Give Tom Chick credit. He’s not afraid to ask the obvious question that puts people on the spot.
Okay, well let me ask you about another tricky issue. Something that I think is conspicuously absent from The Sims is something very important in many people’s day-to-day lives. That’s religion. How come the Sims has never incorporated that?
Now MJ Chun is no knucklehead. The best response is to stall for a bit, resisting the implication that The Sims is inherently materialistic. She sticks to the mantra that The Sims is, in fact, about making people comfortable with the stories they can tell. Religion, she suggests, is akin to clothing. Why penalize or reward people for specific accessories if they don’t match up with what the player wants to tell?
For us, because it’s such a storytelling game, one of the things we don’t want to do is make judgments. The danger of making a game that is international, that crosses so many ages, is that tagging clothing a particular way is a slippery slope in terms of making judgments. If you give the long flowing dress a moodlet because you’re more attractive, then somebody would wonder “Why not the pantsuit?” It limits players’ storytelling ability. I think it’s the same deal with religion. It’s a game for everyone. It’s like public schools. Public schools are for everyone. We don’t want to impose on anyone’s storytelling. We don’t want to make a judgment on anyone’s particular way of seeing the world. This is your game, your story. If the player decides that they’re going to tell a story of a particular sim and religion happens to be a part of it, that’s the story they’re telling. But we’re never going to insert that into their gameplay.
So, we want you to tell stories so long as those stories don’t suggest that faith is central to your self-perception. We’ll have hedonists and mad scientists. but no televangelists or quiet workers for God.
And I would be fine with that. Except for the fact they have ghosts. Another artifact of faith that may seem like fun and games for most people but, in a simulation game full of love and trust and pathos and the like, I don’t like the idea of coming face to face with the idea that my life is so important that I may never die. That my loved ones may never die. That life is, in fact, a game. I, as a Christian gamer, have to accept that ghosts exist but cannot have a spiritual outlet that rewards me for, say, being kind to the poor or donating old things or resisting the temptations of Bella Goth (or whomever this year’s Bella Goth is.) I have to accept the spiritual woo-woo nonsense – it’s built into the game.
I appreciate that religion is a messy, messy topic for game developers. And I appreciate that a one size fits all approach to religion might be worse. I am in no way advocating that religion be as constant a presence in my Sims’ lives as the broken tub is.
But don’t pretend that this is about story telling. My Sims resist me constantly. They want kids even if I know that it’s a bad financial decision at this point. They want a new computer while the Apple II equivalent is more than sufficient. They think about the hot barista when everyone knows the city councilwoman is a better choice.
In short, the stories I tell are often circumscribed by the collection of traits I choose and the early friendships my Sim makes. Some stories are just ones that EA/Maxis either do not want people to tell. Some terrible, terrible things could happen to their story telling forum if they became avenues for religious wars.
But why not add some spiritual element somewhere? Some way that certain traits lead to rewards for being a nice person – where altruism is as powerful as the selfishness that drives so much Sim behavior. The assumption that a Sim religion means a church or an exclusive club is a generational one, I fear, one that somehow skipped me in rural New Brunswick, where religion meant generosity and kindness and openness and hating gay people.
That last one has, thankfully, changed. Sometimes generational attitudes gain on your elders.
But look at the Sims trait list. No altruistic only ambitious. No kind hearted, but there is mean spirited. No generous, but there is mooch. Hopeless romantic, but no celibate. All the best virtues are lumped into one large “Friendly” category that is used to force you to make your Sim accumulate friends. The “Good” trait is the catch all for the Christian virtues we’ve been raised one. Not that the traits are everything, but they do – in general – point toward characteristics that are about gathering, collecting and self-improvement. They are a representation of how the game sees story telling.
Once again, this is a design decision that I can live with, but I would appreciate it if EA/Maxis would just be up front and say that this is not about freedom of story telling but about limiting uncomfortable story telling. Chun praises (rightfully) the endlessly linked Alice and Kevin story (Born on Quartertothree.com, mentioned in our podcast and sent to me enough times to realize that many of my friends don’t pay attention.) Part of that story’s beauty is how uncomfortable it is, how this poor girl makes us feel for and think about girls like her.
Why deprive the religious of this powerful story telling tool?
(Please keep the comments civil. I know I can trust you guys, but religion pisses people off.)