The Sims and a Phenomenology of Fun

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October 24, 2012 by climagiste

I’ve never liked The Sims. I find it boring and hollow and, worst of all, like work. I can barely deal with all the cooking, cleaning, buying, showering, using the bathroom, and figuring out what to do each day that comes with my heart continuing to beat. Nevertheless, I concede that many people may find this game fun. I myself have found “realistic” simulation-style games fun, most notably SimCity2000 and SimTower, two games I was allowed to play instead of doing schoolwork under the auspices of the Louisiana State Gifted and Talented program. The reason I find The Sims so awful hinges on the sneakiest word in game studies: fun.

This is what fun looked like in 1994.

The word fun has no known origin, coming into Middle English ex nihilo. The free version of the Oxford Dictionary defines it as “amusement, enjoyment, or lighthearted pleasure.”[1] This definition doesn’t attempt to theorize what having fun (or even being fun) might be like, what it feels like, or how one might experience it. It offers no phenomenology of fun. The entry itself is not fun—there are no funny examples, no word play. Not that there would be, of course, but one could imagine the British dictionary writer barely able to restrain himself, adding in a sentence about a fish or a mob of policemen. Can The Sims stand up to the Oxford triumvirate of amusement, enjoyment, or lighthearted pleasure? In The Sims, playing the game as intended (by the mechanics and reward system, at least) is clearly not amusing, a word meaning “finding something funny.” Making sure your avatar doesn’t stink or pee himself, making sure he’s fed, and picking out what he wears isn’t funny unless he does stink, pee himself, burn his food, and wear something preposterous. Doing regular things isn’t funny.

In terms of enjoyment, a word that means “taking pleasure in something,” I suppose there may be a Zen-like satisfaction in the orderly regiment of eating, cleaning, and sleeping (maybe a little meditation thrown in), but the gameplay itself encourages that Sim-life less than the zany, burn-a-house-down ambitions of anti-realists such as myself. Raph Koster, one of the few videogame theorists who tries to define fun, says, “Fun is all about our brains feeling good.” He sort of conflates and reduces the endorphin system (endogenous chemicals that act like morphine) and the mesolimbic pathway (a specific transit of dopamine that some consider the brain’s reward system for evolutionary advantageous activity) and goes on to say that we activate these centers by learning. He continues, “Fun from games arises from mastery. It arises out of comprehension. It is the act of solving puzzles that makes games fun.”[2] Koster points toward the recognition of new patterns as the locus of fun, putting us into a cycle of learning. For example, if in The Sims all you did was feed and bathe, then you’d get bored pretty quickly: you need new avenues to explore, new patterns to recognize, mastering them and then moving on to the next thing. And so, you set out to have an affair with your neighbor.

This video of a Sims affair by dannidanz is definitely NSFW:

Pleasure, which deals with happiness and satisfaction according to the OED, is a cluttered geography of connotations and theoretical baggage. We’ll bracket its genealogy for now and since its inclusion in the fun definition is redundant (see “enjoyment”), let’s focus on its modifier: lighthearted. This killer metaphor-word means “cheerful or carefree” according to Oxford. The word carefree points to a more fruitful aspect of fun, one that is potentially well-nuanced and heavily problematic. This is the type of lighthearted pleasure afforded in The Sims: start a lifelong romantic partnership, gain the experience necessary to become a successful professional, continue to accumulate wealth and consume consumables. One hypothesis for why people might have fun with The Simsis that it allows them to play out things that would have serious consequences in real life in a safe environment based on achievement (pattern recognition, learning) and norms. I get this.

But on the other hand, I disagree with it. Really falling in love is fun, even if it is often full of anxiety and apocalypse.[3] If you have so much privilege that you can choose a career based on interests and advance through it, then you’re probably in a fun situation. I find myself seventeen years after I discovered SimCity on a Macintosh Performa still avoiding “work” by playing video games as part of my job. Why do I need a computer simulation to play out the same types of things I do happily for consequences, consequences that are necessary for my overall wellbeing?

It’s time to give a preliminary and partial definition of fun, one slightly different than either Oxford’s or Koster’s definitions: fun is when I’m not thinking about the fact that my body will cease to function and I’ll die. When I’m not thinking that what I’m doing is keeping me from doing what I want to be doing. When I’m not insurmountably face-to-face with my own very consequential failures. That’s my triumvirate: anti-awareness-of-mortality, anti-feelings-of-impediment, and anti-guilty. Note that I’ve avoided talking about pleasure here, because not everything pleasurable is fun, and fun is not always pleasurable. For me, at least. Also, I believe fun can be carefree in that a condition of fun may be bereft of certain consequences, but it is never carefree qua trivial.

Dogsledding is never trivial.

After asking my creative writing students one semester why they were taking my class, one student answered, “Because it’s fun.” I answered, “Do you think it’s going to be fun when I’m calling your emotions cliché?” Guess what? That drew a big laugh, and I got my best student evaluations ever. The reason is that it was fun. Though I knocked Koster for his shoddy science earlier, I agree with him that learning can be fun. It often satisfies numbers one and two on my tripartite definition. For me, The Sims is not fun. It pushes the very banality of my life into my face, traps me in the grind of processing energy to stay alive (a cycle that will one day give out) without the rich, imaginative pleasures staying alive affords. Every time I encounter this game I feel that I should hurry up and finish so that I clean my own house and sleep with my neighbors and fight my friends and generally become a capitalistic workaholic. Even with the option to work jobs you wouldn’t in real life but would like to explore, the foregrounding of the quotidian calls attention to its own triviality in a way that makes me despair.

Here, I’m obviously not thinking about my impending death.

Fun is a condition that rests on the very personal feelings of individuals, and I’m probably just a little too macabre for The Sims. That said, the promise of The Sims can still be a promise of fun. It offers found narratives the way other god games do: stories not designed by the designers but stumbled upon in gameplay. Even yoked to chores and an even more unreal free market meritocracy than the one we already have, these stories chart into an imagination. This is what unites my three-part definition, the spark at the heart of fun: imagination. We imagine universes where what we do matters and where we can save our progress and never really die, and then we have the humor to call those universes games. Silly us.


[1] All of the definitions here come from the free version of the Oxford English Dictionary at The full definition at the OED is actually much more fun, if you like historical examples. (Which I do). Also, I would have gone for a full philology of fun using the OED, but that is a bit outside of the scope of a short post about why I don’t have fun with The Sims.

[2]Koster, Raph. Theory of Fun for Game Design. Paraglyph Press: Scottsdale, Arizona, 2006. I recognize that Koster is making some big scientific reductions in order to make his book and theory accessible and fun. Nevertheless, humans aren’t such simple machines.

[3]Other anxiety inducing activities that are widely considered fun: going to horror movies, riding rollercoasters, playing first-person-shooter videogames.


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