Addicted to The Sims 3: Computer Games That Flirt With Sex, Murder, Mayhem - It's All About Control
Computer Simulation Games
My introduction to the amazing world of computer simulations was some years ago, before they were as elegant and realistic as they are now. The early simulations were quite wooden, but it was still fun to interact with them - fun and highly addictive. The characters tended to be fairly one-dimensional in the early games, but manipulating their environment held the same exhilaration.
One of my college buddies was addicted to RPGs, Role Playing Games, and after he had hacked, slain and exploded his way through every world he'd set out either to conquer or save, he turned his attention to world-building games, and flight-simulation programs. Together, we flew fighter planes in the South Pacific, successfully defended London and Moscow of the 1940s, and single-handedly turned the tide of the war in South-East Asia with our daring chopper exploits.
From there we moved on to SimCity, and later, to The Sims. Then cutting edge technology, building modern cities was great fun and a nice change from coaxing an entire civilization to the stars.
But, I Built Them A Nice City...
While playing an early version of SimCity, I found that regardless of my efforts, one of my cities was not doing terribly well. I had built good roads, nice houses, created industries for all who wanted to work, and entertainment facilities for those who didn't or who needed some down-time, raised salaries - and still the ingrates weren't happy.
While browsing through the menus for potential solutions, I came across some interesting entries: "Natural Disasters" and "Alien Invasion". I asked my friend what they would do, and he replied that he had no idea - that he had never used them.
I was intrigued. First I tried out floods and earthquakes. They didn't appear to do much except obliterate large parts of my cities.
"Oh, well," I thought. "In for a penny, in for a pound." I accessed the drop down menu and selected "Alien Invasion".
I hadn't had such a good laugh since I watched "Plan 9 From Outer Space" on the Late, Late, Late Show.
This goofy little flying saucer flew over and started blasting the city. Several other saucers landed and began zapping everything in sight. Tiny cars and trucks zipped in all directions, madly trying to escape. Smoke and the screams of the terrified populace filled the air.
It was all rather silly and surreal, but also rather attractive. Regardless of knowing it was just a game, and that I was responding to some very clever and sophisticated programming algorithms, I was taking things rather personally. If the inhabitants of my cities wouldn't "play nice" and appreciate my efforts, I could afflict them - revenge is sweet!
Fortunately, my free time was not my own, and I was far too busy trying to keep up with class projects, assignments, and papers to have much time to spend with the Sims folk. Also though, to be totally honest, I didn't have a personal computer at that time - just as well.
Computer Game Addictions
Fast forward to spring a few years ago, when I answered an innocent-seeming invitation to accept a gift of fruit trees from a friend in Farm Town. I had a ball. This kind of game is right up my alley - no running, no jumping, just gentle planting and harvesting - and making money. OK - it was play money, but it was certainly fun and easy, and boy was I good at it! I had a blast! I was well on my way to being a virtual farming tycoon.
As a recovering "Farm Town / Farmville addict", I can personally attest to how very time consuming these games can be. They can, quite literally suck more hours out of your day than it actually contains - or so it seems.
Yes, I am kidding - somewhat - but there is a pernicious quality to these computer "entertainments". They are designed to create an alternative reality in which we can test ourselves, conquer "bad dudes", build and create things, massacre any quantity of aliens - you name it, we can do it. It's not real, but we still derive great satisfaction from succeeding.
What about the games where we can kill and maim for the sport of it - games like Grand Theft Auto? What kind of reality are we creating for ourselves there? A reality in which we are rewarded for committing theft and wholesale murder. A reality that panders to all that is dark and violent in us under the guise of a harmless computer game.
Legitimate and well-respected studies have shown the correlation between violent, desensitizing games and violence in children, so we try to limit their exposure, but what about us? Well, we are adults. We can monitor ourselves - at least that's the theory.
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How It Works..
The mechanisms of addiction are much more complicated than a simple black and white correlation, but essentially, at heart, the addiction to a substance and the addiction to computer gaming follows the same course.
It offers an initial feeling of control:
- Control = mastery of the skills that win the game.
