Time/Space Compression in The Sims 2

by Darius Kazemi on April 11, 2005

in Uncategorized

The following material is a section of my IQP (read: thesis on technology and society) that makes some sense without the context of the rest of the paper. No offense meant to Will Wright or any of the excellent folks at Maxis–I think they produce some of the best, most innovative games ever made. But this fragment is postulating a criticism of The Sims 2 that I have never seen, one that I think is important for people to be aware of.

Andrew Feenberg’s wonderful Critical Theory of Technology contains a passage that resonates strongly with a recent trend in video games. According to Feenberg, in a machine society, we encounter the “new narcissism,” which is an “intensified pursuit of personal pleasure by individuals who have less identity than ever before.” Via “the collapse of public [and family] life” the “individual becomes a discontented spectator on his or her own life, engaged in strategies of manipulation and control directed toward the self and others alike […] the subject [is] now in the position of programmed device, now in the position of programmer.” (98) This passage resonates strongly with The Sims, and more precisely its sequel, The Sims 2, both a part of the famous series of people simulators or virtual dollhouses created by game development company Maxis. The concept central to the game design of The Sims 2 is that of human interaction modeled as a technologically deterministic system. This can be traced back to the common design assumption that actions taken by the player should have immediate, obvious consequences. Will Wright, the Lead Designer for the original game, elaborates that “you can roughly look at all of [Maxis'] Sim games and divide them into one of two categories: the economic ones and the biological ones. And, in general, the economic ones have always [sold] better.” Wright’s game SimEarth involves players managing an evolving planet. The game used a very scientifically accurate model of the Earth, yet players would often find themselves confused. “The biological systems [like SimEarth] tend to be very soft, squishy” systems that respond in a complex, high-order manner to a player’s actions. In the economic games like The Sims, players find it easy to “assign credit to [their] failures” and develop a strategy for winning the game. (Rouse)

A Sim is one of the simulated people that populates the game, and is the avatar through which the player interacts with the game itself. Players can control a whole family of Sims, or to some extent a whole neighborhood of Sims. By and large, a Sim is defined by his or her actions. While a Sim has internal thoughts which are represented by thought bubbles that appear above his or her head in a cartoon style, and while a Sim has default predispositions and a “personality” (neat/sloppy, active/lazy, nice/grouchy, etc.), the strategy of the Sims comes down to action. This is a video game, after all.

The internal emotional life of a Sim is almost nonexistent in terms of the game model. Though Sims do have “memories,” these are represented as wholly separate from the main game and it is difficult to see the impact of these on gameplay except in very slight ways. Interpersonal emotional life is reduced to the Sims pushing each other’s buttons, in a literal sense. The Sims interact with objects and people in the same way: the player clicks the mouse on an object or person, and a ring of buttons appears. In the case of an object, the choices may be “eat,” “drink,” “use,” or some similar action whose context depends on the object itself. In the case of another Sim, buttons include actions such as “play,” “chat,” “irritate,” “flirt,” “hug,” “entertain,” and so on. That Sim may or may not refuse to participate in your action. So Bob’s interaction with Ming is walking up to Ming and in effect pushing the “chat” button.

The other important characteristic of a Sim’s actions is that the actions are queued up. If the player says, “eat lunch, trim the weeds, study cooking, go to bed,” the four actions are indicated in a queue at the top of the screen in the order in which they were assigned, and the Sim proceeds to carry out the actions. It is possible to plan a Sim’s entire day like this, although the difficulty of dealing with spontaneous events makes this an unadvisable game strategy.

A Sim’s intrapersonal emotional state is represented through the use of a number of status bars. These bars represent concepts such as “hunger,” “bladder,” “energy,” “fun,” and so on. If a Sim isn’t fed, his or her “hunger” meter goes down. By the end of a busy day, a Sim’s “energy” meter is low, and can only be replenished by sleeping or drinking coffee.

In addition to status bars, the Sim’s behavior is dictated by “wants.” Every morning, the Sim wakes up with a new series of “wants,” which represent short-term or long-term goals. The goals can be simple desires such as “eat a bowl of cereal.” However, most wants are based on career, relationships, self-improvement, or consumerism; respectively, a Sim might want to get a promotion, to tell a joke to her friend George, to improve her creative skills, or to buy a table costing at least $1,000. If you achieve a “want” in the course of a day, your Sim gets “reward points” which can be saved up to spend on fantastic rewards, like a pair of glasses that make the socially awkward cool, or a money tree, or a fountain of youth. Relationships are measured in a similar way. There are status bars for long-term and short-term relations; if you have a spat with your best friend, short-term will read low but long-term will still read high.

Thus is the automated life of a Sim. Happiness is typically achieved either through Feenberg’s “manipulation and control directed toward the self and others” or, more subtly, through the Sim’s mastery of his or her environment–the house in which the Sim lives.

While the ramifications of the automation and inherent consumerism of the Sims has been a topic of discussion on the Internet, possibly the most important aspect of the game remains the most overlooked: the control of time. Perhaps this feature has been glossed over simply because it was inherited from earlier Maxis games like SimCity. Perhaps the feature is treated as such a natural part of the game that it only registers subconsciously; or it is possible that the “human” features of the game necessarily steal the spotlight in the context of any critical discussion of The Sims 2.

