Moral Combat

Simulated Monica's troubles began as soon as I hit play. She could never work her way past an entry-level job on the graveyard shift. No one in her family could cook, which left them all to subsist on a diet of takeout pizza. One day, Sim Monica's husband moved out and was gone forever, leaving Sim Monica a single mom. Their son was never entertained, sated, or well rested enough to study, and he earned F's until he was shipped off to military school. Sim Monica, alone and penniless, eventually died of starvation and neglect because I never figured out that a misplaced kitchen cabinet was blocking her access to the refrigerator.

I eventually got the hang of The Sims, the best-selling computer game in history, and my Sim self became productive and happy. She always reached the top of her career, her children always did well in school, and she always had enough money for a comfortable simulated life. Another pattern emerged as well, one that I feel powerless to stop: My Sims are conservative. I'm in complete control of them, but for some reason their lives aren't anything like the life I consider ideal in the real world. I'm a feminist graduate of an all-women's college who has vowed to never change my name or end my career to raise children full time--though I would never undervalue the work that many women do in their home. By contrast, my Sims rarely remain single long into adulthood. My wives always take their husbands' last names. They don't just have children; they bear lots of them. And they leave their careers to take on the lion's share of care-giving duties.

In fact, all of the video games I play tend to have a decidedly anti-liberal tilt. From the seemingly innocuous Sims to more obviously hawkish games like Call of Duty, many video and computer games seem to have a built-in conservative worldview. After all, they have to sell in the heartland as well as on the coasts. It's always difficult for liberals to figure out how much they should enjoy pop culture that contradicts their values. Skipping Fox's 24 because it promotes torture, for example, would have meant missing out on a tense and exciting drama--and missing out on the water-cooler talk about it the next day. But liberals who enjoyed it did so while making our criticisms known. Jack Bauer, we pointed out, might have been a less threatening protagonist if there hadn't been a real-life Vice President Dick Cheney. Video games are just the newest medium through which our social mores are expressed, and questioning whether they do so accurately and responsibly is a natural corollary to their ascendancy.

Whether prohibiting the sale of violent video games to minors violates the First Amendment is the subject of a Supreme Court case this term. But if anyone who wanted to promote "traditional family values" actually played a game like The Sims, they would love it. There are plenty of other games of which conservatives should approve as well. Sim City, which preceded The Sims, has players create a virtual metropolis instead of a virtual family. As a Sim City expert, I can tell you that things function much more smoothly if taxes are low and city government caters to corporate interests. In the most recent version of the game, low-income housing is associated with higher crime rates, which necessitate more police stations. Low-income housing, however, packs in more workers per block, and I need all those workers in order to generate more revenue. To keep them productive--if employees are unhappy, they go rogue, which, in the game's terms, means striking and shutting down their textile factories or meatpacking plants--I have to lull them into complacency with plenty of movie theaters, bowling allies, and pizza shops where they can "blow off steam." These workers produce until the city's coffers are full enough for me to raze their tenements and put in expensive brownstones instead. My cities become a checkerboard of tony lofts and corporate office buildings, peppered with the occasional opera house or art gallery no working family could afford to visit. Those cities also always end up polluted: Wind energy is fine in theory, but old-fashioned petroleum and coal facilities really make them run.

In another computer game, Civilization, players start with a prehistoric nomad and re-create the cultural and societal evolution of humankind by harvesting natural resources, growing crops, and studying science. There are many ways to out-compete other civilizations and win the game, but the surest is to become a war hawk: I devote all of my resources, early on, to building a massive army--of warriors, then knights, then musketeers, then tanks, and then guided missiles--and destroy weaker cities, one by one, until they all belong to me. Building a society on diplomacy and technological development sounds great in theory but takes thousands of years before I can reap rewards. Again and again, I choose war.

I blame some of my right-of-center leanings on the structures of the games themselves. Having children has the added bonus of extending game time in The Sims, because I get to continue to play the same family as the generations roll by. Maternity leave is mandatory for pregnant Sim women because of a long-standing technical issue within the game, but that replicates a long--standing real-world assumption about which partner should care for newborn children. The result is that my Sim women often leave work permanently because they've taken more time off than their Sim husbands, which actually mirrors the results of gender discrimination in the real world. If the game were set up in a less traditional way, I would likely play it in a less traditional way.

I'm not the one who made Sim cities run more smoothly if underpaid workers are lulled into submission and Sim households more entertaining if moms stay home--the games' designer, Will Wright, did. Civilization was not created by Wright but is similarly rigged. While, historically, there are plenty of Alexander the Greats who amassed power through conquest, there are also countries like Switzerland that became economically powerful by remaining neutral and pacifist. The conventional wisdom, however, is that war games sell--and Civilization is designed to be a war game. I can opt to commit my resources to building trade alliances and public libraries, but I don't have a choice about building an army to defend my cities against barbarian attacks. Once I have an army, I might as well use it to destroy my competitors. Waging war is the only way I've ever won the game. (It seems important to note that pulling off a "cultural" victory is extremely difficult.) The lesson: Getting results from liberal policies takes a tremendously long time. It's also, frankly, much less fun to have a scripted dialogue with Catherine the Great than to watch a samurai fall to a pikeman's ax.

Perhaps some of the conservative bent of The Sims is due to the fact that the more tedious the tasks are, the more relaxing and fun it is to play. (When the third version came out, players finally got a feature they'd long clamored for: laundry.) Changing diapers and potty-training toddlers is, surprisingly, more interactive and fun than endlessly sending career Sims off to another day of work. But while I might choose conservative, suburban, family-oriented lives for my Sims, certain aspects of the game make it almost liberal. In an add-on that allowed Sims to go to university, they did so tuition-free with a Danish-like system of grants and scholarships. Workers are consistently promoted as long as they fulfill certain requirements: No one is discriminated against. Partnering is gender-neutral, and a Sim can fall in love with another Sim of any sex as long as players perform enough interactions that fall into the "Romantic" category. Same-sex partners can get married. All families can adopt children, and same-sex couples can even reproduce; they are, after all, only swapping digital genes. This never causes any familial strife or community upheaval. No Sim churches ever picket the funeral of a Sim soldier because Simlandia tolerates homosexuality.

So, the way I choose to play a video game like The Sims is different from enjoying a torture-glorifying episode of 24 or a racially problematic movie like The Blind Side. Those are passive activities that at least inspire critique. When I play video games, I'm actively making choices I would argue against in the real world. To what extent the choices we make in video-game play are evidence of and serve to reinforce our real values and characteristics is still up for debate, but a study in 2008 found that violent video games increased aggression in children who already had hostile tendencies.

Maybe video games also tease out the latent conservative in all of us.

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