What The Sims Teaches Us about Avatars and Identity

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What The Sims Teaches Us about Avatars and Identity

“We need to remodel the bathroom,” I recently announced to my husband. “The lack of storage is driving me up a wall.” We’ve lived in our condo for three years and have yet to really change anything—and it’s starting to show. The master bathroom is unbearably tiny; I have to turn sideways to get past the door. The medicine cabinet is mounted over the toilet, threatening to spill expired Vicodin into the bowl every time I need a Lactaid. There’s almost no room for towels; Alex, after folding them, always helpfully stacks them on the floor, right next to the plunger and toilet brush. There are towel hangers stuck in odd places. One of them leaves only 3 inches above the toilet; apparently they are for drying pocket squares. It’s not what you call ideal.

“We need to rip out the cabinet and those useless metal bars and get some towel racks. Then we’ll have room for storing my makeup.”

“You’ve been playing too much Sims,” he said, pointing out the correlation between my recent return to the series and my newfound transformation into Suzy Homemaker. “This didn’t bother you until recently. You’ve got interior decorating on the brain.”

He’s right. I’ve been single minded lately. The Sims is a great place to explore high risk scenarios in a risk free environment, and renovations are one of the riskiest things I can think of. The Sims lets me learn how to plan space while working out my personal tastes, all without the lengthy and expensive remodeling process. In a way, it’s a form of self expression.

Since The Sims’ inception in 2000, Maxis has paid close attention not only to who is playing their games (noting the shift from hardcore to casual players as they progressed towards the sequel), but also why. The developers noticed that The Sims’ popularity was broadening in part because a game about people is, as it turns out, appealing to a large portion of the population. Expanding on that relied on examining player motivations and fleshing out the most social and creative parts of the game, many of which tied back into self expression. It was at this point, heading into The Sims 2, that they started advancing the building and design options and introduced Create-A-Sim mode, further supporting the game’s open-ended feeling by “making the lives of the Sims feel richer through additions to the social landscape” and allowing the player to see their Sims grow through several generations. These features were only strengthened throughout The Sims 3, and the focus on this social gameplay experience continues to this day with The Sims 4, particularly the emotional and personality aspects of the Sims themselves. At its heart, The Sims is a game not only about people, but about self, identity, emotions, and relationships, and the exploration of those themes in a safe setting.

The motivations of Sims players remind me not only of Second Life (which was recently and very brilliantly rehashed by Leslie Jamison in The Atlantic), but also those of MMORPG players, as examined by Nick Yee in his research into the psychology of gamers as it pertains to avatar identity. There are players who pursue games as a projected ideal of their own identity, and there are those who use the risk-free nature of online spaces as a means to explore or experiment with a new one (divided roughly between introverted and extroverted players, and influenced somewhat by external motivators like personal achievement or desire for socialization). How we manifest new behavior through these virtual representations of self speaks to how deep our psychological bond can be with even an abstract, incorporeal form of who we know ourselves to be. It goes deeper than making a Sim who looks and acts just like you, or making a custom character with the purple hair you always dreamed of. Games become an experimental plane upon which to test out scenarios and interactions that are, for whatever reason (financial, emotional, etc.), otherwise inaccessible to the player.

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I find it fascinating just how deep this bond can go. In one paper, Yee discusses a theory that he and article co-author Jeremy Bailenson, both of Stanford University’s communications department, refer to as the Proteus Effect. Essentially what he observes is that, when inhabiting a virtual avatar, people often act out personal fantasies due to the inherent risk-free atmosphere of online spaces, but also project certain behavior through their characters’ static appearances, both negative and positive—for example, acting more confident in the avatar of a tall person, or less trusting when inhabiting the body of an avatar considered unattractive. If people will adapt to the perception of how they think they should behave, based on an appearance, it makes sense why their virtual environments and identities are often idealized and why so many players are acting out a fantasy.

For me personally, The Sims has acted as a space to act out my fantasies about comfort and lifestyle. I grew up poor and in an emotionally abusive household, and The Sims, from the moment I first played it on my neighbor’s computer, let me build the beautiful estates and stunningly decorated rooms I’d always dreamed of. “This is what I’ll do one day,” I’d tell myself, planning out a future I wanted that, at the time, seemed so far away. I could dress up my paperdoll visions of self in a wardrobe I couldn’t afford, and let her do things that money and geography always kept just out of my reach. Maybe I later grew out of The Sims in part because I gained some upward financial mobility and didn’t have to worry about money as much as I once did. Maybe I’ve weirdly circled back around now that certain fantasies have become accessible to me. My latest playthrough of The Sims 3 seems less about living out an idealized life and more about doing an interior decorating dry run so I learn how to better plan my real-world space. Right now I’m seeing how many cabinets I can cram on a wall before my Sim cries and pees herself. So far the results are promising.

This data tells us a lot about both ourselves and our playstyles, explaining the predominance of popular anecdotes as to the healing power of videogames, in that it tells us why we so strongly identify with the stories told and created by the process of games. It also explains why self expression, facilitated through custom character creation and other means, is such a widely valued feature among gamers. The participation in the narrative’s events, our proactive and forward momentum facilitated through a representation of self, creates a relationship yet to be seen in other mediums. This can be channeled for good or bad in terms of player self perception. But ultimately, a game like The Sims can act as a way to communicate to the world our sense of identity, as much as a facial piercing, a bedspread pattern, a funky couch, or a way of dressing—even if the only audience is ourselves. As our appearances send an unspoken message to the world around us about who we feel we are, so too does the virtual avatar.

Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.

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