RSA 2018: The Sims from Design to Fan Production

My main purpose for today is to explore games as a type of media and use a new materialist focus—predominately from Laurie Gries—to highlight their capacity as circulating interactive materials. In rhetoric, discussion of games has tended to focus on their procedural arguments or on a potential culture that they may help foster. Looking at games as dynamic objects as they circulate, however, showcases how their qualities as media, including their procedurality, interact with other actors to co-create ongoing media ecologies. Games represent a distributed potential, starting with participants in the design phase, and spilling into their co-interaction with players and platforms out in the world. Focusing on their circulation helps one see this more expansive engagement.

In her tracing of the famous Obama Hope image, Gries pursues and outlines a new materialist approach to circulation, building from the work of rhetoric scholars, like Jenny Rice, and new materialists, like Jane Bennet. Her frame work focuses on the futurity and consequences of rhetorical artifacts as they move through the world. As she writes, “Rhetoric . . . is a process that unfolds and materializes with time and space. We can thus learn a lot about rhetoric, I imagined, by focusing on the material consequences that unfold during futurity — those spans of time beyond the initial moment of production and delivery.” She describes how the Obama Hope image helped localize and form networks through its affective force. To that end, she outlines six principles, which I would like to briefly review:

  • Becoming: “things constantly exist in a dynamic state of flux and are productive of change, time, and space” (p. 289)
  • Transformation: “rhetoric unfolds in unpredictable, divergent, and inconsistent ways. . . as they materialize in differing spatiotemporal configurations” (p. 289).
  • Consequentiality: “A new materialist rhetorical approach focuses the most attention on the consequences that emerge once matter is initially produced, has been perceived as relatively stable, and enters into circulation” (p. 289).
  • Vitality: “A new materialist rhetorical approach tries to account for a thing’s distributed, emergent materializations in a nonteleological fashion and disclose the complexity of unsurprising and unpredictable ways it impacts collective life” (p. 289).
  • Agency: “a new materialist rhetorical approach focuses on a thing’s emergent and unfolding exterior relations and intra-actions” (p. 289).
  • Virality: “a new materialist rhetorical approach focuses on a thing’s emergent and unfolding exterior relations and intra-actions” (p. 289).

While Gries uses this framework to engage primarily with visual rhetoric in her project, they also provide a flexible, illuminating approach to other media and modalities, including videogames.

Before getting into my example with The Sims, though, I wanted to briefly highlight some central tenants of video games as media. This is still an ongoing project, but I see these four qualities as central to games and part of their unique rhetorical capacities as they circulate:

  • Active: As Alexander Galloway argues, videogames are “active” media, remaining latent or potential until played. For Galloway, the code that may comprise a game like Doom is not the game; like a recipe, it is the instructions that may lead to a game when enacted. Analogue games are similar, coming into being as players engage with their rules. A game emerges from its latent potential, as its code or rules carry across situations.
  • Emergent: Drawing from complexity theory, Salen and Zimmerman (2003) state that emergence means “a simple set of rules applied to a limited set of objects in a system leads to unpredictable results” (158). They go on to argue that it creates “patterns and results not contained within the rules themselves” (160). Emerging from a complex system of factors, a game exceeds the sum of its constituent parts. While rules (and code) remain largely fixed, a game is not, changing as players and other variables interact with(in) those rules in unpredictable ways. The rules present a “possibility space,” an area of potential emergence, guided but not determined.
  • Procedural: With videogames, Bogost argues in Persuasive Games, “arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (29). But at a more fundamental level, videogames—and games in general—are governed by procedures. As Noah Wardrip-Fruin frames it, videogames contain the data of images, sounds, text, etc., but the display and execution of that data depends on the processes authored by designers.
  • Dialogic: Kevin Moberly (2008) and John Alberti (2008) have argued that videogames complicate views of “writer,” “reader,” and “composing.” Alberti writes, for example, “From the perspective of print-based theories of literacy, gaming is an inherently dialogic discursive space, one that problematizes the distinction between ‘reading’ and ‘writing,’ ‘process’ and ‘product’” (267). Players are in dialogue with the game, “composing” themselves and the game environment in relationship with the game’s own intervention as they interact. Such compositions are ephemeral and ongoing as one plays, co-created by the processes built into the game and the input of players and other participants.

To showcase these qualities, I want to use chess as an example. In The Grasshopper, game theorist Bernard Suits distinguishes between a game and its “institution,” using chess to clarify. The institution of chess, he theorizes, contains the abstracted rules and associations that carry across contexts and sessions. Excluding house rules and personal changes, pieces move the same way and win conditions remain largely codified, set down in “the rules,” but each session is different. Here, we see these four qualities in action. The game is active, requiring it to be “played,” such playing presents a complex system where a range of possibilities emerge, the session is procedurally mediated, and players are in dialogue with those procedures—and one another, in this case.

