And on the first day, I made a Sim. I didn't create the other stuff: the earth and the sky, the light and the darkness, the water and the land, the plants or anything. It was all there, in the sandbox, when I got there. Like I said, I just made the Sim. And I saw that it was cool.
It was cool but not perfect, I mean. And as soon as I started to build human worlds, I wanted to make them perfect. Trial and error asked the question over and over: what does the perfect life look like? Not literal perfection, but my perfection: my Sims would still die and be flawed. But what would the best version of a simulation look like? What is the ideal outcome?
I designed my Sim's face and hair and clothes rapidly. I would say I made her in my image, but I didn't. I made her in Charlotte Bronte's image—probably because I was in college and I was supposed to be writing a paper on Villette but was instead in the spare room of my apartment, makin' worlds.
From the start I was a very lazy Sim designer. Worrying about what she looked like or what clothing she wore seemed to be a waste of time. There were books to read, and other Sims to avoid spending time with! Why worry about makeup or hats? My Sim would never have FOMO. Ditto houses: I enjoyed decorating my Sim's homes, but I didn't like building them, a process I found to be tedious and far too time consuming: get me to the game. When I had dabbled in Rollercoaster Tycoon it was the same: I plunked down readymade rides rather than trying to engineer my own.
I spent hundreds of hours watching Charlotte. Just sort of letting her do her thing sometimes, other times working her to the bone. My Sim must be well-rounded: she must cook and read and write. She was in shape and could paint glorious pictures. She made up for her incredible lack of social skills by living a full life, dying in old age, just one spawn, her daughter, Emily, left to carry on her name.
In the first Sims game, a single woman living alone could not adopt a child. It was a different world, in the year 2000. So I came up with another way to procreate without the annoyance of having to live with a mate: I killed my first Sim. I didn't even tell Charlotte, who I sent out shopping one afternoon, or maybe for a walk. Charlotte was of course a master chef but Arthur's cooking skills left plenty to be desired. I knew, given the opportunity and lack of a smoke detector, Arthur would likely start a fire in the kitchen. I had seen Charlotte start enough fires accidentally in the old days. It was a risky move, it might not work on the first try. But trying was certainly better than the alternative: another 20 years of Charlotte waking up next to that bozo.
In simulating a world or playing an MMORPG, inspiration doesn't matter. What matters is that you have a lot of time
It worked. He died. Charlotte barely mourned him, she could live on alone to raise her daughter. And I tired of The Sims, eventually, leaving Emily to… well nothing happens to her when I'm gone, as far as I know. So I suppose that somewhere, maybe a version of her is still sitting there, inside the machine, waiting for me, a digital shadow cast inside an ancient desktop computer.
I moved onto building Civilizations, a macro god in my macro world: continents and resources, religions and Wonders of the World. Individual people or Sims had no place in this version of my new world. I had some Sim takeaways though: I had no taste for murder (though poor Arthur simply had to go). I would build a world without war.
I set myself to the task at hand, and there in the sandbox, I was often successful. I played the longest game possible, taking my time. I didn't mind if the other civilizations I encountered thought I was weak: the point was to survive. To build the happiest nations, the ones with the most resources, the cleanest air and the most efficient budgets.
I proved to be an effective micromanager with time, but I there were many failures left behind, discarded versions, "losses." Worlds made and then deemed "not worth my time." My valuable, apparently limitless resource: time.
The thing about being a world builder in someone else's world is that only tenacity will get you through: you don't have to be a genius the way God was, with big ideas all your own. The worlds I make, the worlds we generally make, are "like ours, only better" or "like ours, only worse," or, "like ours, only… different." Maybe your world has Ralph Pootawn living in it or maybe it doesn't. Maybe Ralph's existence in that world makes it better or worse: it's up to you. But waves of inspiration, I have found, aren't necessary to enjoying being the god of this or that simulation, this or that MMORPG: what matters is that you have a lot of time, you can deal with failures over and over: hours played when you realize you really wanted your Sim to be a criminal, or a gardener, but you've wasted years of its life and now you must start over.
Starting over is both an admittance of failure and an insane, other-worldly opportunity. In living a human life we rarely get this chance. We don't get upgrades. The remake of the interface from the Sims 2 to the Sims 3 took WEEKS to accustom myself to: in life, this almost never happens. New versions of life are rewritten over top of the old, so that we mostly feel the slow burn of continuity. In these games, eventually, you will move on to the next world.
All these games I have played: Black & White, all of the versions of The Sims, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Sim City, Civilization, they have something in common. The desire to have a degree of control that we don't get in life, sure but maybe it's actually the opposite. Maybe the most alluring thing about the Sims is when they DON'T do what you've instructed them to do: when you tell Charlotte to get to work on her novel and she's like, "I'm playing some computer games right now." This is called "autonomy," and it's been a feature of these types of games from their first versions. It is funny and impressive, unexpected.
But what these games continue to not have is that: autonomy. I mean, not in the characters' sense, but the world itself. I am fascinated looking at deserted gamescapes: Second Life and World of Warcraft. Bereft of the characters, they are largely lifeless. I think of Emily, my first Sim's daughter. She may no longer be in it, but somewhere some version of her world, it still exists, and it looks exactly the way I left it. Her world, created first by someone else, then impressed upon by me with buildings and cafes, cars and plants: it doesn't decay. It simply exists, unchanged without my intervention.
I think of the photo galleries on the internet of the Earth's forgotten, abandoned cities: ghost towns, amusement parks left to rot. How like, but unlike they are to my own forgotten cities. What they lack is the most important: not the people, but the flora and fauna. There is nothing there to overtake, to take back, to inherit the landscape.
I am standing in my bathroom as I realize how to create my perfect world. My perfect world is one where the flora and fauna exist, they have desires of their own, and their desire, to a great extent, is for me to be gone. The weeds and trees and animals live and die and grow. If left to their own devices, they will overtake, they will win. Life simulation games, it is said, "have no point," you cannot win, and the game cannot win either.
This is part of their allure: that you cannot win, they have no end. But the perfect world, the perfect simulation, will creep back and reclaim. The weeds will grow over your deserted Sim's house, the way they hint at in Animal Crossing, only with real exertion. They will crack the windows, letting mice and squirrels, rats, or monsters, into your deserted, disintegrated abodes. They will take back what is theirs, they will win, even when the game is unwinnable.
Only then will the world I make look like somewhere that makes me want to stay. Of course, until then, I'm going to keep playing. I'll take what I can get.
Perfect Worlds is a series on Motherboard about simulations, imitations, and models. Follow along here.