Kotaku has an interesting post entitled How Evil Can You Be in The Sims 4? We Did Some Experiments. I haven’t played with that franchise since The Sims 2, but more than a game review, Nathan Grayson’s essay is a study in how even limited AI can take on a compelling life of its own when you’re playing virtual deity.
Reading the article, I noted Nathan’s reactions to his Sims. He empathizes with them, he is surprised and confused by them. Though he started off trying to be as evil as possible, he ends up cheering the unlikely successes of his Sims and sharing their heartbreak. Nathan refers to his experiment as “playing with dolls”, but his level of involvement is deeper than that. Even after he gets bored, he still feels a tug to go back in and experiment some more.
Every now and then I come across an alarmist opinion article or Facebook angstpost insisting that gamers care less about others because in games, others are merely targets or ways to get what we want. When game characters have the slightest bit of autonomy and unpredictability, though, many of us start to feel toward them as we might feel toward distant humans. This is the sort of thing that the MIT Media Lab has been experimenting with for years: what is the lowest level of “personality” that encourages us to treat an inanimate creation as something more than an object? It really isn’t much.