BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. For the whole of the 21st century, online gaming has evolved mainly along the lines of adventure and mayhem and living rooms, that being the province of the Sims, the life simulation game that allows you to simulate domesticity in exquisite digital detail, all in the game’s nonsense language, Simlish.
BOB GARFIELD: Released in the year 2000, the game struck a chord by allowing people to recreate their home lives or to embellish them, online. And it gets pretty granular. Prior to the Sims release, some of the game developer’s employees referred to it as “the toilet game” because it allowed users to, you know, “toil.” The Sims went on to become the bestselling PC game series of all time, but it was almost never released. Writing for the New Yorker's Elements blog, Simon Parkin says the game was close to being shuttered altogether, until a moment of serendipity at a gamer conference.
SIMON PARKIN: There’s a big videogame conference held annually in Los Angeles, called E3, and in 1999 the publisher, which is one of the larger ones in the world, called Electronic Arts, has a major booth and the Sims game, they decided to tuck around the corner. So I think they were kind of just testing the game out with the press.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, game playing has quite a bit of unpredictability to it. Otherwise, there would be no game. So at these dog and pony shows, like E3, publishers like EA kind of rig the games to limit the - number of potential outcomes?
SIMON PARKIN: When the, the development teams are demoing the games for press, they generally want it to play out the same way with every group of journalists that come through so that they can show off the game in the best lights, and they’ll very often kind of pre-can animations so that it plays out the same each time, and it just kind of has the appearance of being truly interactive and dynamic.
BOB GARFIELD: So now I get to ask the question that all interviewers want to be able to ask: And then what happened?
SIMON PARKIN: A group of journalists came in to see the Sims. The presentation was broken into three scenes, one of which was a wedding scene between two Sims characters. What had happened was is the team hadn’t had enough time to fully prepare the scene so that it would play out the same each time and, in this case, all of the members of the congregation in the wedding scene were dynamic in the sense that they could do anything; the people who were demoing the game didn't know how they were going to behave. And so, in one of the early showings two of the women in the congregation turned to one another and I guess somewhere in their AI code they fall in love and make out with one another.
BOB GARFIELD: [CHUCKLES] When you say “AI” you – artificial intelligence. They are learning as the game is played out.
SIMON PARKIN: Yeah, they’re making their own decisions themselves, away from human input.
BOB GARFIELD: What was the immediate effect?
SIMON PARKIN: This was 1999, so it was a few years before gay marriage was introduced anywhere in the States. And so, at the time, it was transgressive. And I guess the fact that it was two ladies that were kissing probably appealed to some of the demographic that were there, so word-of-mouth spread throughout the conference, and –
BOB GARFIELD: Wait, wait, wait, let’s not be so coy. Gamers, it’s an overwhelmingly male audience, and a very, very common male fantasy is the lesbian kiss.
SIMON PARKIN: I, I couldn’t possibly comment.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] I will give you plausible deniability.
SIMON PARKIN: [LAUGHS] Then, because there was a surge in interest in the game, EA, the game's publisher, decided to bring the Sims front and center for the rest of the show, and there was a lot of media attention. And so, that code that facilitated that was allowed to remain within the game.
BOB GARFIELD: Had I been witnessing this whole episode as it played out, I would have said to myself, Bob, I would have said-
- this has publicity stunt written all over it. You’re sure that this was not, in fact, a unmanufactured episode?
SIMON PARKIN: I am pretty sure. The programmer who actually put the code into the game that allowed this to happen kind of told me [LAUGHS] that it was because he ran out of time. So if he could have made it so that there wasn't a true simulation during this presentation, he would have done so.
BOB GARFIELD: You will were following the development of another game, Tomodachi Life, which is, I guess, designed as a competitor to the Sims. Tell me about it, please.
SIMON PARKIN: Right, so Tomodachi Life is a game created by Nintendo. It takes a similar approach to the Sims in which you can create a character and play out a day-to-day life, forming relationships, having romance and even getting married. Same-sex relationships had been omitted from the game’s code. There was a widespread outcry about this decision and they made the comment that they didn't want to make any social commentary with this game. They just wanted to make something that was fun, which, of course, then invited the rebuttal that that is a form of social commentary, in and of itself.
BOB GARFIELD: Are they concerned that in Russia and other countries that are now sort of explicitly anti-gay that they couldn't sell Tomodachi Life?
SIMON PARKIN: Quite possibly and, indeed, the latest version of the Sims, the Sims IV, which is gonna be released later this year, has just received an “Adult Only” rating in Russia, reportedly because it features same-sex relationships.
BOB GARFIELD: I have one more question for you. Game publishing is sort of like Hollywood, and I know that if this had happened for, let’s say, a movie promotion and an unplanned homosexual kiss had redounded to the benefit of a release, the next thing that would have happened is every studio in Hollywood would have been making movies that included gay kisses. I’m curious whether that took place in the video gaming business.
SIMON PARKIN: I would say that the influence wasn’t widespread in that sense and there’s, you know, a lot of calls for more diversity in terms of the kind of characters and the kind of relationships that we’re seeing in video games. And I’d say in that sense it's probably a little behind Hollywood, but it did have a great impact. After the story was published, there was a thread on the internet written by various people who were teenagers at the time that the game came out, sharing their stories about how, you know, seeing same-sex relationships represented in the game allowed them to accept their own sexuality and explore it and understand themselves a little bit better. So as a result of that feedback, I absolutely think it calls for more diversity, you know, not only valid but also important for the industry.
BOB GARFIELD: Simon, many thanks.
SIMON PARKIN: Thanks very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Writer and journalist Simon Parkin wrote about the Sims kiss for the New Yorker’s Elements blog.