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Last Updated: Friday, 17 September, 2004, 08:07 GMT 09:07 UK
Simulating life, love and the Universe
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

As a boy, Will Wright liked to fiddle with models. The man behind The Sims phenomenon liked to make ships, planes, and most things mechanical.

Screenshot from The Sims 2
The Sims bring everyday life into consciousness
As he grew older, his interest turned to robots and the possibilities of building them to try to mimic human characteristics.

"I like the idea of building machines but I really like them because they are a tool for understanding humans more," he told BBC News Online.

"Until you build a hand, you don't realise how difficult it actually is and we know more about almost everything than we know about the brain."

What he really wanted to do, though, was model people.

In 1985, Will Wright started work on a computer simulation game called SimCity, and co-founded games company Maxis in 1987.

When it launched in 1989, SimCity became a huge hit with gamers who wanted to do more with their games.

The Sims followed in 2000, allowing gamers to play God with virtual people.

It quickly became the best-selling PC game of all time and opened up a different understanding of what a game was and how real life itself was very much like a game.

Although there have been several successful additions to the original Sims game, The Sims 2 game, out on 17 September for PCs, is the first complete overhaul of the title.

Life as we know it

At the core of The Sims is balance, according to Wright.

It is not necessarily about playing God, he says, controlling every aspect of their virtual person's life, down to when they go to the toilet.

It is about how players decide to juggle their virtual people's lives - work, family, love - and how they decide to spend the 24 hours in a day.

Will Wright, Sims creator
By building your life into a toy, it enters your consciousness. People start to see the juggling act. They wake up a bit more and see that they have been playing this game in real life, but never realised
Will Wright, Sims creator
The decisions they make for their little ones can kill them, or help them to rule the virtual roost.

In The Sims 2, there is an added complexity of genetics. Whole generations are created, and their success in life is determined by decisions about their aspirations that the player makes early on.

The Sims become a lot more aware of social and emotional bonds, and you can even make them look like you. Your offspring will carry on genetic traits decided by you.

Building and managing the complex social, emotional and economic well-being of people in real life is hard enough.

But, said Wright, doing it with your own computerised world can teach people some profound lessons in life.

Parents have told him how their children's perception of life and relationships changed after playing SimCity and The Sims.

"We all strike a balance differently, and every one of those decisions is subconscious: The Sims makes those decisions apparent.

"By building your life into a toy, it enters your consciousness. People start to see the juggling act.

"They wake up a bit more and see that they have been playing this game in real life, but never realised."

To him, a game like Sims, with its simple premise of living, gives people a different lens through which they can look at life.

The idea of simulation is not restricted to just everyday life lessons, however.

Shady side

After the success of SimCity, and its several spin-offs, Maxis was approached by several organisations, from the military, governments, and oil companies, to craft games that could help planners or strategists see the impacts of decision-making.

Screenshot from The Sims 2
Your teen's behaviour will be affected by your decisions
For a while, they did play with serious simulations - a Sims for the oil industry, healthcare sector and the environment protection agency.

But soon, said Wright, they found more time was being spent talking to lawyers. It was not fun to do anymore so it was spun off to another company.

"We can have a much bigger impact with millions of parents and kids playing it."

That impact, however, has worried some who fear the idea of a virtual life leads people to neglect their physical lives, or worse, gives people licence to escape real life laws and social constraints.

Last year, the darker side of Sims life was revealed by philosophy professor Peter Ludlow.

As a resident of Alphaville, the biggest city in Sims spin-off The Sims Online, he revealed the criminal elements and seedier activities that had bled into the "game", including the Sims Mafioso, prostitution, and thieves.

This shadier side of virtual life is something that concerns, but also interests Wright.

"It makes the game more interesting. It is pretty playful and harmless," he said.

"It is something our society is grappling with. There is a whole generation of kids who have real and virtual communities, which is almost alien to the generation above.

"We need to learn to live with it as a society."

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