How a simulated family became the world's biggest-ever computer generated phenomenon

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The Independent Online

The science-fiction writer Philip K Dick once watched his daughter playing with a Barbie doll and its accessories and had a sudden, chilling insight: that the doll was manipulating him to buy things for it. The feeling may be familiar to millions of players of The Sims.

This game, in which players control the "lives" and "destinies" of a computer-generated "family", has just become the PC's best-ever seller. It has shifted 6.3 million copies worldwide in the two years since its release to surpass the previous holder, the enigmatic Myst, released in 1993, which sold roughly 5.5 million.

But playing The Sims can play strange tricks on the brain. "Sometimes you sit there and the Sims are in their house eating a pizza and you think to yourself, 'What the hell am I doing looking at this?'" says Kieron Gillen, deputy editor of PC Gamer magazine. "I know that a lot of people have found themselves watching it and wondered whether it wasn't the Sims who created them so that they, the Sims, could have a life."

But the game's success also presages a future where the line between something in a computer and something in real life becomes more and more blurred.

For those who haven't yet fallen under its spell, The Sims is a game in which you, the player, set up a cast of "sims" – simulated people – whose lives will be played out entirely within your PC. Previous simulation games were played at the abstracted level of a city planner or the manager of an amusement park, but the Sims gets right down to the individual level. You start with a view of a single neighbourhood in a town and then decide the personality of the members of a single family. You determine what personality combination – of neatness, playfulness, activeness, niceness and outgoingness – each member of that family will have. Then you simply start them off. You can control their loves, progress and success in as much or as little detail as you like.

The result is "a thoroughly engrossing, incredibly detailed product that will absorb you in days of hardcore micromanagement that will set you apart from family, friends and possibly hygiene", noted David Satterthwaite on the website, when The Sims was released by Electronic Arts in February 2000.

To get your Sims to feel happier, you need to get them into jobs that pay well; and so they will read the papers for jobs, choosing work and moving up the career ladder, which gets them more money, which they can then spend on more things. One of the favoured pursuits of the Sims (or the thing that makes them happy) is wide-screen TVs. For food, pizzas are well-favoured. Start them off, and time runs (fortunately) more quickly than real life: each 24-hour period lasts about 20 minutes (or less at night, if you speed it up). It's like capitalism in miniature.

But it's not so simple, nor shallow. Sims are social beings; they need friends and to interact with other Sims in the neighbourhood. Remember, if you can, that these are simply sets of instructions being performed by a computer. To millions of people, The Sims provides an alternative life, where they are the empathetic god to their atheistic creations.

What has made it so successful? "It plays on common-or-garden voyeurism, the same as watching reality TV like Big Brother: you're watching people go about their life, and you have the ability to affect it," said Mr Gillen. "A lot of people set it up as a playpen, torturing their characters by creating impossible love triangles, or setting up polysexual communities that they wish they could have in real life."

But the real secret that has taken it beyond all the other PC games is the fact that women and children like playing it. Rather than being a shoot-em-up where bullets and blood fly in equal amounts, it is a game that rewards those who treat their creations well. "A lot of blokes thought that it couldn't really do well when it came out – they were saying, 'My wife's complicated enough; why bother with this too?" said Mr Gillen. "But it's so voyeuristic. And it was advertised in women's magazines, which was smart. It has a very, very high proportion of women users compared to most PC games." Electronic Arts, the game's publisher, says that more than 50 per cent of new Sims players are female.

The Sims follows in the footsteps of other simulation games, the first of which was SimCity, released in 1987. Here the player was a city planner trying to balance the demands for residential and industrial space, create enough transport links, and juggle taxation levels to keep the populace happy.

SimCity was serendipity. Its creator, Will Wright, was working on a game where the player flew around and bombed islands, and had an "island generator" to create them. "I noticed that after a while I was having more fun building islands than blowing them up."

Still, the game's publisher was nervous that people would find the task of running a city too dull (or worse, "educational"), and added options for a meltdown at the nuclear plant and an attack by Godzilla. But users were loath to destroy their handiwork so trivially. Maxis, the original publisher, decided that it would be better to call the product a "software toy" than a "game".

SimCity quickly became a franchise: SimEarth, SimAnt, SimLife, SimFarm, SimHealth, SimGolf, SimTown, SimTune, SimIsle, and the sequels SimCity 2000 and SimCity 3000. And now it is popular even among educators, said Roger Bennett, director of the European Leisure and Software Publishers' Association (Elspa).

"We get a lot of teachers coming and asking how they can get hold of old simulation games," said Mr Bennett. "SimFarm is particularly requested; apparently it's perfect for primary school children."

Research at Liverpool University has shown that children who play games of any sort tend to be better in later life at solving problems. "There's a growing acknowledgement, led by The Sims, of the value of gaming in the context of expanding peoples' learning processes," said Mr Bennett.

But there are those who criticise the simulation games for promoting a single – and invisible – view of the world. SimCity, for example, is based on the premise that only low taxes (around 5 per cent) will keep citizens happy – something left-wing critics dispute. Others disagree with its perspective on nuclear power (fossil-fuel stations are "better" in the game's context) and public transport (trains and trams are favoured over cars). But there's no way to reach inside the game and change those settings.

Similarly, the characters in The Sims are deeply capitalist: "They like having a nice big TV, a nice new mobile phone, filling their house with lots of stuff," said Mr Killen. Electronic Arts says that more than a million people visit its website each month to download new clothes and household items for the game.

But that certainly leaves a gap in the philosophical market, suggests Neil Morton, editor-in-chief of My, which reviews games of all sorts. If you can have The Sims, he asks, "How about a game on environmental degradation, for example, or a game on globalisation or anti-globalisation or capitalism or dysfunctional families or poverty or homelessness or government corruption or corporations or technology or whatever? If movies and music and novels can tackle these issues, why not games?"