Sims Playing Sims 1

A Sims 2 character sits at his computer, playing Sims 1

In an article “Sims 2: Face Lift of the Original” (Sep. 23, 2004) by Lore Sj?berg, Wired Magazine published a screenshot in which a Sims character sits at a computer, playing a computer game… “The Sims.”

While this meme circulated shortly after the release of The Sims, again with Slice City, and finally with The Sims 2, this post will take a look back over it all and considers the whole phenomenon of talking about Sims Playing Sims, making the connection into a larger discussion about art and games.

Diagetic frames seems to bring out the philosopher in everyone (as with the recent craze among fans of The Matrix for philosophy essays and books), so it isn’t too surprising that the Sims-playing-Sims moment generated some comments.

Comment Roundup

Selected comments (as they trickled down through blogs):

  • Wonderland: Metagaming pt II: “A Sim, playing The Sims, in The Sims 2. Much like a Sim playing Sim City in The Sims, only now with better graphics. Does your Sim get upset if his Sims are upset because you’re making your Sim too busy to have enough time to look after his Sims, which in turn have a hissy fit? I’ll stop there because I think a piece of my brain just fell out of my nose.”
    • boingboing: Sims in Sims 2 can play Sims 1: “The new version of The Sims, called ‘The Sims 2′, allows your sim-people to play ‘The Sims’ in-game. Recursion-licious!”
      • gamewag: Recursive gaming is confusing: “With the recent release of The Sims 2, it’s now possible for your virtual life to be comsumed with the same addiction your real life is. In The Sims 2, characters can now spend their day playing The Sims 1. What would really do it for me is if your Sim could play The Sims 2, in which your Sim’s Sim could play The Sims 2, in which your Sim’s Sim’s Sim… Ok, I think that’s enough.”
  • Wired: Sims 2 Image Gallery: “It’s a Sim, playing The Sims, in The Sims 2! It’s, like, Shakespearean or something.”
    • Jigaverse: Sims 2 Sims Playing Sims 1… Sims: “If the Sims we are playing in Sims 2 are playing Sims 1, are we actually characters in The Sims 3 being played by some race of super-beings that is entirely outside our ability to perceive?”
    • debgpi: Sims playing Sims playing Sims… Sims: “In Sims II, your little people can play Sims I. Can the Sims I people play SimCity? Can the SimCity citizens play SimAnt? Can the SimAnts play SimEarth? Just wondering.”

Sim Aesthetics

Perhaps in a few decades or a few centuries we will have outgrown the need to argue about the capacity or incapacity of computer games to “be art.” Probably not. I’ll just say here that my assumption is “yes, of course” and go on to first frame Sims-playing-Sims in terms of art and aesthetics.

The Wired comment “It’s, like, Shakespearean or something” evokes (with heavily guarded irony) the famous play-within-a-play from Hamlet. Whatever your definition of “art,” moments of self-reference have been accepted as artful throughout human artisanship. One of the great formal gestures of art is aesthetic self-containment - whether an urn engraved with urns, a painting of a painting, or a story about storytelling.

Self-containing moments are part of a larger pattern of self-referentiality that is prevalent throughout the arts. We can understand self-containment is a kind of accomplishment in aesthetic refinement, and indeed do tend to canonize comics about comics (Watchmen) as we have canonized books about books (Don Quixote), and so no signs of stopping (In the Shadow of No Towers, House of Leaves). We might also explain self-referentiality as a natural byproduct of the creative process. Creative people of all stripes find that their daily objects and activities enter unbidden into the subject matter of their creations, and these daily experiences (unsurprisingly) often include prints for photographers, manuscripts for novelists, and walls for muralists. Thus the experience of digital video editing appears in the fabric of the movie script - two recent examples are “Minority Report,” which provided Tom Cruise with a storyboard video-editing interface into visions of the future, and the upcoming “The Final Cut,” in which Robin Williams is a video-editor for the memories of the dead.

Artists are also introspective about the nature of the medium they work in, including how it functions in the larger world. Thus the Hamlet play-within-a-play or the Simpsons cartoon-within-a-cartoon allow the work to thematically engage what it means to watch a play or cartoon.

“Self-referential” may be any kind of reference, whether self-critical or self-indulgent. Works that not only contain examples of themselves but make this their main focus may function as autobiographies for a given medium or genre, as in the “Scream” film franchise, built on the premise of a horror movie about horror movies. Critical commentary can also create an expectation of self-reference, arguing in the extreme example that media are *about* what they are *constituted of*, and that therefor the true (and perhaps only) subject of any painting is painting, of writing is writing, of gaming is gaming and so on and so forth.

Games within Games

In most representational media, the difference between a passage which describes a game of chess (Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire) and one which actually outlines a game being played (Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass TOC, perhaps) may seem very slight. However within simulationist media such as The Sims and Interactive Fiction, a functioning game-within-a-game is quite different from the idea of a game - just as actual recursion in a procedural system is quite distinct from an allusion which evokes the idea of recursion.

The next part of Sims Playing Sims will discuss these distinctions and talk a bit about the history of games within games, before talking more concretely about the aesthetic possibilities of self-containment in interactive systems: IF within IF.

Read Part 2

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