Let's imagine the most boring video game possible. Instead of crashing spaceships and trigger-happy aliens, you would have suburban houses, leaky faucets and chatty neighbors. Instead of fighting evil, you would do the dishes, watch a little TV, then call it a night. Instead of saving the world, you would be saving for a bigger split-level. It's the opposite of fun--like an '80s family sitcom without the jokes or Clark Kent without his secret identity.
Now open your eyes: you've just invented the most popular computer game of all time. It's called The Sims (short for simulation), and the premise is simple. You control an ordinary suburban family. You make them dinner at night and send them to work in the morning. You turn on the TV when they're bored and put them to bed when they're tired. Since it debuted in 2000, The Sims has sold 8 million copies in 17 languages and has inspired a devoted fan following. It's also one of the rare computer games played by more women than men.
Next month, when video-game titan Electronic Arts launches The Sims Online, it will become something more than a game. Using the Internet, The Sims Online will enable millions of individual Sims to live, work and hang out together in a shared virtual world very much like our own. Result: a daring collective social experiment that could tell us some interesting things about who we are as a country. We're about to witness the birth of Simulation Nation.
The founding father of this brave new world is an affable, bespectacled, 42-year-old polymath named Will Wright. In 1981, after five years of bouncing around three colleges without graduating, Wright decided to try his hand at writing a computer game. He called it Raid on Bungeling Bay. "It was basically a pretty stupid fly-around-in-a-helicopter-and-shoot-people game," he admits. The object was to fly over various islands and bomb them back to the Stone Age. But Wright became fascinated with these tiny islands. He found himself spending hours giving each one a detailed, working infrastructure--tiny people in tiny factories loading products onto tiny ships. "Pretty soon," he remembers, "I figured out I was having a lot more fun creating these little islands than I was bombing them." Eureka: the original Sim. Wright had discovered a new way to have fun.
At the time, the attraction was not readily apparent to many people. After Bungeling Bay, Wright cooked up a game he called SimCity, in which players took on the role of mayor of a complex, realistic miniature metropolis, complete with crime, garbage trucks, power plants and a temperamental populace. SimCity was a complex system that required constant, careful tweaking to keep it in equilibrium. This activity doesn't instantly register as "fun"--in fact, at first blush it sounds suspiciously similar to "work." When he showed it to publishers, they said, "But how do you win? There's no win-lose!"
What they didn't get is that there are some games that you don't play to win. You just play to play. In fact, Wright's games don't end; they just keep going. Wright ended up starting his own company and publishing SimCity himself in 1989. It became an instant best seller, earning him some very real, nonsimulated cash.