Achievers and Dollhousers

How The Sims taught me what matters in Life

14 years is not the most notable milestone. But for me, surrounded by all of this week’s celebrations of Facebook’s 10 years connecting us, I was reminded of another product that launched on the exact same day four years earlier, February 4th in the year 2000.

The Sims, launched 14 years ago, was both ahead of its time and timeless

The Sims, innocuously labeled as “The People Simulator from the Creator of SimCity”, wasn’t anyone’s pick at the time to ultimately become the best selling video game franchise of all time. But in the 14 years since it launched, The Sims has had an immeasurable impact on the industry. Initially, however, sales projections were modest. Not a single sequel or expansion pack was planned (let alone 40), and the usually chirpy game reviewing media wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, stumbling over awkward half-praise like “relaxing and challenging”, “intriguing premise”, and clumsy double-negatives like “This isn’t to say that The Sims isn’t enjoyable…

No matter — like most modern revolutions, The Sims didn’t start with a bang, but with millions of tiny mouse clicks. Sales picked up, surpassing projections and then crushing them. People outside the typical gamer dude demographic took notice, and soon the very definition of “gamer” expanded to include, well, everyone. The world had decided it was time to Play With Life, and there was no looking back.

As a typical gamer, my own experience with The Sims started off typically. I found it more fascinating than fun, but nevertheless got caught up in a relentless quest to have the happiest Sims, the biggest house, and the most girlfriends (my real life girlfriend did not approve.) And money. Lots of money. More Simoleons than I could ever possibly spend. The simple satisfaction of livin’ large with my Sims, and overcoming the annoying obstacles on my path to Sim greatness, kept me hooked for a few weeks. But after the “intriguing premise” wore off and there were no stats left to increase, I lost interest. In a game with no defined objectives, I decided I had beat the game.

Nearly a year later, a second coming of The Sims swept through my dorm. Perhaps spurred on by various Game of the Year awards and strong holiday sales, or maybe because us college students were all obsessed with finding ourselves and thus took comfort in a consequence-free life simulation, The Sims saw a huge resurgence of popularity among my peers in early 2001. Soon, questions of “How’s your family?” rarely paid regard to real-life relatives. Winter Quarter grades suffered, but the virtual economy was booming, with Sim people happier and more plentiful than ever.

Believing I was a seasoned Sims expert (did I mention all my rich girlfriends’ large houses?), I spent this period as more of an observer than a participant, guiding friends towards more lucrative Sim careers or the most efficient architecture decisions. (Pro Tip: Place a toilet next to the fridge, thus creating a tight “input-output” loop to fulfill your Sims’ needs faster!) More often than not, however, my sage advice fell on deaf ears. Nearly every player I watched did different things, and few had anything to do with getting the high score. One wanted to be a Scientist. Another created a home where every room had its own unique decor. Yet another focused on fashion, playing dress-up and hosting themed parties. One particularly Sim-sadistic acquaintance would run experiments, such as locking the entire neighborhood in a room with all grills and no doors, forcing Sims to choose between starving or burning. They chose the inferno.

A room with no exits.
And no hope.

At first I was bewildered. Why are you all playing the game wrong? Don’t you want to win? But as I continued to watch, my confusion gave way to appreciation, and soon I was vicariously sharing in the joy of just trying things, seeing what happens, and relishing the process. My limited world view of The Sims had expanded, and what had previously been a brief blip in my own gaming radar became an obsession. Around 100 days in, I had reconciled with the idea that there was no wrong way to play, and though the game had no victory conditions, my own objective became clear:

My goal in life was to work on The Sims.

As goals in life go, this one is rather achievable. Maxis had openings for engineering interns. I sent in my resume, and two puzzle-filled interviews later, I was on my way to help build The Sims Online at EA’s Redwood Shores campus.

Making The Sims bears little resemblance to playing The Sims

Seeing behind the curtain for the first time was even more fascinating than the game itself. I hadn’t fully appreciated how all the seemingly unexpected diversions in The Sims were, in fact, intentionally designed. Each in-game event was crafted to serve a specific purpose. Every single game object was painstakingly brought to life by phenomenally talented artists, engineers, and producers. Sure, the game was unscripted, but it wasn’t unplanned: Despite the infinite ways players and their Sims could interact, the end result is an experience intended to delight, empower, frustrate, surprise, and ultimately emotionally connect real people with the little people on the screen.

