Many people have played the Sims before, or any other so-called “escapist” or “alternate universe” games where you get to be another person. The Sims I play is not the advanced Sims 3, but the Sims FreePlay for mobiles, because it is free. Nonetheless, it is a very satisfying experience for me and frankly the perfect tool for procrastination. Before I talk in-depth why I love this game so much, let’s watch the launch trailer for the Sims FreePlay below:
From the trailer, we can see that screenshots of the entire fictional town, giving the viewers a sense of control and prosperity. There are also scenes where several Sims socialize by dancing together to stereo music. Its purpose is to imitate real life, or rather for some users to experience something they cannot enjoy in real life much. The trailer also promotes to idea to play free, catering to users’ every need and fantasy, as proved by the taglines in the trailer, “But most of all…the Sims are free! Free to play! Free to live…the way you want! Live free! Play free! Play with life’. The last three words “play with life” are significant because normal people like us cannot play with our lives, every decision we make are carefully calculated and thought of, whereas in Sims we can do whatever we want, we can literally “play” with the Sims’ lives, ordering them to do whatever we want them to do.
The Sims looks attractive enough from the trailer, but how can its attractiveness be explained through the point of view of digital media usage? I think the reason is that the Sims itself is a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, making the users feel impossible to separate from it. First let’s talk about fantasy. The Sims has everything I have dreamed about: big mansions, fancy cars, and people I can get married to. Below is a picture of a mansion I built in Sims:
Imagine how much such a mansion in Hong Kong is going to cost…
I am currently playing with seven Sims, and they are all characters from the same movie. I start out by creating the Sims to look like the characters, ranging from hairstyle, eye color, skin color to personality. Then I slowly build their relationships as it is depicted in the movie. It is surely one of the constraints of the game that I can only choose from a range of honestly ugly hiarstyles and equally unflattering clothes to fit my Sims, but it also offers me affordances. Now with all the Sims at hand, I can play out the movie in whatever way I want, I can recreate the story, or make amendments to it, or add completely new storylines. It is similar to people writing fanfiction except that I write using Sims. What I just decribed fits with James Paul Gee’s “embodied stories”, that the way the game progresses is “embodied in the player’s own choices and actions in a way they cannot be in books and movies”. Although they are minor constraints while playing Sims, as the game player I can still decide how the story progresses.
The Sims offers me a chance of playing out my fantasies, but what also attracts me to play the game is the feeling of reality in it. I think anybody who plays the Sims are also looking for a hint of reality in it besides the fantasy aspect, or else they ought to play World of Warcraft or Assasin’s Creed instead. For instance, goals must be satisfied in the Sims before I can move on with the next task. A Sims must get married with another Sims before they can have a baby (doesn’t necessary apply in every case but it is close to reality). Another example is that the Sims will refuse to get engaged if the daimond ring is not glamorous enough (much to my distress). Also, one of the Sims must stay at home with the baby to take care of it while others go out to work to earn Simoleons. here is a picture of my Sim planting idly while the toddler sleeps:
These examples are painfully close to reality, and it reminds me that I am playing a imitation game, that even in the game world there are still rules to abide by and I am not the absolute god in this game universe.
Another theory I agree with James Paul Gee is that games provide a range of new opportunities for the construction of identity. He describes three different identities that come into playing video games, and I find that I can fully experience all three of them while I play the Sims. The first one is real identity, which in my case is a 20-year-old university student in Hong Kong. The second one is virtual identity, the characters I create can be some 30-year-old men and women, a baby (took four hours of construction in Sims world), and the adults can be artists and politicians, and they live in a town that looks American. The third one is “projective identity”, where I can put my own aspirations, values and hopes on them. I can choose one of the Sims to become a Science teacher, something I have always wanted to try but could not, because I studied Arts in high school. Quoting the digital media textbook, the game “provides opportunities for individuals to take on roles that would not be possible in the real world”.
Jane McGonial says “In today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy”. In the Sims, while I fulfill the Sims’ needs by feeding them, making them take a shower, or telling them to go to work, I’m not just fulfilling their needs. Instead I am also fulfilling my needs, my desire to live in a fantasy world where I can have control of every aspect of my life, which is the most satisfying part of my Sims experience.