So, back in London after another foreign trip. This time around it was a weeklong but much appreciated vacation to the verdant hills of Southwest France, specifically the town of Angoulême. The region is famous for its duck, and of course its wine. Interestingly, though, the University of Angoulême has recently announced plans to run an MA programme in games design, and the locale might soon become famous for that, having already pioneered work in the archiving and study of comic books, that other supposedly ‘low-brow’ art form with which frequently video games share a common cause. The arrival of such an MA programme is a logical development in France, given that it is home to both Ubisoft and Infogrammes (the latter are the current owners of that once most iconic of American brands, Atari).
Having not yet succumbed to the pleasures of the Next Gen sequence of portable of consoles, I stowed with me my treasured box of delights, my golden GameBoy Advance SP. It occurs to me that this is the first multi-platform games console I’ve ever owned outside of a mobile phone. It’s a far cry from the bright yellow electronic Pacman-clone that distracted me from my studies in the early ‘80s, Grandstand’s neon coloured and imaginatively retitled Munchman (as it turns out, such distractions proved infinitely more useful to me than a lot of my more formal education, given what I now do for a living. Funny, that). It also occurs to me that in the next couple of years I’ll be teaching undergraduates who weren’t actually born when the first GameBoy appeared on the market in 1989. Munchman is going to have much the same resonance for them as eight-track cartridges do for me.
Anyway, since this was a holiday, and I was duty bound to mark some university assignments between various interludes of sunning myself in a hammock, eating roast duck, and drinking full-bodied wine, I allowed myself only one video game. I chose the latest iteration of Will Wright’s phenomenally successfully Sims brand, The Urbz, subtitled Sims in the City. I’d received the game at Christmas, and played it in a fairly on-and-off fashion throughout the New Year period with the moderately valid reason that I’d just become a new father. So this holiday was an opportunity to really explore the game in a lot more depth.
The Urbz, as the title implies, supplies a city-based environment for your character to function in, most obviously reminiscent to this British gamer as NYC. You get to pick your character’s name, gender, skin colour, hairstyle, and clothes. You even get to dictate his or her personality traits through a series of reasonably entertaining questions. The subsequent (often witty) dialogue with other characters in the game operates on a similar menu-driven basis, with the player getting to choose the most appropriate form of interaction (a good example of video game characterisation using the most basic of elements: simple but effective visuals and some clever writing). As with other incarnations of The Sims franchise, the more liberal-minded aspects of the game nestle alongside the guiding principle that money-acquisition equals happiness.
I’d tried to play the original version of The Sims on PC before, but the commitment the game requires from someone schooled in the visceral, immediate thrills associated with console games like Burnout, Halo and GTA proved to be too off-putting. Somehow it seemed to me ethically unsound to create characters I wasn’t then prepared to nurture over a long period of time. One need only look at the emaciated wreck of a NeoPet that months of neglect have fostered to see the worry of putting me in charge of a virtual character (thankfully, as it turns out, I’m quite capable with a real baby).
But this isn’t to say that the idea of The Sims didn’t and doesn’t appeal to me: like a lot of kids I was fascinated by ants as a child, and enjoyed intervening in an ant colony’s world, often in the role of vengeful god (oooh, the pleasures of the magnifying glass). Less frequently I would even intervene in what I considered to be a benevolent role, assisting specific ants in their hunt for food by delivering grains of sugar from the sky in suitably Old Testament fashion. Staged fights between black, red, and occasionally yellow ants were a particularly enjoyable spectacle. So I got to play Caesar, as well.
Certainly that’s an appealing way of seeing The Sims brand: as a kind of glorified ant colony populated by character types lifted from the novels of Douglas Coupland. At the undoubted risk of contriving the pun too far, carrying the GBA version of The Urbz in your trouser pocket consequently renders the concept of ants in your pants an appreciably more pleasurable prospect than the thought of having actual ants in your pants, although that might be highly dependant on an individual’s proclivities.
The other obvious comparison, one that’s been made innumerable times before but is worth reiterating, is that The Sims is a kind of virtual dolls’ house. This fits nicely when we consider that the appeal of dolls is far from limited to girls. The notion that only females play with dolls when growing up is a total myth, given the number of war, science fiction, and sword and sorcery action figures on the market routinely targeted at boys, not to mention the more generic toys such as Lego.
Being the youngest of four, I eventually ended up inheriting both of my Action Men from my older siblings, though unfortunately by this stage neither of the extruded plastic warriors had any clothes left. Combat missions for my Action Men were consequently more akin to the nude wrestling scene from Ken Russell’s version of Women in Love than anything Hamburger Hill might have to offer. Nevertheless I played with them and enjoyed playing with them, complete with homoerotic subtext. Even my Star Wars figures managed to commandeer my sister’s dolls’ house as a kind of makeshift Death Star.
So in point of fact most people in the West, irrespective of gender, are acclimatised to playing with dollies in some form. Just as with dolls from childhood, we play out familiar scenarios in The Urbz that allow us to test various strategies for dealing with the vicissitudes life throws at us. In The Urbz, my particular alter ego is a fairly dweeby guy called Quorn, named after a popular British meat substitute for no other reason than the fact that I happen to quite like that meat substitute. Quorn is what I like to think I would have been like had I been raised in a brownstone New York tenement building by bohemians, rather than the experience of growing up in a Southern England fishing port.
It is interesting to speculate on why a game with some similar dolls’ house themed elements like Tecmo’s Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball shouldn’t command such similar cultural capital as The Sims. One reason might be that The Urbz and other Sims games are not just urban but also urbane: they’re witty, they engage, and they make the player empathise with their character in a way that, with the best will in the world, my scantily clad Japanese martial arts expert does not. More importantly, the dolls in Xtreme Beach Volleyball really are like the worst (or best, depending on your proclivities once again) dolls my sister played with as a kid: their identities are set and there’s little room for imagination. Even Barbie would let you shave her hair off if you were radical enough; and who knows what those Action Men got up to when I wasn’t looking.
So, slumped in aforementioned hammock, I spent many a happy hour blinking in the Angoulême sun, sipping the occasional gin and tonic and playing with Quorn, my ant-dolly hybrid. I developed a lazy hunch while undertaking this most trivial of pursuits, that in fact I was actually engaged in a subversive act.
Bear with me. My theory is that, despite the money acquisition equals happiness paradigm, The Sims is radical precisely because it allows for what we might call a kind of guiding experimentation. It’s as if the dolls of your childhood, the Barbies, Action Men, GI Joes and Sindy dolls were still blank enough for you to be able to imagine a personality for them, but that they would then take that personality on board themselves and extend it. It’s a kind of ant-doll hybrid, if you want to mix metaphors in a holy unsatisfactory but nonetheless amusing fashion. The existential meets the essential, if you want to get philosophical about it. So, in spite of themselves, video games like The Urbz are already doing things important to the rest of the world, and things that are unique to video games.
Who knows? The University of Angoulême might be on to something.