Reflecting these capacities, Tanja Sihvoven distinguishes between the game as it “comes of the shelf” or get released as a title and the game as it circulates in the world, getting modified, producing derivative texts, etc. as “process.” As she writes, “I think of the COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) game title as ‘game- as-product’ and the game materialised in gameplay as ‘game-as-process’. . .The duality of game-as-product and game-as-process reveals that a game does not only consist of a material aspect, the algorithm, but it also entails an embodied experience, the act of play. . . . In this sense, all games are constructed of rules and rulesets, which contain the potentiality of the game, game in potentia, but only the actual play of a game brings it to full existence, game in actio . The game has to be experienced by its player, interacting with the rules and the provided virtual envi­ronment, in order for it to achieve its actuality. The potentiality of a game can thus be considered as a designed formal system that is able to direct and predict certain experiences the player is likely to undergo without resorting to simplistic determin­ism.”

While the traditional uptake of procedural rhetoric has tended to focus on the former—games as rhetorical arguments designed to make largely claims-based arguments—games as process also prove rhetorical in unique ways, considering their Heraclitan qualities. Much like Gries’ Obama Hope image, games present objects that inspire a range of behaviors, regarding play and beyond. Her framework—geared toward circulating objects, consequences, futurity, and changing contexts—aligns with this more ongoing game-as-process framework. To showcase how this may look, I will use The Sims as an example, tracing its creation and uptake.

When looking at the creation of The Sims, I think it’s important to look at its origins and development, move to its design and mechanics, then look at its uptake. My materials for this work come from a range of secondary sources, including published interviews and work from other scholars, along with archival materials from The Strong Museum in Rochester, particularly Will Wright’s design notebooks. I also used the Internet Archive and my own childhood materials. While any of these phases could go more in depth, I just wanted to hit the highlights.

Will Wright originally envisioned The Sims from three main sources, his longstanding interest I human psychology and architecture, the dollhouse he and his daughter Cassidy played with, and a 1991 fire that swept through Oakland Hills, where Wright and his family lived, destroying his home and possessions. By 1993, ideas for the game had congealed into Wright’s working title, Home Tactics: The Experimental Home Simulator. He was not the first with a similar idea, with the 1985 Activision game Little Computer People already sporting a domestic focus and open play condition, but this game was not that successful commercially. Maxis’ board of directors was skeptical to accept Wright’s project with its domestic focus, despite the success of some of Wright’s other games. Wright had to wait until EA Games bought Maxis in 1997, when Wright and his team of over 50 programmers got to work. The Sims came out 4 February 2000, quickly surpassing Myst (1993) as the best-selling PC game of all time. The Internet also played an important role, with Maxis launching the site in advance, and allowing press releases and fan excitement flourish.

In his notebooks, Wright often comes back to two main elements: (1) the goal of happiness and (2) a people v. things conflict. He wanted the game to be a satirical critique of capitalism, with players fulfilling their needy Sims’ constant desire for more stuff. Mechanically that satire is largely lost, with stuff-buying being central to the happiness of their Sims, not just relationships, relying on a four-part process. First, every Sim has a series of needs called “motives,” like hunger or hygiene, which dictate their happiness and degrade over time. Higher motives mean happier Sims. Second, players have their Sims use objects in the game to meet those needs. A shower, for instance, helps hygiene. Third, more money lets players buy objects that help these motives more efficiently. A more expensive shower, for example, provides more “hygiene” than a cheaper model. And fourth, one gets more money by advancing in their career across different career paths, themselves modeled after real-world versions.

As Jesper Juul (2010) argues regarding the franchise, the game does not force a specific goal or punish you for failure (in a direct sense, at least), but coaxes you down a path of “least resistance” most in line with the game’s values (137). This is a common tactic in more open-ended games, and this open-ended nature and low-stress, casual gameplay aided its success and uptake, especially among less hardcore players. Today, with casual gaming more common, this may not seem as significant, but at the time, the game proved revolutionary.

The open-ended nature of the game also gave considerable leeway for players to compose. Many of these works gained circulation through the official site, pictured here, on the “Exchange”. Fan sites, linked to the main site, also provided outlets.

  • Gamics: Comic-like stories comprised of screen captures and captions. These ranged from fairy tale remakes to domestic dramas, both serious and comical. Similarly, more enterprising fans made machinima.
  • Families: Players could create and upload families.
  • Houses and other lots: And buildings that they constructed.

Less prominent on the main site, but common with fan sites, The Sims had a robust modding community. Maxis provided a basic mod kit to help with creating new Skins and other basic changes, but some players changed deeper mechanics, creating new objects; shifting the game away from its more normative sexual gender biases, and in a case that drew Maxis intervention; erasing the censorship bar from naked Sims. Most of these communities found structure through popular fan sites, like The Sims Resource pictured here—one of the largest and most popular. Like most mod communities, this one was more of a gift economy, but The Sims Resource did allow premium content for a subscription, paying modders.

Importantly, all of these player interactions have two core parts worth scrutinizing. First, the qualities of the original game—especially its open-ended play, casual nature, easy modibility, and screen-capture function—allowed this community to help flourish. These capacities, when put in motion through play, informed its participatory uptake. Second, the ongoing interaction of other participants through a range of networked platforms, tools, and communities—often with their own motivations and goals—also led to its ongoing popularity and healthy fan culture. In both its original invention and arrangement and in its ongoing delivery, The Sims illustrates how games don’t just make arguments or allow fun, but can provide the means to produce other composing spaces and compositions—themselves rhetorical in their own way.

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