Online Sims: Connecting with People

by John S. James

For a new look at some of what matters to people see "Oversimulated Suburbia" by David Brooks, in the November 24, 2002 Sunday New York Times Magazine. It suggests a key to more effective social organizing.

It's about "The Sims" -- "the best-selling computer game of all time" -- where you create your own characters and develop a virtual community. Unlike the usual shoot-em-ups, you don't get points, and the game has no end. Next month there will be an online version for up to a million players. The online game is currently being tested by 35,000 people, and the New York Times article is mainly about what has happened in that test.

Don't be turned away by this game's main setting -- suburban life and shopping. The Sims provides a forum for peoples' hopes and dreams (and aimlessness as well), with results that are often surprising, even to the game's author. For example, on friends and dating, the popular goal in the game is not marriage and living happily ever after, but rather a group of close friends. From the article:

"The Sims world reflects, anticipates and parodies the real world. Specifically, it reflects the social inversion that has taken place over the past decade. If you came of age before, say, 1985, then your social life probably followed the 1950's pattern: you had a group of friends and also a relationship with your special boyfriend or girlfriend that was understood to be higher and more intense than that with the rest of the gang. There was a distinct line between 'going out' and not 'going out.'

"But for many American young people, the friendship relationship is more important than the sexual relationship. That's the model you see in the Sims world and the Sims literature. People go out in groups, rather than on one-on-one dates. In the new pattern, no one sits around by the phone waiting for the boy to ask the girl out, which is nice, but on the other hand, every serious or possibly serious relationship is plagued by ambiguity. There's a pervasive level of sexual tension, but also a new sort of anxiety, because without the formal dating rituals, it's hard to know where anyone stands."

Another example from the article:

"So far, there are two basic types of players. First, there are the highly driven players obsessed with making Sims money and becoming masters of the Sims universe. (Already one player has become the Donald Trump of the online Sims world, acquiring enough money and property to open a string of coffee shops, stores and clubs.) Then there is another set of players who are mostly interested in building intimacies and relationships.... These people are interested in creating bonds, giving hugs and building a clique. In the Sims world, of course, you can be as obnoxious as you want to be, with no real cost, but Wright [the game's author] says he's been impressed by the spirit of attentive camaraderie that so far prevails. 'People are polite and social with each other,' he says. (While there are many fantastic monsters and other bizarre personas available to them, most players are content to create normal, humanlike Sims beings.) There is no government yet in the online Sims game. It's a Hobbesian state of nature. And yet most people are cooperative and friendly -- perhaps slightly more flamboyant than the average person you see in the Safeway, but not much."

Recently the game's author added a plague to The Sims test -- illustrating that not everything can develop there its own. Instead there is a dialectic or conversation between what the author designs into the game, and what can happen spontaneously within it.

How to Find the Article Online

If you don't have the newspaper handy you can get the article free online, at www.nytimes.com. To read it you have to register with the site, but that's free and worth doing anyway. (You get searchable access to almost everything in the paper, with full-text articles free for a week -- and you can see which stories in today's paper are getting the most attention worldwide, by checking which have been emailed most often). The easiest way to find the Sims article on the site, now or later, is to search for "Sims" -- then look for "Oversimulated Suburbia" in the search results.

Why It's Important

Often politicians win or lose a race depending on whether or not they connect with the voters. "The Sims" online version (not yet available, except as the test with 35,000 people) seems to have created a new way to connect -- by computer simulation that allows people to create their own social worlds.

The article hints that money, deal making, and materialism is basically a format or forum in which people work out their relationships with others. It is what we might call a "connection forum" -- the most dominant one in the modern world, and perhaps in "The Sims" world as well.

Another major connection forum in the real world is religion -- not discussed in the article. I don't know if it will be put into The Sims game or not, or if it could find its way in.

Other major connection forums in the modern world (also not discussed in the article) are:
(1) The celebrity culture, which gives people throughout our very diverse society common points of reference, so that they have something familiar to talk about when they interact with each other;
(2) Eastern movements like the yoga societies of India, or Falun Gong from China, which seem to be partly religious but mostly practical (it's hard to find good Western examples);
(3) Fraternal organizations and secret societies (less prominent today than in the past); and
(4) The modern voluntary association (sometimes considered a U.S. invention, credited by some to Benjamin Franklin).

It does matter when a new connection forum comes along and finds a big constituency. It matters that today such a forum can be deliberately designed. Perhaps a key to effective organizing is to offer people better ways to connect with each other -- built not on shopping but on common goals for a better world.

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