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June 2, 2009

The New Sims 3 comes out today.




The New York Times reports…

Published: June 1, 2009
‘Most video games build their psychological attraction around an uncomplicated, almost willfully naïve idea of escapism: the chance to play a role outside one’s self. Game designers, presented with the opportunity to transport a player, often take full advantage by getting as far from reality as possible. Distant galaxies bursting with aliens, mythical realms of dragons and demons, zombie-infested postapocalyptic wastelands — these are the milieu of the usual role-playing game.

There is something to be said for that; life can be taxing enough. The rub is that by being so self-consciously removed from everyday existence most games forfeit any chance to speak to the very real complexities of the human condition — precisely the area in which traditional media shine.

The Sims series is different. What makes it special is its exuberant, big-hearted, unabashedly joyful embrace of the minutiae of daily middle-class life. The Sims 3, to be released Tuesday for PCs and Macs, both refines and expands on that concept, one that has proved so popular that Electronic Arts has sold more than 100 million copies of the previous Sims games and their various expansions.

For children, especially the millions of schoolgirls who are the franchise’s most enthusiastic audience, The Sims provides a training and socialization playground. For adults The Sims offers an unflinching, potentially uncomfortable and perhaps almost psychoanalytic view into one’s desires and fears about that real world beyond the computer screen.

In its basic structure The Sims could hardly be more prosaic. An adult could legitimately ask, “So where is the game in this game?” You begin by making a person. It could be a baby, it could be a teenager, a middle-aged person or a retiree. You define your Sim’s appearance, down to the colors of a woman’s hair roots, highlights and tips. (I may have discovered my inner hairdresser.) More important, you define your Sim’s personality. Is your Sim considerate or rude? Sociable or shy? Messy or neat? Intelligent, insane, or perhaps both? An athlete? A bookworm?

Maybe you want your Sim to live alone. If not, it’s up to you to create a virtual family. Or maybe you have a “Three’s Company” roommate scenario in mind. Or perhaps a house full of people who hate one another.

After you enter the game itself, The Sims 3 accomplishes the prodigious task of simulating an entire town. While you control your Sim, the game takes up the lives of dozens of neighbors according to their personalities and schedules. (Players can share their creations online, but the actual game is a single-player, offline experience.)

Over time Sims autonomously age, make friends, fall in love, get married, advance in their careers, have children and die. It is up to you, the player, to guide your Sim and establish his or her place in the community.

Compared with earlier versions the big breakthrough in The Sims 3 lies in how seamlessly and organically it conveys the sense of a living community. Previous Sims games suffered from the technical limitation that each building was rendered as a separate lot: moving from one lot to another required long load times. The effect was to make the town feel like a collection of disparate sites rather than an open world. Now with The Sims 3 you can wander as you please, from house to house to plaza to store to bistro to theater to park, not to mention the office.

But Sims are supposed to be people, not robots. And while you are ultimately in charge, the game appears to model Sims’ happiness on the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. So there are basic physical requirements like keeping your Sim fed, bathed, housed and reasonably well rested.

Layered on top of those are transient wants like “throw a party” or “visit with friends” that feed into longer-term desires for professional recognition and social acceptance, potentially leading to love and family. Every Sim also has a lifetime goal (selected by the player from a variety of choices) like having a big family or ascending to the top of a career path or perhaps just becoming a master fisherman.

If you accomplish enough goals, you can unlock lifetime rewards like “long-distance friend,” which means that even if you don’t see or speak with your friends for a long time, they don’t drift away because they know you’re there for them.

When first playing The Sims, it is almost impossible to avoid the temptation to make a Sim version of yourself, either as you really are or as you wish to be. In that sense the game presents basic but important questions: What kind of person am I? What kind of person would I like to become? How do I treat the people around me? What is important to me in life? What are my core values?

Children usually form their tentative answers to these questions without considering them explicitly. Adults, by contrast, often confront such issues, even tangentially, only in the context of intense emotional involvement, some sort of crisis or high-priced psychotherapy.

Most video games exist to allow the player to forget completely about the real world. The Sims accomplishes the rare feat of entertaining while also provoking intellectual and emotional engagement with some of life’s fundamental questions. I love aliens and zombies, but a little reality in my gaming once in a while is not a horrible thing. It may even be healthy.’

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