Dollhouses of Desperation: Playing to Practice, Playing to Prepare

The characters in This War of Mine live in a home situated in a larger world that is much colder, much more callous than the bright and cheery suburban void that the homes of The Sims exist in.

The dollhouse is a place to prepare for real life. Of course, most toys, most play has often served that cultural role. Play becomes a space in which children can try on different roles and practice their conceptions of those roles for the future. We play, we practice, and we prepare.

The sale of G.I. Joe action figures, beginning in the mid-1960s and throughout the Cold War era, as a toy for American little boys to practice their “role” as protectors belongs to a long tradition of little boys relating themselves to their potential future as through the manipulation of toy soldiers. In the same way, the dollhouse or the simple game of playing “house” has long been identified with little girls, little girls practicing and preparing themselves for managing domestic spaces, a role traditionally associated with femininity and adulthood.

It probably isn't surprising then that digital forms of play have often conformed to the traditions of dividing play spaces between the genders. The popularity of the Call of Duty series can be accounted for by its sales to a largely male demographic. Little boys play soldier, and Call of Duty simply adds more possibilities for practicing at playing the role of someone who is to be held accountable for their performance in the public realm. The soldier's occupation is one that in modern warfare takes place on the world stage, making men responsible for the fate and protection of their homes and their nation.

It is also unsurprising, perhaps, that one of the first video games to garner a large female audience is The Sims series, a series that creates the digital version of playing house, a household management simulator in which the player is tasked with concerning herself with the needs and comfort of a group of people within a private, domesticated space. Indeed, Will Wright and his team's initial project was referred to not as The Sims, but as Dollhouse (The Sims was referred to by several names during its development, including Project X and maybe even more appropriately and didactically as the Tactical Domestic Simulator) (Don Hopkins, ”Designing User Interfaces to Simulation Games”, Don Hopkins' Web Site, 12 January 2004).

2014's This War of Mine might easily be described as a “tactical domestic simulator” as well. Indeed, in terms of its visual presentation, the term “dollhouse” might be an even more clear appellation for this game than it was for The Sims. This War of Mine eschews the isometric perspective of The Sims for the far more familiar perspective of the doll house as a cross cut of a house -- as if the player is looking into the side of a house, as one might view the actions of the dolls within as one might view actors on a proscenium stage. Like The Sims, This War of Mine is a game about household management, a game about managing the needs and comfort of the members of a household both physically and psychologically.

However, what makes this game of dollhouse different from many of its forebears is the context of that domestic space, which contextualizes the domestic within a larger, more public event, war. That essentially each “round” of This War of Mine is broken into two “turns,” though, makes this idea even more clear. Each round or day of game time is spent initially in the house, where players occupy themselves with the kind of thing that they would in a Sims game, feeding their characters, allowing them to rest if they are too tired, making sure that they feel comfortable and are not growing sad or depressed, and then also fashioning household items, like beds, stoves, and other furnishings and work benches that allow them to more efficiently care for those needs. The second half of each round or day is spent outside the home. Night is a time for scavenging supplies, food and materials that can be used during the day time hours for “keeping up” the household. A stealth game emerges in the latter half of the round as one character, essentially the “breadwinner” for the game's “family,” is guided by the player in the dangerous spaces of the public realm.

Interestingly, this is an area of domestic simulation that has always remained mostly invisible in The Sims series. While sims do have jobs, time spent there occurs “off camera” in those games, as sims hop into a car and hustle off to work when it is time for them to go to work, but the camera, the perspective of the game, remains on its “real” drama, the drama of domestic life. Indeed, though, this is true of the dollhouse or playing house. “Dad” remains absent from play for the most part, since he is most often away at work. The game revolves around how mom and the kids (and, perhaps, the neighbors or the milkman) manage in the house and interact with one another, the soap opera of the private sphere.

That is not to say that the focus of This War of Mine is equally divided between private and public spheres, the chief interest of the game remains not on the activity of scavenging and breadwinning. The game acknowledges this need for public action as a necessity for the domestic space to continue to exist, but most of the pathos and drama of the game emerges within the domestic space, in which we view characters starving, exhausted, or mentally unraveling. The goal, after all, is to maintenance those at home, to meet their needs and to hopefully provide them comfort. What the game does is simply make the reason for such needs and the heroism in managing it all that much more apparent and clear because of the player's awareness of how desperately human beings are surviving in a larger world that is much colder, much more callous than the bright and cheery suburban void that the homes of The Sims exist in.

The Sims, though, provides a kind of play that is situated in a middle class, suburban world, in which, for those associated with domestic responsibilities at least, it as if the larger world of work, of breadwinning, of politics simply does not exist -- or simply does not matter to this kind of existence. It is a world that assumes survival is a given. All that matters is living well, not merely surviving.

Interestingly, both versions of living within the private sphere lead to interesting drama, undeniable pathos. However, The Sims was designed during the Clinton era and persisted successfully through the early years of the Bush administration, eras in which the survival of the world was, for most Americans, a distant and often invisible reality. The news delivered reports on Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Palestine and Israel, on Iraq, and even on two towers that fell in far away New York City, but these were conflicts that middle Americans found themselves largely uninterested in, as their role was to merely maintenance their own living, not to survive global conflict.

The domestic sphere was left largely untouched by public events for a time in the United States and the games played within that space remained neatly divided between games of domesticity and games of war. The compelling nature of This War of Mine is how it breaks down the divide between domestic life and public affairs, bringing to bear the reality of a context for domestic life that amplifies the pathos of living privately. This is a game that might suggest that play and practice are truly essential for preparation for life outside the simulation, the mere practice of responsibility and adulthood in a safe and inviolate space. Like the stories of apocalyptic living, of hunger games, of zombie survival, the stories of want (that is, not wanting something more, but mere want, the simple meeting of the needs of continuing to breathe) that have become more popular in American media, This War of Mine arrives as a game wed to a notion of an adulthood marked by a current sense of desperation, not the simulated vision of upward mobility.

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