Whatever the reason for its low profile, player control of time in The Sims 2 is critical to the flow and structure of the game. The mechanic for time control is simple: in the lower left-hand corner of the screen are four VCR-style buttons. These buttons pause the game, allow for a normal playing speed, a fast speed, and a faster speed. The buttons serve two functions. First, the pause button is used to allow the player to queue up more actions for the Sim to complete without wasting any time in between. The Sim wakes up in the morning, the player pauses the game, and orders: use the toilet, take a shower, change your outfit, eat breakfast, read the newspaper, go to work. Then the game is set to normal speed, and the player watches the Sim carry out these pre-programmed actions. However, watching the Sim’s morning routine can be boring, and here is where we meet the second functionality of the time buttons: skipping over boring actions. As soon as the Sim starts the morning actions, the player can hit the button for fastest speed, and now the morning routine is compressed from what might be 5 minutes of the player’s time to about 10 seconds.

When combined with the queuing of actions, pausing and time compression will lead to the player developing strategies for attaining happiness entirely unlike those a person in real life would undertake. One such strategy is building strong relationships in a day. Bob invites his acquaintance Ming over in the morning. The game is paused, and the player queues up: “chat with Ming, tell joke to Ming, admire Ming, chat with Ming, chat with Ming, play with Ming, tell joke to Ming, serve lunch, chat with Ming, play with Ming, use the toilet,” and so on. Once a sufficient number of actions is queued, the player can then hit the fastest time compression button, and in the course of one minute of play, Ming has become the player’s friend.

Strangely, the game automatically pauses time whenever the player wishes to purchase a product for a Sim. If the Sim indicates that she wants an exercise machine costing more than $500, the player clicks on the “buy” icon. In a scene reminiscent of the movie Fight Club, time freezes and all items in the house, upon a examination, have a price tag attached to them, indicating what model they are and how much they can be sold for. Additionally, a window appears that emulates the behavior of online furniture, clothing, and media catalogues—a kind of Amazon.com for the Sims. In the world of The Sims, purchasing a commodity is painless process with no cost to the efficiency of a person’s day. As soon as the desire manifests, the need can be fulfilled (provided the Sim has enough capital).

The simulated world in which the Sims live is precisely the postmodern lifestyle of “disposability, novelty, and […] instant obsolescence” postulated by Harvey, taken to a logical, inevitable extreme. The game gives the player control over time to more efficiently allocate consciousness of actions. The game collapses space by allowing any and all friends of a Sim to show up at the house exactly 5 minutes from when they are invited (provided that the invitee is not engaged in wage slavery, which engenders an irritated refusal from the invitee).

Works Cited
Feenberg, Andrew. Critical Theory of Technology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Rouse III, Richard. Game Design: Theory and Practice. Wordware Publishing, 2001. 19 Jan 2005 <http://library.books24x7.com/>.

by Darius Kazemi
Copyright 2005


Craig Perko April 11, 2005 at 4:01 pm

I like it, although there’s a bit too much padding for me. But you don’t say what it MEANS. What effect does it have on the player? What kind of play does it foster?

I know, I know, it’s not really a game design thing. I’m just saying what I personally want to know more about.

Darren Torpey April 12, 2005 at 1:48 pm

First of all, thank you for writing this. Your IQP should make for a very interesting read.
I’m glad that you and others like you are taking a good, critical look at the ideas that really underlie our games. Further, it’s great that you’re using other fields of human studies to shine light and suggest paths to discovering more about the meaning of games in our culture.

That said, I will admit that my feelings about this type of thing are rather mixed. Mostly, the feeling is of frustration, since this issue is so LARGE.

It seems that firstly we (game designers/critical thinkers) will need to learn more about what effects games have on people and at what levels they do so.

Second, we’ll need to consider, along with all of our intellectual peers, just what effects we might WANT games to have. Also, we might consider how non-traditional aesthetics might make it into gamers minds as a whole.

There are so many ways of looking at this issue, I’m just going to stop for now and leave it with emphasis on how I started it: thank you for getting us started on these issue. I hope, in particular, that your paper will help bring in more intellectuals from other fields of study to help us tackle these issues.

Jo Brosius April 12, 2005 at 2:03 pm

I was playing with a friend. A big part of her strategy is the cheatcode for money, because she perfers the family life for her sims, unburdaned by the worries of trying to make ends meet. She doesn’t even have the patience now to make her sims buy groceries or call the repairman. She just sells the fridge or other item and buys another one.

Now, I know why she does it, because she wants to play the family game and not the money game or the maintenance game. But yes, it is unrealistic.

Many players buy this game for the purpose of playing god. For the level of control they don’t have in their own lives. I’ve seen so many simmers on the game’s online BBS who found themselves wishing that life would pause, fast forward, and occassionally reload without saving. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know.

Darren Torpey April 12, 2005 at 8:42 pm

“I’ve seen so many simmers on the game’s online BBS who found themselves wishing that life would pause, fast forward, and occassionally reload without saving. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know.”

Well, we certainly might have a lot of fun playing around in ways which aren’t normally safe, sane, etc. ;)

Seriously, though, this brings up interesting questions about what games can bring us that we don’t have otherwise. Since games provide safe places for exploration, we can do many things we wouldn’t do otherwise in games. And when the characters seem (in some ways) to be like us, that can certainly be a thrill.

The question, then, might be this: Games can offer us safe places to “play around” with ideas we couldn’t or wouldn’t otherwise pursue, but are the paradigms that underly our games ultimately bad for our society and/or personal psychology?

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