It makes the addict feel powerful and successful:
- Power = saving the galaxy, smiting all your foes
- Success = building a civilization, building the biggest and most beautiful farm
In later stages it causes them to withdraw from meaningful contact withfriends and family:
- Withdrawal = conversations become more and more involved with the reality of the game, and begin to exclude all but other players (especially with RPG and other simulation games)
Eventually, the need to feed the addiction supersedes all social interaction not involved with the addiction:
- Like the alcoholic living to drink, gamers begin to spend almost all their time interacting within the reality created by the games. Other interactions - job, school, friends, family - begin to have less meaning. Their lives revolve around the game, and time is measured by intervals between gaming sessions.
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Success, Mastery and Control
The Sims may seem quite tame in comparison to the mayhem and violence in games devoted to stalking, killing and outright butchery, be it of aliens or our own species. The driving force behind these games is the same, though - succeeding at something, mastering whatever is thrown at us, and thereby having control of our environment.
With programs such as The Sims and all its versions, there is the added attraction of interacting with, and manipulating, a highly sophisticated simulacrum, or simulated person.You can build lives for them - decide where they live and work, design relationships, watch as they "cruise night spots looking for love" - and then follow them in a world of your making to see what will happen.
Humans are possessed of endless curiosity. We like to explore and find answers. That's part of the attraction to computer simulations, but only part. Mainly at issue, is control.
What's The Fascination?
The amazingly popular Criminal Minds television series not only scares the pants off us once weekly (twice-weekly with cable), it also offers genuine insight into the minds of those who yield to their compulsion to take life. Thrills and chills are a large factor in our attraction to this series, as is the horrified fascination with which we watch the unsub (unknown subject) stalk, terrorize, and kill his victims, secure in the knowledge that the monster will be caught by the end of the episode. It is, after all, a TV show.
Criminal Minds while being vastly entertaining, has given us access to an understanding of this darkest side of the human mind. The underlying drive of the unsubs, whatever they may do to achieve it, is to exert control - to arrange their world and everyone they require to be in it, in a way that fulfills their need - and to take life is to exert the ultimate control.
To a lesser degree, we are exerting that same sort of control over the sims whose virtual lives we control. The attraction is the same at a base level. Certainly, we would never dream of taking a human life, or even consider harming anyone. Well, except for that guy who cut us off in traffic on the way to work this morning - we'd kinda like to even up the score with him! ...and what about that wretched woman on the phone? She really needs to be tuned in!
In real life, we can't do much about a lot of things that annoy and upset us. Many of us feel we have little or no control over our lives, and actively seek out situations where we have at least the illusion of control. Children and teenagers can be particularly vulnerable to these feelings. In our own little virtual kingdoms though, we have the ultimate control.
What Does It All Mean?
Sounds pretty dark, doesn't it?
Well, just as not every one who gets drunk will become an alcoholic, not every gamer who plays, even one who plays to excess, will become a gaming addict, and every gamer who becomes an addict doesn't go on to stalk and kill people in real life.
There are, however some frightening statistics on the connection between exposure to violent computer games and rising violence in children, teens, and young adults.We need to be aware, and a lot more careful of the things to which we are exposing our children - they're not "just computer games".
...and for the rest? We need to become more aware of what we are doing. It's far too easy to just zone out and loose chunks of our days to activities that numb our minds to reality.
Animals have the right idea. They are fully engaged in what is happening right now. We need to learn to live in consciously and to live in the now.
No Easy Solutions
There are indeed no easy solutions. As any number of films will show us, this addiction to power and control seems to be part of our make-up, somehow hard-wired into our psyches.
Even those films where we may willing or unwillingly give up our control to become part of a synthetic reality, that seems initially more attractive or, at least, more rewarding than our own, such as in 'Surrogates' or 'Gamer.' Or where we have no control at all, as in the dystopian, apocalyptic future of the 'Matrix" series.
These days I limit myself to a few puzzle games such as Anagrams, that involve guessing or finding words, and couple of variations on Solitaire. I limit my time, too.
Though, I am concerned about another addiction that I seem to have developed. I find myself irresistibly drawn to a web site for writers. Actually, I've been hanging around there for hours on end, working on things called "Hubs", reading other writer's "Hubs" and occasionally cruising a place know as "the forums" seeking contact with other writers of "Hubs".
*Sigh...* Here we go again:
Step One - admitted we were powerless over "writing Hubs"...
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