The Golden Age of Sims FreePlay

Liang Luscombe

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The Sims is described as a ‘casual life simulation video game series’, in which you create a virtual person—a Sim—and then live out that Sim’s life. Your Sim will make friends, go for dates, get married, while working their way up the corporate ladder of their chosen career in order to fill their house with furniture, appliances, and even a swimming pool. It’s a game about life administration: your challenge is to navigate your Sim through the minor quandaries of daily life.1 The first version of The Sims series was launched in 2000, and it has become the highest selling PC game of all time. It is also one of the only computer games that is predominantly played by women, especially those aged between 12–35 years old.

When I was fourteen years old, I was addicted to the PC game. Many of my evenings were spent feverishly developing every aspect of my Sims’ personal and professional lives. Its appeal was that it enabled me to enact my rather childish desire for omnipotence: I could customise my Sim’s appearance, sex, age and background, any which way I wanted.2 Looking back now, I see that not much was happening in my social life; it’s little wonder that the prospect of designing a house, deciding what my Sim was having for dinner, and even flirting and potentially having sex with other Sims (described by the ‘Woohoo’ action) all seemed more exciting then the possibilities of a nerdy and relatively shy fourteen-year old’s measly social life – despite it all being virtualised and confined to the logic of the game.

In the PC version, after living many Sim-years, the grim reaper would eventually appear on the scene and take your little Sim to the Beyond (A nasty accident could also cut short the Sim’s life). The player could also turn on their Sim and end their life for them: e.g., you could build a room that had no doors in order that the Sim would starve; or you could direct the Sim to get into the swimming pool, then remove the ladder so they would drown. This sounds rather awful, yet there was always an element of delight when removing the door from a room to watch the Sims slowly perish. As McKenzie Wark describes, “This violence wasn’t real. The Sims are not people. They are images.”3 Indeed, watching a Sim drown provided a way in which a bored player could test the structural parameters of the game—a game in which you are positioned as God. This sense of the game’s player as master of the Sims’ universe is explicitly articulated when things are going badly in the game: the Sim looks up to the sky and gesticulates wildly at them as if needing to grab her God’s attention—your attention.

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Fast forward to 2012, and The Sims has naturally been adapted into a free mobile phone app: The Sims FreePlay. However, unlike the PC version, death was not metabolic. It was only in March of this year, with the introduction of the Golden Age update, that Electronic Arts introduced death to the game. Before this update, your Sims would live forever, with some players having played the same Sim for nearly two years.

The reaction from the players to this literal game-changer? Complete outrage.

To be precise, this was the reaction from the more vocal and social media-savvy players: the torrent of anger is quite extreme across the Facebook page and website of the game’s publisher. One player even started an online petition titled ‘Stop our Sims from dying and ageing automatically on Sims FreePlay!’ (however, this petition has to date only received 401 signatures).

Much of the players’ anger stemmed from the entangled way in which death and money functions in the updated game: although The Sims FreePlay app is free to download and play, one can convert real money to Sim-dollars in order to buy virtual objects for their homes, rather than wait to accumulate the virtual currency via the game’s economic mechanisms. With the substantiation of death came the introduction of Life Points (LPs), which could be purchased in order to slow down the Sim’s ageing process and keep death at bay. While many free apps engineer novel ways in which the company can earn money beyond an initial purchase, perhaps this new update had created too tangible a link between the player’s emotional attachment to their Sim and the profit model of the developer.

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The introduction of death had also disrupted the established link between capital and the player’s literal ownership of the Sim characters: many players had already spent real currency to adopt a Sim teenager or baby for their family—and now that real money investment was going to die. A number of players seemed far angrier about losing adopted Sims than ordinary Sims, as they had paid for these Sims to enter virtual reality.4 This raises interesting questions about the consumerist ideology present in the structure of the game itself: as Gonzalo Frasca writes of the game: ‘literally, the amount of virtual friends that you have depends on the amount of goods that you own (obviously, the bigger your house, the better)’.5 This emphasis on the link between consumerism and your Sims’ happiness has now extended past virtual objects, towards the commodification of death: players are now required to safeguard the physical presence of the Sims (or have it held to ransom) through monetary investment.

Interestingly, the app’s developers seemingly failed to forecast the emotional impact of the introduction of death on a portion of the game’s players. On game’s Facebook page, a number of players recounted that they had in fact made Sim avatars of loved ones that had passed away in their ‘real’ lives. These new avatars had become a means for them to reconnect with the deceased, a revised reality in which they could continue to see a phantom version of the person on a day-to-day basis. One player had made avatars of their deceased grandparents, and had envisaged that, through the game, they were giving the virtual grandparents the retirement that their actual grandparents never enjoyed. Players detailed their newly-resurrected feelings of grief, now that the virtual versions of these people were dying in the game.

The lack of death in The Sims FreePlay had created the potential for a kind of time capsule or memorial in which players could not only make Sim-versions of people they knew, but could also develop a idyllic virtual life for these Sims that would (until now) exist indefinitely. As Justin Clemens discusses in relation to Second Life, there is a clear tension here between the ‘imagistic-doubling-of-the-real’ that the game strives for, and the game’s ability to alter ‘possibilities in reality itself’.6 Sim-mortality may have created a more realistic virtual experience for players, but this touch of reality was unwelcome from the players that were using the game as a means to elude some of the less palatable aspects of our physical reality.

In a game in which players are enticed to feel like their actions are that of a god, the effect of mortality in The Sims FreePlay reveals the curious ways in which virtual spaces can be shifted and coaxed by their players to afford pockets of half-realities, spaces that are utilised in unintended ways. This ‘free play’ has been short-lived in The Sims FreePlay, with virtual mortality and capital aligned once again, consumerism becomes the cornerstone in The Sims—so much so that one can purchase a stay of mortality.

  1. Gonzalo Frasca, The Sims: Grandmothers are cooler than trolls, http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/frasca/, accessed 19 April, 2014. []
  2. Justin Clemens, Babelswarm, http://www.babelswarm.com/pdf/Babelswarm_essay.pdf, p13, accessed 29 March 2014. []
  3. McKenzie Wark, ‘Digital Allegories (on The Sims)’,Grey Room, No. 25 (Fall, 2006), The MIT Press, p131. []
  4. The Sims FreePlay, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/thesimsfreeplay, accessed 29 March, 2014. []
  5. Gonzalo Frasca, ‘The Sims: Grandmothers are cooler than trolls’,Game Studies, Vol.1, Issue 1, July 2001, http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/frasca/, accessed 19 April, 2014. []
  6. Justin Clemens, Babelswarm, http://www.babelswarm.com/pdf/Babelswarm_essay.pdf, p.10, accessed 29 March 2014. []
Liang Luscombe is an artist and Program Curator at West Space.