Life In A Glass House

Mirror moves: The Sims walk the walk, talk the talk—and play video games, just like us

The Navajo code talkers had to create words for weapons from the vocabulary of a peaceful hunter-gatherer culture—bomb was egg, tank was turtle. To plot war in Simlish, you'd have a related problem: Deploy sailboat, launch bags of money, please debouch from the bathroom so I can pee. Now, if the Sims produced a philosopher (though this is not one of the jobs advertised in their local paper), what would we see in his thought bubbles? I think I know: other thought balloons. The capacity to think about thinking is the beginning of philosophy, surely. Then, if our Plato had a taste for infinite regress, he might imagine thought balloons containing thought balloons, containing smaller thought balloons, ad infinitum. He'd also imagine the Sims world not as we see it, but from within. We all construct the world we live in: This is our first imaginary world, but also all we know of the real. Our philosopher wouldn't stop there. He'd start imagining other worlds. Including ours. The Sims know we're watching. It's an electrifying moment when a neglected Sim turns to face you, looks up, and waves, a fire-engine-red icon floating above her head to let you know what you have forgotten. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" she cries. (She expresses this, however, with a scarlet hamburger, bed, or toilet.)

Elaine Scarry, in Dreaming by the Book, demonstrates that a fictional wall seems more solid when a fictional shadow or beam of light slides across it. The magic-lantern scenes that glide over the panels of Proust's room confirm its permanence. Comparing the fleeting to the durable, we take our eyes off the magician, forgetting that both light show and wall are illusions, projections of the magic lantern of language. In a related way, enclosing a book within a book, or a play within a play, makes the enclosing world seem more real. Walter Benjamin and Baudrillard have warned us of the infectious nature of the copy: The reproduction undermines the original. But perhaps there is no original and this is not a problem. Perhaps it is the likening operation that creates the sense of an original; perhaps it's the imaginary world that brings the real world to life. Cave artists painted deer so that real deer would come. Mechanical canaries can teach real canaries to sing. Books can show us how to live. I had it backward: The way out is the way in.

Picture a 13-year-old girl sitting at her computer, watching her miniature read a book. The girl sits quietly. The Sim sits quietly. Pages turn with a rustle. The plates on the floor buzz with flies. The need to pee is getting urgent on both sides of the screen. What is happening? Nothing and everything. When my Sim reads a book, sunk in an illusory inwardness, a bit of code flipping the pages of another bit of code, I imagine for her an imaginary life, and imagining this, my world brightens, and I think I can feel what it is like to be real.

Show me the money: Virtual living, Sims 2-style
illustration: Electronic Arts
Show me the money: Virtual living, Sims 2-style

But wait. It's 2004, and the book is no longer the main portal to another world. As I said, the Sims also play computer games. In Sims 2, one of these games is The Sims. With some trepidation, I told my Sim to play it. The game did not freeze. No little test tube appeared, either. But say it had. What new attainment would it represent? Would my Sim learn that she is made of code, that real breasts have nipples, and that real books have words in them? Would she start writing her own (books, code)? Would she figure out a way to win the game?


Shelley Jackson is the author of The Melancholy of Anatomy. A different version of this essay appears in Gamers, just out from Soft Skull.

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