Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Sims

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The Sims [..] wasn’t anyone’s pick at the time to ultimately become the best selling video game franchise of all time. But in the 14 years since it launched, The Sims has had an immeasurable impact on the industry [..] As a typical gamer, my own experience with The Sims started off typically. I found it more fascinating than fun, but nevertheless got caught up in a relentless quest to have the happiest Sims, the biggest house, and the most girlfriends (my real life girlfriend did not approve.) And money. Lots of money [..].

[Others were different]. Nearly every player I watched did different things, and few had anything to do with getting the high score. One wanted to be a Scientist. Another created a home where every room had its own unique decor. Yet another focused on fashion, playing dress-up and hosting themed parties. One [..] would run experiments, such as locking the entire neighborhood in a room with all grills and no doors, forcing Sims to choose between starving or burning. They chose the inferno.

At first I was bewildered. Why are you all playing the game wrong? Don’t you want to win? But as I continued to watch, my confusion gave way to appreciation, and soon I was vicariously sharing in the joy of just trying things, seeing what happens, and relishing the process. My limited world view of The Sims had expanded, and what had previously been a brief blip in my own gaming radar became an obsession. Around 100 days in, I had reconciled with the idea that there was no wrong way to play [..]

[The author then joins Maxis, the company that makes the Sims]. I had the good fortune of sitting near one of the game’s designers, and through many overheard conversations, I discovered that the Sims team doesn’t think about players all in one large bucket, to be sloshed around indiscriminately. Rather, there are many distinct player types that each imply particular design decisions. Most notably, there are Achievers and Dollhousers.

Achievers view the game as just that — a Game — with rules to be mastered and goals to overcome. Achievers take the shortest possible path to the maximum possible outcome. If there’s a number, Achievers want to make it bigger, and anything that distracts from that goal is a needless waste of time. Achievers skip every cut-scene, keep the game clock pegged at triple-speed, and will stop at nothing to win.

Although the word “Dollhouser” may conjure up imagery of little girls dressed in pink, the term had a specific meaning to the Sims team: Dollhousers set their own goals. They may briefly acknowledge the numbers, but largely ignore any defined objectives in favor of carving their own path. They tinker. They tell stories. They spent more time in Build mode than Buy mode, choosing to produce rather than consume. Long after an Achiever thinks they’ve beaten the game and it’s time to move on, a Dollhouser keeps creating new ways to play.

Achievers kept pushing towards victory, but upon discovering that the numbers have no upper limit, they invariably got bored and quit. Meanwhile, despite not being a real word [..] Dollhousing is the most rewarding, long-lasting, and dare I say best way to play. As more of a toy than a game, The Sims doesn’t reward players seeking a high score — pursuing one is a sure path to frustration and failure. Dollhousers play by their own rules [..]

I don’t know if it was all my late nights wrangling code, or simply too many hours staring at a screen trying to make sense of Simlish, but at some point the lines began to blur between The Sims and my everyday existence, [I started to wonder, w]ho was controlling me? What type of player was he?

Being the youngest of five children, I had always been naturally competitive. But as I grew older, and the structure of schoolwork gave way to an endless paradox of choice, it became harder to tell if I was on the right path. I questioned whether I was pursuing the most lucrative career, whether I was fulfilling my needs fast enough. Am I playing the game wrong? Don’t I want to win? With each day slipping by too quickly as I was unable to find the pause button, something had to change. I needed to look beyond the subjectively objective measures of success — wealth, popularity, or whatever ways people try to keep score — and realize none of that truly mattered, and all my frantic effort was holding me back from simply enjoying the game. And I really, seriously needed some sleep [..].

[Now] each year, in the first week of February, I take a moment to remember that there’s more to life, whether Sim or real, than getting the high score. Life is broader, more fulfilling, and lasts much longer when you set your own goals. When you observe and appreciate the goals of others. When you don’t play to win, but when the goal itself is simply to play.

So how about it: Are you ready to switch out of Buy Mode and into Build Mode? Do you want to Play With Life?

Health Apocalypse Now

Link Much of my time for the past year has been spent navigating the medical maze on behalf of my mother, who has dementia. I obser...