Homelessness in a Discrete Living Simulation

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Released in 2000, The Sims was the first computer game in its genre to engage players in the everyday activities of virtual people, or “Sims.” It is like a microcosmic version of SimCity (the urban planning/management computer game) but instead of a municipality you create and manage individual persons. The ultimate goal is to steer your Sim towards happiness via a rather traditional real-world route: hobbies, love (The Sims 3 is LGB marriage-inclusive), a family, a fulfilling career with accumulated skills, socialization, money, and good hygiene.

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Alice and Kev 1 Kev with Alice in their "home". virtual photo by R. Burkinshaw

Ranking as one of, if not the best-selling computer game of all time, The Sims (on sale at EA for $39.99) is more akin to gardening and the nurturing of virtual life forms than playing in a dollhouse. I hadn’t played the Sims since high school, and frankly, memories of the Sims 2 recall many wasted summers, but I was intrigued by what the 3rd version had to offer. For example, in The Sims 3 your Sim will exercise a good amount of “free will” predetermined by the game designers’ algorithm-based system, e.g. he/she may watch tv, eat, or use the bathroom depending on his/her environment and user-assigned traits. In 2 you had to dictate tasks, often leaving your Sim in compromising situations. The concept of Sim free will is something that Robin Burkinshaw, a game design/development student at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK was interested in when he virtually photographed and documented the story of Alice and Kev. But he didn’t give his Sims a tv to watch, a kitchen to cook in, or a bathroom to “use”. Burkinshaw’s two Sims are homeless.

Alice and Kev recounts the lives of a Sims daughter-and-father family. In addition to the lack-of-kitchen/bathroom/bedroom, Alice possesses the “clumsy” and “low self-esteem” traits and Kev the “insane, mean-spirited, inappropriate, and hates children” traits, along with the wish to become the boyfriend of ten different Sims.

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Kev about to hit Alice.
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Kev implying that this man's mother is a llama.

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Kev fights another neighborhood man after cuckolding him.

As the 24-year-old Burkinshaw writes, “With those traits, that Dad, and no money, [Alice] is going to have a hard life.” This is not an exercise in cruelty, though that type of play isn’t uncommon. “This is an experiment in playing a homeless family in The Sims 3. I created two Sims, moved them in to a place made to look like an abandoned park, removed all of their remaining money, and then attempted to help them survive without taking any job promotions or easy cash routes. It’s based on the old ‘poverty challenge’ idea from The Sims 2,” Burkinshaw continues, “It wasn’t started as any kind of social commentary, or social experiment, but I guess part of the reason I found the idea of that way of playing interesting is that homelessness is something I think about.”

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Alice, exhausted, falls asleep on a neighbor's walkway.

Burkinshaw documents their life by way of short written descriptions and screenshots (what he refers to as “virtual photography”) to record events “with the minimum of embellishment”.

Users of The Sims have generated an extraordinary amount photography and video. A Flickr group with 55 members contains captured (usually romantic) moments and user-designed outfits that walk the line of fetish (not surprising, considering the role-playing aspect of the game).

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"Kissing in the park." by M. Calero. Found in The Sims 3 Gameplay and Photography Flickr Pool.

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"Michael's Birthday II" by Flickr user and Sims 3 Flickr pool contributor bingblog.

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"Lingerie #1" designed by M. Calero. Also found in The Sims 3 Flickr Pool.

You cannot design furniture in the Sims, but The Sims Modernlist tallies up the in-game designer furniture knockoffs, including the Eames Tulip chair and Marcel Breuer/Knoll Wassily chair.

Virtual photography is also widely practiced in other games, such as Grand Theft Auto San Andreas and World of Warcraft. Generally there are fewer videos than photographs of Sims on the internet, most likely because video is more time-intensive. I discovered one particularly disciplined Sims 2 user who remade Titanic (1997 with Leonardo DiCaprio) in its entirety. Burkinshaw does not utilize the video capture and editing tools, though you can download Alice and Kev themselves if you own a copy of The Sims 3.

The implicit humor and short rhythm of Burkinshaw’s narration and photography allows the Alice and Kev blog to read like a comic, encompassing true comedy in the classical sense. The simplicity and the sad inevitability of the character’s programmed flaws compels the reader to look on with impotent horror. Oftentimes the comments (the most recent installment has 562) are as entertaining as the storyline. On July 2, 2009 at 11:14 pm the reader Samantha analyzes Kev’s inexplicable midnight solo wandering:

“…He just ruined the only relationship he really ever had, and his daughter is now a young adult who hates him and didn’t even invite him to her birthday party. He’s an old man, he is miserable, and probably not too far from death. He’s got a lot to think about and he probably wants to do that alone. If he’s walkin off to die, he was going to be alone when it happened anyways because Alice has been avoiding him, he might as well do it somewhere pretty rather then his little park he probably doesn’t enjoy too much.”

To which JMBailey on July 11, 2009 at 1:17 pm adds:

“or could it be that in his old age he just so longs for companionship and for so long has had none-even as a result of own doing-that it is finally hitting him that he is alone-after all Alice will soon be grown and gone and who then will he turn his hateful brand of love on?”

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Kev's wandering. Note the glow of the virtual sun on the river in the distance.

It seems that readers want to analyze Alice and Kev psychologically, interpreting their actions as though they are real people with human motivations. The reader Brock struggles with his conception of human versus artifice when he comments on June 9, 2009 at 11:18PM, “…I find myself strangely touched by the plight of two computer-generated characters.” The reader is drawn into this story much like the fanatic readers of Harry Potter books or Dickens’ The Old Curiousity Shop.

The creation and viral quality of the Alice and Kev blog broaches all sorts of questions about the nature of virtual photography and video. Who is the intended audience for this work? Are they interested in virtual photography and storytelling because they love the quirky challenge that Burkinshaw created for these simulated characters? Or is it because it’s a new method of telling a story?  Where is virtual photography and video best seen? In a gallery/theater or on a computer? Do the virtual photographers and filmmakers consider themselves artists? Is Robin Burkinshaw an artist/writer? The implications of this new form of media are deeply interesting: the creation, participation in, and documentation of a virtual world for an audience who is eager to rapidly consume it.

Further reading :

Self-Portrayal in a Simulated Life: Projecting Personality and Values in The Sims 2 by Thaddeus Griebel. From Game Studies, December 2006.

Sims, BattleBots, Cellular Automata God and Go, A Conversation with Will Wright (the designer of The Sims) by Celia Pearce. From Game Studies, July 2002

This Sims Life, Directed by Charles Wittenmeler. A documentary that follows the real lives of six Sims users. Aired on MTV in 2005.

Tags

"Alice and Kev", "Robin Burkinshaw", "The Sims 3"

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