It seems counterintuitive to say that people want to experience some inconveniences when they are in a virtual world. People who are new to embarking on creative endeavors often make the mistake of attempting to make something too beautiful and perfect. The result is invariably the same: people cannot relate and, after marveling at the technical skill, quickly become disinterested. The same is true in life simulation video games that attempt to create a digital and stylized version of reality. A virtual world that is too perfect is unrealistic and the gameplay soon becomes boring. In order for players to feel that a game is realistic, the game world needs to have elements of imperfection in the form of small nuisances. When developers include real world obstacles and minor problems into a world simulating or sandbox game, they capture what we believe to be important experiences in our world and they also keep players engaged.
As soon as The Sims 3 first came out in 2009, people began demanding that the developers add weather into the simulated world. As The Sims Studio and Electronic Arts released expansion pack after expansion pack over the next three years, the demands became more forceful. People wanted weather above having awesome RPG-esque adventures in exotic locations (World Adventures), the opportunity to be self-employed (Ambitions), becoming famous and hang out with vampires (Late Night), having rich intergenerational communication (Generations), or even becoming fairies (Supernatural)! It is understandable that the developers wanted to manifest their fantastic concepts and see how they would affect the world of The Sims. It is less understandable why people were enthusiastic to such a degree about such a mundane thing as weather; however, I believe this desire speaks volumes about what makes a virtual world compelling and immersive.
Let us look at a bothersome situation that happened to me quite recently in the real world. This morning my plan was to get up really early to go grocery shopping and beat the crowds of people who like to hang out in the middle of the aisles and chat at my local Trader Joe’s. Although it was barely light outside, I could see from my window that ice had encased my car. Instead of melting completely by early morning, the ice remained. The park across the street was equally frozen and my heater was working overtime in an effort to counteract the cold. Looking at my car, I knew it would take about twenty minutes of scraping to clear the front and back windows. The prospect of leaving my apartment to confront the freeze that had occurred overnight seemed so utterly unpleasant that I abandoned my plan of going grocery shopping.
If this same situation occurred in a game, it would probably not be as frustrating, in fact, it might even be enjoyable. A fundamental difference between an inconvenience in the real world and a game world is that a person is not physically affected in the latter. For instance, if my umbrella breaks during a rainstorm and I am not able to get indoors immediately, I am going to become soaked and end up in a bad mood. Even more seriously, if my umbrella acts as a lightning rod, it will ruin more than just my day. However, the inconvenience of an umbrella breaking at an inopportune time, or acting as a lightning conductor, in a game world does not physically affect the player. Instead, these types of random unfortunate events make the game more realistic and more enjoyable for the player.
In games that attempt to simulate the real world, developers constantly face the obstacle of realism. In order to make a game feel realistic, the creators need be sensitive to what players believe are essential aspects of the world, and its physical laws, as well as their own lives. For example, although the gravity of Earth is essential to how we interact with our world, players do not seem terribly concerned by game characters whom this force does not constrain in the same way as it does us. A game does not have to attempt to identically replicate the real world in order to be immersive; instead, the game only needs to have enough similarities to the average human perceptual experience so it communicates through a visual language that a player can easily understand. Games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent may not perfectly replicate the average human’s visual experience; however, these games convey the way in which strong emotions affect perception.
The type of game dictates what aspects developers must ensure are realistic. In Baseball video games, creators must try to replicate how real athletes move and the general real world game mechanics. In First Person Shooter games, the developers must communicate the high emotional charge of the fights and story. Furthermore, they must also copy the look and feel of the weapons that the players use. If creators come up short, they can expect disgruntled customers and online mockery. In games that attempt to simulate normal life, those designing them must be attuned to what players consider defining features of their own lives. Rather sadly, most of us pay a lot of attention to our everyday hang-ups, misfortunes, and accidents. Therefore a strategic life simulation such as The Sims must contain inconveniences for the player, and his or her characters, such as: being late to work, breaking electronics, toilets overflowing, dirty laundry, and having to take the trash out.
A possible explanation for why people were so insistent that EA and The Sims Studio release an expansion pack for The Sims 3 that added weather is that it would offer an additional layer of reality, full of inconveniences and exciting variables, to the game. In The Sims 3: Seasons, players can experience the types of weather that accompany each season while engaging in season-specific activities such as building snowmen in the winter, swimming in the ocean in the summer, playing with leaves in the autumn, and picking flowers in the spring. The expansion pack also evokes the powerful feeling of nostalgia. Players can build snowmen, celebrate the PC version of Christmas with their in-game family, play in leaves, set off fireworks, fall in love on Valentine’s Day (or “Love Day”), and dress up for “Spooky Day” (aka. Halloween). People often have fond memories of these times of year, and would like to re-experience the pleasant feelings they have attached to them.
Another reason for why people subconsciously appreciate realistic in-game conveniences is that, if done well, they keep players engaged in the game world. After the initial novelty of a game wears off and a player has either lost ideas for what to do (in a sandbox or simulation game) or is no longer invested in the plot (see Meaning, Morality and Video Games: the enduring value of RPGs for how good games avoid this), the person may lose interest entirely and stop playing. One of the ways a game can overcome the possibility of a player becoming bored is by introducing surprises either in the plot or, in the case of The Sims, in the gameplay itself. A player will certainly become more engaged and attentive to their in-game activities if his or her plan is suddenly thwarted by a debilitating blizzard or a tempting summer festival with snow cones. When a player is surprised, temporarily stressed, or forced to rethink his or her plan, the person approaches the game with renewed enthusiasm and investment.
Although freezing mornings, allergies, and heat waves are annoying for us to experience, these types of disruptions are essential for creating and maintaining the realism of an immersive virtual world. These problems enable players to more fully buy into a game world because they are part of their own life experiences. Minor hang-ups such as needing to fix a stereo and remembering an umbrella are necessary in life simulating games because they help bridge the gap between the real world and the game world. To put it simply, what makes a virtual world realistic is that it communicates to us in a language that we understand. Even though our experiences are fundamentally different, we can all agree that being job-threateningly late to work after breaking your shower, contending with a zombie attack, and burning your breakfast (and half the kitchen), are all bad things and a game that captures the feeling of this hellish type of morning is doing something right.
 MIT Technology Review – http://www.technologyreview.com/news/407094/video-game-realism-shifts-into-high-gear/
- PC Review – ‘The Sims 3: Seasons’ (worthplaying.com)
- Open Worlds Aren’t Meant for Driving (Moving Pixels) (popmatters.com)