Thou shalt not kill…unless I get bored.
I briefly played “The Sims” when it first came out back in 1999. “The Sims,” as you may know, is the absurdly-popular computer game that lets you custom-create a “simulated” person and drop them into an incredibly life-like virtual world.
My roommate Matt and I began by creating young, single male characters much like ourselves. We built houses, invited girls over for parties and tried to get our Sims laid, unsuccessfully if I recall.
We soon tired of spending so many hours decorating and cleaning our virtual houses, and making them safes place for women?—?all of which were things we should have been doing in real life. Eventually I just stopped playing, allowing my Sim to wallow in a house without art on the walls or food in the fridge. One day, Matt told me he’d deliberately killed his Sim just so he could end the game.
Other gamers murder their Sims for even less, just because they get a kick out of it. “I boxed my Sim into an un-exitable closet with no toilet,” a television producer named Kurt, who’s an old colleague of mine, told me. Kurt’s Sim died soon afterwards, either of hunger or maybe even septicemia.
Many gamers seem to actually enjoy killing their Sims, continually searching for new, more innovative methods of engineering their avatars’ virtual demise. So why did we commit virtual murder? Did it mean that we’re depraved?—?that there might be something actually wrong with us?
I asked a psychologist who specializes in video games?—?her short answer was no, but there’s an important caveat.
“At face value, murdering or torturing a virtual avatar seems like a horrible thing to do,” said the psychologist, Rachel Kowert, who’s a board member of the Digital Games Research Association, an organization for academics and other professionals who research digital games. “However, we have to keep in mind that our brains are very adept at differentiating between what’s real and what’s fictional.”
Kowert added that she didn’t know of any research saying that committing sadistic crimes in a virtual world would lead to any behavioral consequences in the real one. I breathed a sigh of relief.
But here’s the catch: Kowert said it could be problematic if players of The Sims continue to delight in sadistic acts over and over again. “There’s a ‘novelty center’ of the brain that responds to new, novel stimuli,” she said. “While there hasn’t been a direct study into the relationships between this novelty center and virtual sadism that I know of, I would hypothesize that experiencing virtual sadism (in its many forms) for the first time would light up this reward center of the brain, leading to feelings of satisfaction and/or motivation.”
Once the novelty wears off, she said, those feelings of satisfaction or motivation should wane. “If someone is taking pleasure in virtual sadism with no signs of reduced enjoyment from these kinds of behaviors over an extended period of time, that may be cause for concern,” said Kowert.
The creator of The Sims, Will Wright, has spoken publicly about this issue, saying that murder and other immoral behaviors like cheating are just cathartic?—?and that’s perfectly fine. “People really love to explore ‘failure states,’” Wright told Psychology Today back in 2003, a few years after the game first came out. “In fact, the failure states are really much more interesting than the success states.”
Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne agrees that Sim-killing isn’t a major cause for concern. “Players who torture their Sims may not be as much of a subset as we might think,” Krauss told The official Sims magazine. “People may simply be curious about what happens when they create these situations, and the results can even be seen as funny.”
So go ahead, torment, abuse and even murder your Sim. It probably won’t turn you into a psycho. And if you feel bad afterwards, you can always plead with the Grim Reaper to bring your Sim back to life.