I spent my childhood walking through anything shaped like a door. I had read about worlds down rabbit holes and through the looking glass, and I was looking for a way in—which would also, of course, be a way out.
A book is shaped like a door, but it’s too small to walk through, though I sometimes imagined that if I laid my cheek against the book and peered along the lines of type into the gutter or the margins, I might see something that lay outside the purview of the paragraph. I did the same with mirrors, hoping to catch a glimpse of something I had never seen before. So when I first saw a Sim walk into view from somewhere off the side of my computer screen, I thought I’d found, if not a door, at least a window into Wonderland.
The Sims are virtual people. They walk, and talk, and pee, and play computer games, and they do all this with or without your interference, though you can make it easier for them, or harder. You create a family for them, move them into a house, give them a life. A mundane one: They’re constantly putting their dirty dishes on the floor, and you have to make them pick them up, or the rotting food will draw flies. If there’s time after dinner, they might watch TV. There is no story, just the daily business of getting by, and no real way to win, though presumably you want to give them good jobs, more friends, and the “biggest pimpest house” (to quote one online player).
The Sims is the bestselling computer game of all time, and The Sims 2, out this fall from Electronic Arts, sold a million copies in its first 10 days of release. It is at least as addictive as the original. It is also, ultimately, boring; something is missing. Or maybe not enough is. What do you need to make an imaginary world? Not much. Every little girl knows that when you get a new doll, the first thing you do is take off her clothes. In a pinch, she can also do without head and hands. Imagination is the essential element. Props are secondary. Same with books, which give us in some ways more, in some ways less to work with: words on a page. But from them we can build a world.
So one thing an imaginary world needs, I think, is to fail. Those toiling away on CGI dinosaurs and VR helmets might consider this: When the illusion is perfect, it will no longer amaze. Lifelike is impressive because it’s like life, meaning slightly, deliciously different. Lacan says that in early childhood we see ourselves in a mirror and find that self way more impressive than the mess of tingles, aches, smells, and partial glimpses by which we previously knew ourselves. We admire that resplendent individual, and we form ourselves in her image. We are our own wannabes. One of the first things Sims players do—especially in Sims 2, where you can model a face in considerable detail—is make someone who looks like them. (But slightly, deliciously different.)
The Sims like mirrors too. They can practice their charisma in front of them, making speeches and gesturing. A little test tube floats in the air nearby, filling up with blue. When the tube is full, ding! They’re one degree more charming! Sims also like to read. They select a book, sit down on a nearby couch. While they turn the pages, the tube appears. When it’s full, ding! If they selected a cookbook, they are now less likely to burn down the house with a stovetop fire.
Sims can also read for pleasure. What are these books about? Nobody knows. Even if you could make out the words, you wouldn’t understand them; Sims have their own language. Sure, you pick up some of their phrases; you even find yourself wanting to use them in situations where attitude means more than information, which are more common than you’d think. But the Sims actually are talking about something. You know what it is from the pictures that flash over their heads: masked robbers, the atom, bags of money, sailboats.
Simlish, a synthesis of vaguely familiar sounds, bears some resemblance to the composite language of Dante’s demons as described by Umberto Eco.
Demons were consigned to a hodge-podge of tongues after Babel, same as humans. But whereas humans were cast into confusion by their sudden inability to communicate, demons—like angels—could communicate without words. Apparently the Sims can too, because only mind readers could speak a language in which words have no stable relationship to meanings. Sims say the same things over and over—or rather, they make the same noises—but different pictures flash above their heads.
Will Wright, the Sims’ creator, originally wanted to use Navajo for the Sims’ language, inspired by the Navajo code talkers in WW II. Navajo—spoken by so few people that it is harder to crack than a secret code—is the paradigmatic language spoken in order not to communicate. If there was something decidedly strange about using the language of a conquered people to wage war on behalf of their conquerors, there is something even stranger about using it for the kaffeeklatsch of a sort of virtual reservation, suburban-America-style.
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.
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.