Simulated History

Through the gender studies portion of my degree I took among my more interesting classes at Wabash College. Three (of the five) that stand out in my mind are an historiography class using sex and fascist Germany as its focal point, a course that examined gender issues in art from the late 19th on until the mid-20th centuries, and one that looked specifically at the media we consume and how it shapes our expectations and understanding of gender. In all of these courses I waded through a lot of source material and had to read between the lines as to what they said about a culture at a given time (literary criticism had that as well, though it didn’t seem as urgent). I want to do that with a game as my first foray into blogging again after almost a month.

In my recent melancholy (hence the lack of posting), I reinstalled Sims 2 and the expansions I have (the last one I bought was Seasons). My normal stance in making my Sims is to take my and my friends’ families and replicate them. This time around, I decided to do something different and took the characters we’ve made for various role-playing games and give them a family. It’s been amusing.

For instance, my friend Janathan would often play a bard/storyteller named Jave the Brave. Jave is personable, likable, and always willing to help in any capacity he can (especially if playing a D&D bard). Unfortunately, Jave is rarely lucky and always finds himself in odd, sometimes horrible, situations. The picture to the left shows this part of Jave’s history: in this case he is being abducted by aliens (who will impregnate him) just after having been elected the mayor of SimCity.

As you can see, I can freely play around with the narrative and create a story. Jave, as a character in our gaming sessions, has been made a Frankenstein experiment, turned into a gnome, and many other less than pleasing events. If I wanted, I can next infect him with lycanthropy, ruin his love webs (he’s a pleaser of the ladies), or take it in the opposite direction and fulfill his lifetime want of owning five top-tier businesses.

As with any game, there exist rules and boundaries. In Sims 2, these rules and boundaries tell me much about our own society. As someone who lives on the edge of it (though not on the edge), I often forget about certain societal expectations or that people may not realize the other side of the polyhedron.

It is impossible to have more than one love on the same lot and interact with them without the other Sim becoming upset. This means no threesomes, no polyamorous relationships, no makeout parties where there is partner swapping, et cetera. The game simply does not support such. In lieu of all that, you can Woohoo! (the Sims equivalent of sex) in many places: bed, hot tub, elevator, car, photobooth, dressing room, and there is even a ‘want’ for the thrill of public woohoo. There is also the aspiration (a selection you make that determines what the Sim wants out of life) called the Romantic Sim, whose goal is not to marry and instead sleep around and fall in love with as many Sims as possible. Just don’t let them find out about it. The Sims world is very obsessed with a culture of monogamy, even when our Sims are being overly sexual and ‘playing the field,’ as it were.

Another aspect of the game is that of gay relationships. One can have them, and you can create any type of gay, bisexual, heteroflexible, et cetera Sim you want. Relationships are tricky, however. It will one day be a sign of the times in which the Sims was released that heterosexual Sims can be engaged and married, but a same-sex couple in the Sims can be engaged and ‘joined.’ Nosirree, Will, there’s no marriage for us queer folk. My Sims can be blood-sucking vampires, turn into werewolves, be poorly resurrected as a zombie, but gay marriage is something beyond the scope of our imaginations. At least they can adopt with no hurdles.

My own sardonic sniping aside, there’s much to be said for what the Sims 2 also says about our own expectations of ourselves.

The rule of thumb is that you can always progress to the top of any skill or career. As long as you keep improving your skills and making more friends, any dish washer can become a celebrity chef. If one keeps improving his or her Sim’s creativity skill, said Sim will produce masterpiece paintings that can sell to make a living.

My mother once confided to me that as a child her expectation of what the United States were was all wrapped up in the old Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies. No one really worked and everybody had a mansion. Sims 2 tries to capture that particular viewpoint of the American Dream: one can start on the lowest wrung and by perseverance and bettering of one’s self, one can reach the very top of one’s own career. Sure, there are chance cards that can get you fired, but these can be ignored, which we can’t say in real life.

Sims 2 can indeed be a virtual dollhouse (though I wonder if it holds up against the Castle Grayskull with non-matching Barbie convertible I had as a child), but it is one that helps feed us what is acceptable and not in our current culture. In a game world where so much is possible, I find it incredibly interesting what gets left out or altered, perhaps expected for the community to mod.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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4 Responses to Simulated History

  1. Ben Abraham says:

    <>“Sims 2 tries to capture that particular viewpoint of the American Dream”<>Wow, I’m now totally inspired to play The Sims (I don’t have #2) and go gonzo, in search of the American Dream. Great post!

  2. Chris Lepine says:

    Denis,Pretty shocking. I had not (until now) considered the perniciousness of the rules systems in The Sims. The hetero-only marriage rule system is particularly troubling – it seems like one of those ‘design-by-committee’ decisions over at EA/Maxis.Out of curiousity, do you see any opportunities for a player to have some positive personal growth in it? For instance – can my Sim transform her/his sexuality in the course of the game? ie. If my Sim has gay relationships, can s/he begin heterosexual relationships later in the game? How much flexibility is there to that?I never got the sense that sexual relationships in The Sims were ever, well, sexy. Hugging and kissing in the game always seem to have this Pat Boone-ish quality. While I don’t think all-out hardcore porn is necessary or wise, my Sims never quite feel “gendered” to me. Does anyone else get that feeling?Great post. Like Ben, this makes me want to try out Sims 2!

  3. Denis Farr says:

    @Ben: Even in the first Sims title, we see this American Dream motif heavily influencing the career track. No matter the Sim, if you up your skills and make the friends, you will progress in your chosen career, earning more money, and reaching the top of your field. Every Sim can do this.@Chris: I imagine so, though reading back over articles of Sims 2 at the time, many gay sites and fans were lauding EA. Perhaps I’m just too cantankerous and not willing to settle, but being joined is an insult, not progress. “We’re treating you the same, you have the same options! But the flavor text is different…” Words are powerful, and EA/Maxis sent a very powerful message to me.As per your second portion, that was to be my next post. I believe that sexuality does not really exist in the Sims, as your Sims have no inherent attraction to only male or female, just traits. Effectively everyone is latently bisexual, their sexuality only coming into play by your decision.Gender is another matter, and also another post.

  4. Chris Lepine says:

    It’s interesting how much a single piece of language can transform the meaning of a game. I think that if we focused on game language with that kind of precision, we’d notice a whole lot more about games than we realize is going on.Ah ha… I *suspected* there was something fishy about sexuality in the game. I suppose it is also important to recognize how people themselves experience it – it might be nothing endemic to the game itself. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

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