Liberal Sims?: Simulated Difference and the Commodity of Social Diversity

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2005-06-01
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Abstract
My paper focuses on the different kinds of audiences represented in Electronic Arts’ hugely successful game The Sims, isolating the female player from the male player, the queer player from the straight player, and the racially or ethnically marginalized player from the Caucasian player. It will focus on how The Sims, praised as socially progressive for its liberal views towards same-sex relationships, absence of racial stereotyping, and non-sexualized presentation of women, is interpreted by, targeted toward, and marketed to these various different audiences. The paper will conclude that this recent spike in social liberalism may not be the result of a socio-cultural change in ideology, but a change in economic strategy and the marketing of cultural and sexual difference. The history of the video game medium is glaringly phallocentric and greatly mono-cultural. The traditional target market for all types of digital gaming is male – and predominately young, white, middle-class, and principally heterosexual males. While early games featured abstracted avatars and characters that might have appealed to everyone regardless of gender, sexuality, and race – nothing in the game play of Atari/arcade era games like Asteroids (1979), Missile Command (1980) or Space Invaders (1978) suggested the personal details of the unseen characters involved, and it was hard for players to identify with nonrepresentational figures like Q-Bert and Pac-man on the basis of ethnicity or sexuality – more photo-realistic games emerging in the mid-eighties depicted playable heroes in such a way to appeal to target audiences. The vast majority of playable characters from this era were male, customarily white when depicted as humanoid, and presumably heterosexual, since female love interests were frequently being rescued by the male heroes (examples from contemporary and classic digital games are provided in the paper). Theories concerning this lack of diversity are, of course, rooted in Western culture’s histories of patriarchy, hetero-normativity, and Caucasian-centred thinking, but are also influenced by other sociological factors affecting how gender, sexuality and race are intertwined with technology and new-media. According to Brunner, Bennett, and Honey, women and people of colour avoid taking advanced level courses in mathematics, science and technology more often than Caucasian males, leaving the industries responsible for designing digital games dominated by white men (72). This warrants regarding video games and technological advances on a whole as material commodities "developed, controlled and directed by a ‘patriarchal’ capitalism, and as unequally distributed and hence differently accessible [to women and minorities]" (Bryson & de Castell 256). Thus a circular pattern appears: games designed by white males come to reflect the interests, experiences, and biases of their designers, and are consumed primarily by white male audiences. The "others" not included in this pattern – women, same-sex desiring people, and people of marginalized races and ethnicities – often get misrepresented, stereotyped, or ignored in the medium. However, in recent years, several digital games have emerged that fulfill the representation and identification interests of traditionally "othered" audiences – The Sims being one such game. I argue that the reasoning behind such inclusions does not necessarily reflect a sudden change in cultural liberalism, but instead reflects a change in how traditionally marginalized people are marketed to in late capitalism. Gaming companies have been targeting non-traditional gamers since the mid-to-late nineties, when, according to Henry Jenkins, increased competition began to limit the profits any one company could earn from the core market of young white males: [The] game market had entered into an age of heightened competition at a time when, in fact, ninety percent of American boys were already playing computer games. To survive, these game companies understood that they would need to expand their market and thus, then as now, there were… [new] targets… (Jenkins, "Further Reflections") Given my hypothesis of a correlation between late-capitalist marketing and the representation of difference, I will begin my analysis by discussing how the setting of The Sims, the North American suburbs, is intimately linked to how difference is perceived in the game: the suburbs carry with them a set of constructed expectations and values that cannot be ignored when thinking about difference in the game. Suburbia was created for the middle and upper classes to escape from overcrowded urban centres, and from the increasingly impoverished, increasingly different people inhabiting them (Flanagan; Spigel 3, 16). I want to suggest that The Sims holds a contradictory relationship with its deeply coded setting, a relationship that is both progressive and regressive. While it does not necessarily conform to the cultural, familial, and gender role definitions associated with the postwar suburbs – people of colour are welcome, families don’t have to be nuclear, and women don’t have to be domestic caretakers – The Sims does conform to the