Who owns

Sim suburbia

I really enjoyed The Sims, and am totally looking forward to The Sims Online. I think it’s quite cool that it’s become the biggest break-out hit ever — the most mainstream-successful of any video game in history, other than Tetris. Will Wright, the creator, has done something quite amazing: He’s proven that a large chunk of everyday American society enjoys — indeed, is crazy for — spending time in a virtual space.

But is anyone else but me freaked out that Will Wright’s vision of the idealized virtual space is … a trackless American suburb?

I mean, when I first played The Sims back in 1999, I loved the characters, their interactions, and the fascinating emergent behavior. But the environment skeeved me out in the extreme. Every single house was this sprawling monster home, set back hundreds of feet from every other house.

I’ve seen what it’s like living in these areas. I grew up in the lunar precincts of Toronto’s suburbs, where you had to drive for 15 minutes just to buy a pack of gum, and everybody hung out in their basements like bomb shelters. And I learned what every sane person learns: That even at their most pleasant and highly functioning, American suburbs are complete and total nightmarescapes of alienation. You can live next to someone for like 27 years and have no idea that in their backyard they’re distilling fertilizer into a bomb, storing chopped-up Boy Scout parts in an industrial freezer, or maybe just spending every single evening working one of those 650,000-piece jigsaw puzzles composed entirely of white pieces. There is just no social contact out there. And yeah, yeah, I know this is a classic urbanist stereotype. It’s also true.

John Carpenter understood this. That’s why Halloween is such a brilliant film. Back when he made it in 1978, American media was freaking out about how violent and evil New York and L.A. and Chicago were, and how nasty and horrible urban environments were. All those … other people! Packed together like sardines! The horror!

Carpenter knew better. He knew that the truly terrifying black hole of American dread was not in the cities, but in the suburbs, where some guy in a ski mask can be stabbing you and your friends to death with a 14-inch steak knife while you scream and scream and scream and scream and scream, and everyone on the block just turns up the TV a bit louder, and nobody gives the slightest shit what’s going on. And no-one does. Every time some teenage kid cuts loose with an AK-47 in a high-school, the suburban neighbors always tell the reporters, “he always seemed like a nice kid,” or “he sort of kept to himself.” Of course he kept to himself! In the suburbs, everyone keeps to themselves. That’s all they do. That’s how you can be a teenager and DO FREAKING TARGET PRACTICE WITH AN AK-47 IN YOUR BEDROOM AND NOBODY NOTICES.

Of course, the irony is that The Sims Online is all about gaining street cred by co-operating with people — by having them come over for drinks or whatnot. The virtual environment may be visually suburban, but the interactions are urban (or rural) in their communitarian nature. Because Will Wright is a smart dude. He’s read his Jane Jacobs. He knows that environments thrive because of social interaction, and die in its absence. As he says in a very cool feature on The Sims at Gamespot:

Wright, however, cautions that he wants to let players decide how to evolve the world. “All of this political stuff has to come from the bottom up,” he posits. “We can’t do it from the top down and dictate structure.” Instead, players need to build covenants with each other and establish the conventions of the world over time. “Totally planned cities don’t work,” Wright explains. “It’s sort of like the Utopian society movement, where there were these guys who went off and started building planned cities. For the most part the cities were total failures.”

Precisely. But those planned cities were … suburban in nature, as urban theorist John Sewell wrote in his excellent book The Shape of the City.

Possibly, this is just about aesthetics. Wright wanted his players to build locales, locales big enough for several Sims to hang out in. That biases one towards large suburban-style houses — and biases one against, say, public spaces, which aren’t owned by any single person and which are too big to be visually represented in a game like The Sims.

And who knows? Maybe someone living in a particularly airless suburb might be actually inspired by seeing social interaction amongst the suburban denizens of the Sims Online. An AI researcher I know at MIT once had a friend who was pretty socially alienated, and spent hours and hours playing The Sims:

Then one day he realized, ‘Hey, the way I make my Sim happy is by having him hang out with friends and family, and do all these social things, and he winds up healthy. Maybe I should be doing those things myself.’

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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