What The Sims’ Design Can Teach Us About Ourselves

***Many of the concepts discussed in this post are explained more thoroughly in my previous post***

Analyzing the way we design virtual models that somehow mimic  aspects of the “real-world” allows us to identify values and rules that we perceive in the “real-world.”  Dynamics that are often overlooked in the real world are presented more distinctly in virtual models, and this makes them somewhat easier to analyze. We must keep in mind that there will always be a loss of fidelity when presenting a real-world dynamic in a virtual space, but what’s important is not necessarily the accuracy of the representation, but rather what the representation shows us about how the designers perceive the dynamic in the real-world and how they choose to implement it in the virtual world (other thins are important too).

These kinds of skeletal, theoretical discussions are always easier to grasp with some meaty examples to fill in the gaps. Luckily, an article I read on how The Sims brings attention to a certain “sociology of interior design” is the perfect example.

Long story short, the Sims reflects: trends in consumerism, the contemporary rise of interior design, and the increased signification of consumer goods as status symbols. “Domestic aesthetics have become, in their own right, a “gender-neutral playspace”. Weekend design enthusiasts are on course to eclipse foodies as America’s premiere subculture of recreational snobbery. The cable dial is clogged with trendy home makeover shows. Reupholstering a sofa now passes for a hip Friday night.” The beginning of the article elaborates on the shifting signification and importance of the home space, not that these spaces haven’t always been important, but recent trends in pop-culture demonstrate that there seems to be more to this signification than previously thought. I’m pretty sure anyone with a cable subscription has experienced this phenomenon in some way. Excuse the long quote up ahead, but it is so funny and worth it.

“Trading Spaces has spawned a plurality of gimmicky imitators. There is a glut of new shows that portray home renovation as equal parts hip and accessible: ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, TBS’ House Rules, USA’s House Wars, VH1’s Rock the House. The Home and Garden Channel boasts 22 such fixer-upper programs. Even MTV is in on game-their Crib Crashers infuses the genre with so much street cred the word “house” is inadequate to contain it. Many of these shows also endeavor to replicate Trading Spaces’ surprise reveal. The device is employed to similar effect in TLC’s own While You Were Out and Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, among others. The latter program, in which a quintet of culturally enlightened gay men spruces up both a heterosexual schlub and his squalid abode, is noteworthy in its own right. In pairing the home and cosmetic makeover, the show suggests the former now rivals the latter as consumer society’s pre-eminent rite of redemption. At the moment of reveal, the wife/girlfriend is always duly impressed by her mate’s newly waxed brows, but the étagère and coral bathroom trim inspire an ecstasy that verges on religious. It is not just transformation-it is transubstantiation .”

On its own, the Sims as a cultural artifact demonstrates that interior design has indeed become a sort of “gender neutral play-space,”but when we consider more specific examples of design choices and game mechanics in the Sims, we can get a better picture of how this cultural dynamic is perceived in the eyes of the designers. “Absurd as it may seem, designing a fabulous Sim pad can be a serious commitment. Much has been made of the game’s open-endedness-the freedom of the player to do as she sees fit-and to be sure, this freedom is substantial. Suffice to say, though, not all choices are equally rewarded. The Sims are by no means indifferent to the player’s decisions, including those countless decorating calls described previously. The most vague and initially bewildering of their fundamental need-meters is something called “Room.” One might assume this relates to a desire for personal space, but it is actually a gauge of a Sim’s satisfaction with whatever room he or she occupies. In other words, the game posits approval of the décor as a human need ranking up there with food and water. A minor break from Maslow, but entirely in step with Baudrillard, who would argue needs are embedded in consumer goods.”

The “Room” need-meter is a perfect example of how games as models present subjective, hard to define concepts in simplified and abstracted ways. The meter itself demonstrates a real-world dynamic that I would argue most people have experienced. The dynamic I’m referring to is the effect that a material goods’ signification value has as a status symbol and, in a bizarre way, as a source of well-being. Material goods also have use value (what the item can be used for) and exchange value (monetary or bartering value).

“Additionally, all Sims share some subtler aesthetic predilections. When it comes to architecture, they prefer spacious rooms, sizable windows, and abundant natural light. That these are features we tend to associate with upper-class homes is not accidental. The Sims, it seems, are hard-wired social climbers. Another commonality the player will note is their obvious preference for high-end designer furnishings over the cheap stuff.”

These real world dynamics become distinct in-game rules, and their effects become quantifiable attributes of in-game objects. This suggests that, at least in the mind of the game designers, the importance and prevalence of the current “sociology of interior design” is a highly influential aspect of our culture. The game, although only a model, can even highlight facets of the interior design dynamic that most players were not aware of, as the author of the article I read describes in the following passage. “As if sensing my indecision, a help message appeared in the corner of the screen, informing me the female half of my Sim couple was a Winter, and that I would do well to decorate accordingly. It was a level of aesthetic nuance I had not previously been aware of, even in the real world.” In this quote, we can see how interaction with the similar model (the game) informed a player’s understanding of the familiar model (the real world).

The choice of objects present in this model (the Sims), the rules that govern the way these objects interact (game mechanics), and the fact that this model represents the “real-world” to a certain extent: these are three aspects of the game that, in conjunction, make compelling claims about the “real” world. The Sims mirrors aspects of our mental models that are often overlooked and taken for granted and highlights them by increasing their importance and abstracting their value to quantifiable figures. When compared to our experience of pop-culture trends, we might even come to the conclusion that these claims are accurate. Of course, these conclusions are largely determined by the interpretation of individual players, but a more concrete argument would be that the design of the Sims does indeed make claims that can be analyzed, and these claims (right or wrong) can help us understand our world.

Read the article yourself! here. It’s funny and informative =]

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About Alphabet1

always already is
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