BROOKE GLADSTONE: Video games usually are seen as a form of entertainment when they're not being assailed as breeding grounds for violence. But the most popular games are more like missives sent to players from game designers about the way they see the world. Games are filled with messages, some of them not subtle like shoot or be shot, but a few actually convey broad philosophies of life. One video game plays upon what must have been the first human form of entertainment --watching other humans -- and includes large chunks of philosophy and social science. Our producer at large Mike Pesca learned a little about the meaning of life -- at least the Simulated life - when he got into: the Sims.
MIKE PESCA: Search Internet message boards long enough and you'll find advice on every topic from Aardvark husbandry to Zoloft. But it's still quite jarring to read a paragraph like this one. [IN ANNOUNCER VOICE] "Naturally born babies will take traits from the two parents. Adopted babies may or may not. Most buyable babies are light-skinned. Maybe some site has medium and dark-skin buyable babies. I don't know." This raised such disturbing biological and religious issues that there was only one person to turn to -- God. But God, who lives in the Bay Area and was kind enough to go to the studios of KQED in San Francisco, could only muster a shake of his omniscient head.
WILL WRIGHT: The cause of a particular outcome can be so far buried in this chaotic mixture that even as the designer, you know, it's almost impossible for me to predict what it's all going to add up to.
MIKE PESCA: At this juncture a word of explanation is in order. The baby discussion referred to a simulated universe inside a computer game called: The Sims. And the god of the Sims world is game designer Will Wright. In the game, a player controls a character called a Sim, imbuing him or her with personality traits like energy and kindness, and guiding the Sim through such life decisions as what kind of house to build and when to go to the bathroom. Wright is "God," because he created the entire Sim universe which allows player to pull the strings of human interaction. Players can get their Sims jobs, marry them off, move them into bigger and bigger homes, or they can create self-defined Utopias.
LUCY KEMNITZER: I don't play a game that has a winning or not winning mode to it.
MIKE PESCA: Lucy Kemnitzer is a devoted Sims player from Santa Cruz, California.
LUCY KEMNITZER: I always play kind of a nice game. I prevent my Sims from getting into fights. If they get the urge to slap, I always make them stop.
MIKE PESCA: As a Sims player, Lucy is typical in her devotion and also in her gender. Gaming's holy grail, according to Will Wright, is attracting female users. The Sims not only has family life, relationship maintenance and home decoration at its core, but women are also attracted to its gender equity. A female Sim who opts for the military career path can become a four-star general as easily as a man can. Lucy plays fewer than 5 hours a week but spends up to 20 hours each week in on line chat groups. One such site is MalloftheSims.com where Marty Meyerdierks serves as discussion leader dispensing tips and tricks such as how to amass a small fortune through the use of secret codes.
MARTY MEYERDIERKS: Type in control/shift and C and a little box pops up and you type in the word Rosebud and hit enter and you get a thousand Simoleans which are what the Sim money is called.
MIKE PESCA: Money's important to the Sims because there is a direct connection between the things they buy and an increase in happiness on each character's mood meter. [MUSIC] Marty walked me through a home in his Sims neighborhood.
MARTY MEYERDIERKS: Now you can see this house isn't very well lit; all Sims like a lot of light - so we want to put more lights in there.
MIKE PESCA: Now they like lights but you could still spend a lot of money on lights or a little money on lights, and a lot of it is decoration -- do they like more decorative lights? Will that affect their score or just that make you happy as the guy who's decorating the house?
MARTY MEYERDIERKS: All the Sims themselves care about are what it costs -- what the value is of the item. They don't care what it looks like at all. So if something is more expensive, they're going to like it more.
MIKE PESCA: I mean this just forces you, if you want to maximize your Sims happiness into a kind of massive consumer overdrive -- just gotta keep buying more and more for them.
MARTY MEYERDIERKS: Right. Absolutely.
MIKE PESCA: Can a Sim ever achieve true success or happiness without all this expensive stuff around him or her?
MARTY MEYERDIERKS: They can, but their mood would not be as good as if they had all the expensive stuff.
MIKE PESCA: Materialism runs rampant in Simville. Yet as high priest of Sim know, Marty may be misinterpreting the word of God, Will Wright, who read up on Maslow's hierarchy of needs which places self-actualization on a higher plateau than acquisition.
MARTY MEYERDIERKS: I mean if you play the game long enough you start to realize that every item you buy in the game actually has some failure state -- it can, you know, break or get dirty and it has maintenance costs, and so in some sense, if you play the game totally materialistically, at some point you realize that you're basically filling up your house with these time bombs -- I mean literal -- you know , these things that eat up your time.
MIKE PESCA: In other words, you can boost your mood meter by blowing 200 Simoleans on a topiary llama, but only if it doesn't cost too much time and energy. If a Sim spends all his time in the garden, his family may go hungry or his house can catch on fire! And as a result, the mood meter will dip into negative territory.
MARTY MEYERDIERKS: It's a combination kind of, of how you value your things and your relationships, but primarily the Sims is about how you value your time, because life in some sense is kind of a time management strategy game that we're all playing every minute.
MIKE PESCA: Sim disciple Marty seems to have gotten the time management message and spends upwards of 30 uncompensated hours a week sharing it with fellow devotees. He, for instance, will tell you that a carefully plotted 12 hours between a Sim and his sweetheart can lead to matrimonial bliss.
MAN: When two Sims' relationship scores reaches a certain point, when they're in love, then one can propose to the other, and then wedding just happens.
MIKE PESCA: Is there like a cu-- a sh-- a key shortcut for proposal like control/alt P?
MAN: No, it comes up in the menus.
MIKE PESCA: The next big development is the Sims on line which will feature live interaction between players. For the first time the feedback won't be entirely determined by Will Wright's programming parameters. It could result in anarchy. It could bring about a form of Utopia Wright never imagined. In his world, you know your party is a dud when the mime shows up. He can't wait to see who shows up in a world he doesn't control. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Mike Pesca.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's sh-- END OF TAPE