appears that The Sims 2 will introduce levels of complexity that address many of my criticisms. Sims must now confront mortality, divorce, childhood recollections, gene pools, and a sense of inner purpose. I know I'll be purchasing a copy of The Sims 2. And perhaps this time, I won't be so quick to cast my Sims in a re-enactment of the prom in Carrie. If "Sadistic Fun At The Expense Of Imaginary People" was a bar at the bottom of my screen, it would be maxed out. Please hurry with the spirituality in The Sims 2, Electronic Arts; some of us need lessons in goodness-budgeting wherever we can find them.


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