Art of their game is a simulation of life

`The Sims': Players really get into the virtual world in which they create characters and direct their actions, and for some fun even imitates reality.

April 01, 2004|By Peggy Rogers | Peggy Rogers,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Little virtual people in little virtual homes, The Sims are so lifelike that players of the personal-computer game often fashion characters after themselves.

Some have rewritten their own troubled childhoods and marriages.

And some take their frustrations out on the little people.

"Two of the most fundamental truths about people is that we love to create and we love to destroy," says Jon "PyroFalkon" Habib, who writes a free and popular strategic Sims manual posted on many Web sites.

"There's always a new way to create a family. And, of course, there's always a way to burn, electrocute or starve" a Sim, he says.

The Sims is the nation's top PC game for the fourth year running, and the even more realistic Sims 2 is expected to be released this year.

Game imitates life

The game, created by the Redwood City, Calif.-based Electronic Arts, has sold more than 28 million copies worldwide and been translated into 17 languages. The expansion packs feed this popularity and the surging sales.

In The Sims, which has spawned the creation of seven best-selling games that keep expanding play, the players create characters that they name, dress, assign physical and personality traits to, and build homes for.

One woman scripted a game based on her sister's life, mirroring her entrapment in an abusive marriage and her eventually successful efforts to free herself.

Wedner Charles, 19, calls it "a very, very creative game," one that's "real lifelike and entertaining."

After selling the game by day at the Best Buy in Aventura, Fla., Charles says, he goes home and plays The Sims almost every night.

His main character, named Wedner Charles and modeled on himself, often goes out on the town.

"I go downtown, and I'll greet the women, and I'll talk to them," he says.

The player must tend to the Sim's every need - and needy it is.

While you can assign a Sim some free will, you must steer them to socialize, make meals, have fun, surround themselves with possessions and make it to the bathroom in time. Should they wet their pants, they'll suffer great embarrassment and need to be hoisted into the shower.

You must also make the Sim practice such job skills as cooking (by reading books) and mechanical ability (by toiling at a work bench) to get ahead at work and be able to buy more expensive possessions. Sims who grow too depressed stop obeying their players' orders and can even die.

Expanding on a theme

Starting with the originally rural, cul-de-sac setting, the packs have introduced wild house parties, hot downtown dates, a vacation resort, movie and music studios that create Sims superstars and pet shows, the latter in an expansion game called Unleashed.

"I actually tried to bribe the Wal-Mart clerk to try to get the Unleashed expansion pack a few hours before midnight when it came out," says Juliet Violette, of Las Vegas, who describes herself as "a 33-year-old mom who is hooked on The Sims."

"When The Sims Hot Date came out, my 5-year-old daughter and I sat in the store and watched the FedEx truck unload," she says. "We weren't about to wait any longer."

Players steer Sims by highlighting characters' heads and clicking on objects or other characters. Click on a refrigerator, and a Sim can eat or serve a meal. Click on another Sim, and your highlighted character might hug, kiss or talk to the other one. But you often can't predict the outcome. Your Sim might get slapped and burst into tears.

Players gather around hundreds of fan Web sites and chat forums, where they talk like lifelong friends, form clubs and download tens of thousands of characters, furnishings, homes and possessions custom made by other players.

One player, known by her screen name of "Raveena," has created 1,264 items that have been downloaded more than 22 million times at www.the simsresource.com, according to the Web site's count.

`A virtual `test drive'

So many people spend so much time creating and playing The Sims that fans have become sensitive to a portrayal of them as "freaks without lives."

Many observers point out that Sims players form valuable friendships and communities. And sociologists and industry experts say people can learn about juggling the elements of their lives from such simulation games.

"It's literally a test drive: You can do whatever you want, and there's no danger," said Richard Ow, game-industry analyst for the research firm NPD Group.

The game is taken so seriously that, though it creates characters in light, medium or dark skin tones, it has been criticized for creating too many white ones. And some women complain that while male Sims come in many shapes and sizes, too many female Sims have Barbie-like proportions.

Defenders point out the players create most of the characters.

"This is like a sandbox," Sims producer Tim LeTourneau says. "You can build your own sandcastle."

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