suburban philosophy of sameness. The social, sexual, and ethnic differences included in the game do not define the characters involved. Despite the array of different kinds of people featured, everyone is standardized into one category of "normal." While standardization on the basis of social equality is not what I’m arguing against, I am instead weary about the mould for this standard, which is detectably aligned with the traditional patriarchal, heterosexual, and Caucasian-centred suburban space. This theory forms the base of my subsequent arguments. Since the debut of The Sims in early 2000, the bulk of the criticism surrounding it has stated that its players are "more often than not" female (Brooks 58). That women and girls are thought to make up the majority of players for this mainstream video game is significant given widespread assumptions that the medium is unappealing to females, and that the dominant demographic of players is made up of boys and young men. Indeed, it is regular to theorize video games as a part of "boy culture" (Jenkins, "Complete Freedom" 269-270). However, The Sims, more so than any other PC product right now, allows for the complication of gender norms. This is perhaps surprising since it manages to do so while still ascribing to historically gendered settings (the home, the commercial district) and activities (home decoration, caretaking) and in such a way that keeps any deviations from social normativity the option of the player, not a preprogrammed aspect of the game that must be addressed by all players. Similarly, the homosexual acts performed in The Sims do not define the identities of the preprogrammed characters - sexuality is an action, not an identity, at least not in the game elements offered by Electronic Arts. By not creating gay identities to choose from, EA avoids being accused of generalizing or essentializing perceived and perhaps stereotyped traits of people who identify as gay or lesbian (Consalvo 186). They avoid the sticky problems confronted by toy companies like Mattel, the makers of Barbie, when creating dolls or figurines meant to represent difference. Cultural critic Ann duCille explains how Mattel, facing criticism for not making their black Barbie dolls distinct from their classic blonde, white Barbies began producing dolls that reinforced and emphasized racially stereotyped physical features (558). The producers of The Sims seem to have side-stepped the issue. By putting the tools of identity creation into the hands of players, EA can still appeal to homosexual consumers, while not having to determine themselves what "gay" or "lesbian" looks like. But would this tactic work the same in a game with fixed characters and narrative? Is difference only depicted where it is profitable? Does the fact that The Sims is directly marketed to non-traditional audiences factor into its content? Of course, just the possibility of queer relationships in a high profile mainstream video game is a progressive step forward for our traditionally heterosexist culture – but one arguably taken only to welcome traditionally "othered" consumers into the culture of late capitalism. The same is true for ethnic and racial difference in the game. Beyond the shade of skin tone, there is no difference between any two Sims created; ethnic and cultural differences are not programmed aspects of the game. While this ensures that every Sim is given equal footing socially and there is no discrimination on the basis of skin colour (a positive thing, however unrealistic), there are no differentiations among people of different racial make up – meaning everyone conforms to the same cultural lifestyle – that of the middle class, Caucasian suburbanite. In this regard, The Sims assimilates ethnic difference into white American society. Being more melting pot than multicultural paradise, the preprogrammed world of The Sims denies ethnic players the particularities of their culture in the game: while it is possible to create and import a Musalla prayer rug into the game, players do not have the power to program or animate their conceived Muslim characters to use it. This elimination or impossibility of cultural difference has made the history of the characters playable in The Sims very much the history of the white American suburbanite. I conlcude by asking why there has been this sudden spike in social liberalism, at least on the surface, in such games as The Sims. I suggest that it could be, as Naomi Klein states, a kind of exploitation of diversity initiated by targeting untraditional markets to better tap into the consuming potential of millions of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual people – what Stuart Hall sees as the commercial appropriation of difference (Hall 273). Klein argues that in the early nineties, corporate producers and marketers of pop culture embraced Generation X’s demand for more liberal diversity and positive representation of marginalized peoples, but did so not out of conversion of political belief, but because of the financial rewards involved (Klein 110-111). I believe this applies to the "identity and gaming" issue proposed for the conference.
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Contact: A. Brady Curlew, Communication and Culture, York & Ryerson Univer, curlewab@yorku.ca
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