I had the good fortune of sitting near one of the game’s designers, and through many overheard conversations, I discovered that the Sims team doesn’t think about players all in one large bucket, to be sloshed around indiscriminately. Rather, there are many distinct player types that each imply particular design decisions. Most notably, there are Achievers and Dollhousers.

Achievers view the game as just that — a Game — with rules to be mastered and goals to overcome. Achievers take the shortest possible path to the maximum possible outcome. If there’s a number, Achievers want to make it bigger, and anything that distracts from that goal is a needless waste of time. Achievers skip every cut-scene, keep the game clock pegged at triple-speed, and will stop at nothing to win.

Although the word “Dollhouser” may conjure up imagery of little girls dressed in pink, the term had a specific meaning to the Sims team: Dollhousers set their own goals. They may briefly acknowledge the numbers, but largely ignore any defined objectives in favor of carving their own path. They tinker. They tell stories. They spent more time in Build mode than Buy mode, choosing to produce rather than consume. Long after an Achiever thinks they’ve beaten the game and it’s time to move on, a Dollhouser keeps creating new ways to play.

When these guys start melting, your computer will crash. This bug courtesy of Intern Mike.

We love all types of players, of course. As a game developer, If you don’t respect your users, you’ll quickly lose respect for yourself. Whether there’s an Achiever trying to cheat the system or a Dollhouser pushing the limits of how many snowmen can appear on screen, it was important to listen to our whole audience and understand their needs. For me, this conversation with the players was among the job’s greatest perks. The fun I had in college as a observer transfixed on friends’ screens got multiplied a thousand times over as I engaged with the online community and learned of all the creative ways people were playing. Some eschewed interiors entirely to focus on roof tile mosaics. Some roved around faux-viciously in hug mafias. And some just want to watch the Sim-world burn.

But in all cases, time and time again, the distinction between Achievers and Dollhousers made all the difference. Achievers kept pushing towards victory, but upon discovering that the numbers have no upper limit, they invariably got bored and quit. Meanwhile, despite not being a real word (and thus the red-squiggly bane of my spellchecked life), Dollhousing is the most rewarding, long-lasting, and dare I say best way to play. As more of a toy than a game, The Sims doesn’t reward players seeking a high score — pursuing one is a sure path to frustration and failure. Dollhousers play by their own rules, and whether or not they realize it, demonstrate a powerful idea:

When you can’t win, you can’t lose.

I don’t know if it was all my late nights wrangling code, or simply too many hours staring at a screen trying to make sense of Simlish, but at some point the lines began to blur between The Sims and my everyday existence. I sensed time automatically speeding up when I got into bed. I imagined my hygiene bar filling every time I showered. And, occasionally, from the corner of my eye, I’d catch a glimpse of a plumb-bob over my head. Who was controlling me? What type of player was he?

Being the youngest of five children, I had always been naturally competitive. But as I grew older, and the structure of schoolwork gave way to an endless paradox of choice, it became harder to tell if I was on the right path. I questioned whether I was pursuing the most lucrative career, whether I was fulfilling my needs fast enough. Am I playing the game wrong? Don’t I want to win? With each day slipping by too quickly as I was unable to find the pause button, something had to change. I needed to look beyond the subjectively objective measures of success — wealth, popularity, or whatever ways people try to keep score — and realize none of that truly mattered, and all my frantic effort was holding me back from simply enjoying the game. And I really, seriously needed some sleep.

I’m older now, more confident at controlling my own actions, and I no longer feel the weight of a plumb-bob looming over me. But The Sims will always hold a special place in my heart. I doubt I’ll ever be able to walk through IKEA without hearing the “Buy Mode” music in my head, and I’ve only grown more passionate about playing and making games that foster creativity, community, and self-expression. And each year, in the first week of February, I take a moment to remember that there’s more to life, whether Sim or real, than getting the high score. Life is broader, more fulfilling, and lasts much longer when you set your own goals. When you observe and appreciate the goals of others. When you don’t play to win, but when the goal itself is simply to play.

So how about it: Are you ready to switch out of Buy Mode and into Build Mode? Do you want to Play With Life?

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