What Playing The Sims Can Teach Us About Ourselves

Games can be considered procedural models in the sense that they are a series of representational objects governed by a set of rules (thank you, Ian). Ok, hold that thought.

In my humble opinion, humans understand (just about) everything by creating mental models that distinguish objects and identify rules. Through a compilation of mental models, people are able to perceive and make sense of the world, albeit in a flawed way. These are models of the way the world works. We create models to understand relationships, economics, traffic, exercise, well-being, etc,.  Also, people’s mental models of the world, their perceptions, are continually revised as they encounter new experiences and reinterpret old experiences.

Back to games. Games are simplified and abstracted models that can be used to represent anything and everything imaginable. The representations used in these models don’t necessarily have to make sense (it helps though), but the game as a whole should be governed by logical rules that determine interactions between the objects represented in the model. By logical, I simply mean that the rules should be coherent and learnable. I should probably also explain what I mean by “simplified” and “abstracted.” Games are simplified because there aren’t as many variables to be accounted for as there are in “real” life, and they are abstracted because the variables that are present in the model are represented symbolically, and they behave in defined and predictable ways. For example, a health bar representing a character’s health is a form of abstraction.

Games can be models of inter-species, weapon-based combat set on synthetic, extraterrestrial worlds, or models on how veggie-hating, sugar addicted space cats navigate dimensions; games can represent anything imaginable, but they must be governed by some kind of logic, and we can learn loads from how we create and interact with these games. This is particularly true of games that represent familiar objects governed by rules that function similarly to “real” world rules (or rules that coincide with the rules identified in a particular person’s mental model of the world). What I mean is, a game that closely represents something in the real world can provide us with information that translates smoothly to our understanding of the “real” world. For example, the Sims is a game that “hits close to home” as its subject matter is the everyday lives of “regular” people. Moreover, the Sims is one of the best-selling games of all time. This makes it a great topic of interest for the interdisciplinary eye of Game Studies, and I have examples to prove it. (Granted, the most palpable similarities between the Sims and the real world are representational rather than procedural, but there are plenty of procedural similarities as well).

The first example is a study that examines if and how players project their personalities onto their in-game avatars. The study finds some interesting patterns of behavior, including a high tendency of  players from divorced households to have in-game divorces. For the purpose of this study, the game served as a virtual lab that allowed players to make decisions in a setting that strongly emulates the real world. The game also allowed researchers to conduct longitudinal studies in a fraction of the time it would have taken in the real world. I’m by no means saying that virtual models (games) should replace traditional research methods, and I’m fully aware that the simplification and abstraction of these models (games) will certainly lead to skewed data to a certain extent, but with this in mind, I still believe that games can be a useful tool for conducting all kinds of research, and my conviction is fueled by my understanding of human perception as a compilation of mental models that are continually revised. Sure, games provide players with limited information, but this actually makes research on these games simpler because there are less variables to consider. Besides, the “real” world only provides us with limited information, and our means of receiving and interpreting this information are limited as well. Therefore, the discrepancy in quality of data between real-world studies and in-game studies is not that high (again IMO).

Allow me to explain the research done in example 1 a little further. Basically, the researchers observed and surveyed player actions and cross referenced it with players’ personality. Their hypotheses were as follows;

Hypothesis 1: Personality characteristics will relate to gameplay; for example, participants who score high on conscientiousness will organize their Sims’ time more efficiently, which will be reflected by the Sims’ job promotion level, and participants who score high on extraversion will make their Sims more socially oriented.

Hypothesis 2: Participants will pass their personal values to their Sims; for example, participants who place high value on wealth will create Sims who earn high incomes.

If I were to rephrase, which I know kind of butchers and twist this research to suit my purposes…. If I were to rephrase these hypotheses so that they relate more to my games-as-models frame of mind, I would say that “when players encounter a model that’s similar to a model they’re familiar with, they are likely to use their understanding of the familiar model to determine how they should conceptualize (perceive) and interact with the new, similar model. This basically amounts to a projection of attitudes, behaviors, and values that were determined through interaction with the familiar model (the real world) on to the new model ( in this case, The Sims).” In other words, the new model’s similarity to the old model invites players to utilize reliable strategies of interaction with the old model on the new model. In a way, the similarities between The Sims and the real world subconsciously prompt a player to think, “I’ve played this game before. This is what worked for me then, so let’s see if it will work now.”

This post is starting to get really long and technical, so I’ll just skip to the findings of the study. after conducting this empirical study on The Sims 2, there is supportive evidence to show that, yes, people do indeed project some aspects of themselves into their Sims. From the results of this study, we have seen that personality traits such as neuroticism, openness to experience and conscientiousness, values such as flirting, fidelity to one’s partner, wealth and creativity and other characteristics such as gender, race, age, need for cognition, number of enemies and parent’s marital status all relate to the different ways people play The Sims 2. However, this study is only the first of its kind. It is important that the results discovered in this study are replicated in future research and that other factors of the game are explored as well, especially if the game is to be used in a clinical setting. This project only marks the beginning of understanding self-projection in The Sims 2; much research has yet to be done.

What a nice conclusion. Obviously, there’s still a lot more to consider, and we shouldn’t be making wild claims and broad generalizations, but what I really want to stress is that I believe that this projection of personality in The Sims occurs because players’ understanding of the world happens through mental models, and a virtual model that is similar to players’  mental model of the real world invites players to transfer their attitude and behavior (including knowledge and skills) from the first model to the second model.

This is a 2 part post. The next post will examine how a game’s design, as opposed to play, can teach us about ourselves, and I’ll continue to use the Sims as an example.

Here’s a link to the study on personality projection in the Sims.


About Alphabet1

always already is
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One Response to What Playing The Sims Can Teach Us About Ourselves

  1. I agree with the idea that games must be governed by logic… But the idea of a game without logical rules really stuck with me. As a challenge it’s tempting to start designing a game without logical rules, partly to test the notion, and partly because it might be really fun. Or perhaps just frustrating. It would be really interesting to try and use a logic engine (a computer program) to design a game without logical rules. That would be a neat design challenge.

    Then once complete it would be interesting to see the reaction of players. How well do human’s perform, when faced with a game without logical rules? Can humans enjoy a game with irrational rules?

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