Thursday, January 09, 2003

Will Wright: Socialist Dupe

Until December Stalin's dream of socialism in one country had only been realized in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Late last year the theory took off, spreading into heretofore undiscovered nations named Alphaville, Calvin's Creek, Interhogan and Mount Fuji.

The Sims are now online. It's not just an irritating commercial.

The Sims, in its offline version, is an amusing little simulation of life in which you get to be the star, meeting new digital people, improving yourself and your job, accumulating wealth and a family, building a home and eventually a small community. If you always wanted to be an astronaut with a movie star wife and two kids, you can here. It was pokemon for adults, elegant and surprisingly fun. It's the best-selling video game of all time.

The online version is superficially similar. It looks the same, it sounds the same, it has neighborhoods, housebuilding, social interaction, and skills to improve. But it also has . . . other people. There's where the problems start.

The Sims is a solipsist's game. It has no multiplayer component and needs none, because the "people" who make up the game are really objects, to be moved around at will and cast in a story the player writes. With thousands of other people, some things (chattting, social interaction moves) have been gained, but more has been lost. With a crowd comes a need for the game's creators to control people, and the result is a collectivist's dream. But the Sims Online proves that socialism doesn't work.

Want proof that the Simcity flag is red? Try this: In the Sims Online, your Sim spends her entire life in one city. She is never allowed to leave it. While the promise of building a home is given with one hand, it is taken away with the other. Your Sim starts with a pathetic amount of cash and no ready means of acquiring more. If she builds, her home will be a postage-stamp sized hovel, with insufficient space, poor lighting, no entertainment, bad food, inadequate plumbing, cheap furniture (and not much of it), and little means for the Sim to grow her skills to improve her lot. To have a nice home, she must join a collective. She has to squat on a vacant lot with up to 7 strangers, and only then will the State provide sufficient land on which to build, and enough money pooled to build something worthwhile. If the Sim ever tries to escape this collective, she must leave her investments behind.

You never see a child here. The nuclear family is dead. Online Sims seem to be grown in vats a la Brave New World or The Matrix. They enter the game as fully formed adults. Fully formed in body, but not in mind. Most of these vat-grown Sims are bred to be idiots (perfect proles for the all-powerful state), unable to make adult conversation. My Sim has searched the city for a commons where intelligent discussions can be had, and came up dry in all but two places. But if you want witty banter like "i think U R hot!" or "This place is gay!" or "sucky my meat!" well, you're in luck. In the Sims Online, spelling classes are taught by Prince, and conversational style is dictated by Cartman.

The economy is a basket case. The money, called by the dubious name of simoleans, is worthless. It can't be converted to dollars any hard currency, and there's not much on which it can be spent (a lot of the objects from the original Sims aren't here yet).

There are no real jobs. Where offline Sims could climb the ladder from office boy to mogul of finance, their online cousins are given makework jobs no different from digging and filling holes. To earn their keep they have to carve wooden gnomes, paint portraits of purple zombie women, make telemarketing calls, bake pizza after pizza, solve pointless codes, or bash open pinatas for no apparent reason. Once again, the collective is the model. Sims get more money for carrying out these degrading tasks together. It's not uncommon to see a dozen Sims at identical workstations, filling jar after jar with apple jelly that no one will ever eat. This "cottage industry" model was tried during the Great Leap Forward, when millions of Chinese peasants were ordered to smelt steel in backyard furnaces. The result, as in the Sims Online, was a vast national effort to produce piles of useless scrap.

There is no rule of law, but Sims cannot defend themselves. They are a disarmed populace who cannot own guns. A Sim who builds his "body" skill can bully other Sims mercilessly, performing "piledriver" after "piledriver" on his smarter but scrawnier peers. The victims of these steroid-monsters cannot call on courts or police, as they are unreliable and never respond. The only choice is to run away and be cornered, or to leave the property. It's no wonder there are houses full of Sims working on Nautilus machines in team exercise drills. It took Colonel Colt to make all men equal, but he never heard of Simcity.

Finally, the government endlessly promises that our sacrifices will be rewarded in the future, but it never delivers in the present. The game's creators issue pronouncements that in the future we will have casinos, more land and bigger lots, better clothes, and new ways to enjoy ourselves. But in the here and now, we must continue with mass gnome-carving, collective bodybuilding, and living with strangers in cramped quarters, lest utopia never come.

Parting questions:

Where is the Sim Harry Truman, and why is he lying down on the job?
When will the counter-revolution come?
And when can I stop working as a telemarketer?
Having spent seven years at the University of North Carolina, this imbecility comes as no surprise. It seems UNC has threated the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship with loss of funding because the Fellowship insists its leaders be Christians! I believe the University's fig leaf is that by requiring a religious commitment the group uses state funds to discriminate.

Here's a brain-teaser for UNC's legal department: By conditioning state funds on this group's acceptance of non-Christians as officers, is the university abridging its students' freedom of religious belief and freedom of association? I can't recall these rules being applied to Hillel, the University's Jewish student association, or any other religious or cultural group on campus. Should they be?

Or is this another case of UNC bending over backward in sensitivity toward students' religious beliefs?

Also, I hate to bring public radio up again, but I've heard not a peep about this from the Chapel Hill station WUNC. This is a news format station which prides itself on its local and state reporting. When a dog farts at UNC this station is there to cover the story. Why hasn't WUNC heard about this, when I have?

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

NPR Watch: Slow news day? All Things Considered closed today's 5-5:30 segment with a report on a Senate bill from John McCain and Joseph Lieberman which would force industry to cut out six greenhouse gases, nationwide, with enforced pollution trading a la Kyoto. (You can read Lieberman's press release here.) Reporter Richard Harris opens by admitting the bill has no chance of passing, little support, faces massive opposition from the manufacturers, and would not benefit the climate. He goes on to interview an activist (gotta interview someone or it's an editorial) from the Pew Environmental Center who admits all of these things as well, but likes the bill. (No opponents were interviewed of course, just paraphrased.)

Harris then reveals that the value of the bill is it will spark "debate."

Of course it will "spark" debate if major media trumpet the thing from the rooftops, just as McCain himself caught fire when NPR and its ilk poured gasoline over him. I'm equally sure that my proposed bill, declaring me personally tax-exempt, awarding me 75 votes in the electoral college, and declaring these guys Masters of the Universe would spur talk about these exciting subjects, if only National Public Radio would help me reach the benighted masses. This gas legislation has as much chance of reaching the floor as mine does, but that's not the news. The news is that the environmental desk and one of NPR's controlling tax-exempt donors feel there's not enough "debate" about climate change, and will seize on the nearest non-event to "spark" it. Pure activism disguised as news, courtesy of your taxes.