Simplification: The Sims and Utopianism

By McGuire, Ann | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Simplification: The Sims and Utopianism


McGuire, Ann, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


While the emergent forms of visual digital media--spectacle cinema, computer animation, music video, arcade and computer games--are not solely the province of youth, young people are arguably those in the culture most involved with them. Indeed, it has been suggested that these new, electronically mediated spaces are the 'natural environment' of youth (Green and Bigum 1993, p.127). In such a cultural context, the role of these media in the production and negotiation of subjectivities requires the kind of theoretical analysis that has developed in relation to print fiction read by the young, and recent work has emerged that advocates comparative analysis of computer games and literary narrative (Zancanella 2000). Such comparisons must be tempered, however, by careful attention to the specific modality of gaming, a modality that has significant implications for the way the game positions the player as subject. For example, while simulation games, in which players construct interactive narratives in a model of the contemporary social environment, are in many ways structurally analogous to speculative fictions, the game mode must be taken into account in any analysis of the ways in which the player is positioned by them.

The Sims, currently the best selling computer game of all time, is a simulation in which players interact with a screen world, building and decorating houses, and striving to direct and control animated 3D figures as they find or lose employment, enter or leave relationships, and ultimately 'succeed' or 'fail' in life. While the digital technology which produces the cinematically realistic screen interface is historically unprecedented, the experience of playing The Sims has elements in common with that of reading narrative fiction, in that the game positions the player to identify with characters acting out scenarios of work and play in recognisable spatio-temporal settings. More specifically, the game's positioning of the player is arguably analogous to the reader-positioning effected by the speculative genre of utopian narrative fiction. The word 'utopia' punningly combines the Greek words 'eu' (good), 'ou' (no) and 'topia' (place) to signify 'the good place that is no place', so that utopian texts configure spatial and social arrangements which, by improving on those of the author's own context, position the reader to think critically about the inadequacies of that context for its subjects. The Sims, too, offers the experience of exploring spatial and social arrangements that seem to improve on the contemporary context, and thus the game potentially constitutes a site for active speculation about the ways in which the contemporary social environment positions its subjects. Ultimately, though, the nature of the gaming activity works to limit the opportunities for critical comparison. This paper explores the implications of the medium of the computer game in relation to the potentially utopian narrative project of The Sims, and analyses the cultural effects of the game's positioning of the player as similar to those of the 'degenerate utopianism' (Marin 1990, p.239) of postmodern spatial experiences such as Disneyland.

Theorisation of the nature and function of computer games is still an emerging disciplinary field. Some of its key figures argue that the specific modality of this new media form renders it so different in kind from more traditional media forms such as print narrative and cinema that the academic study of games requires an entirely new disciplinary project, variously described as 'game studies' or 'ludology'. Espen Aarseth, for example, has coined the term 'ergodic' to articulate the textual specificity of the computer game, deriving the word from the Greek words 'ergon' and 'hodos', meaning 'work' and 'path' (Aarseth 1997, p.1). He defines games as ergodic because the novelty of cybernetic systems is that they are information feedback loops capable of generating different semiotic sequences, so that:

   the experienced sequence of signs does not emerge in a fixed,
   predetermined order decided by the instigator of the work, but is
   instead one actualization of many possible routes within what we may
   call the event space of semiological possibility. … 

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