A Girl and her Chopper: On Goals and Sandboxes

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It’s probably 1998 or 1999…ish. My pre-adolescent memory doesn’t care much for dates. Like just about every other evening that week, I’m perched on the big green chair in my dad’s computer room, where he keeps his old engineering textbooks, a filing cabinet full of stuff like our birth certificates, and of course, the family PC. It’s an HP in that ever popular mid 90s computing shade of taupe, which frequently bluescreens and whirrs like an air tunnel. This one is probably our second computer, since there’s a picture of me on the desk next to the monitor. Me: a chubby baby bald as a cue ball and butt-naked, standing up on a metal folding chair to reach the mouse and keyboard of our first PC. That one only played floppies, but now CD-ROMs are the order of the day.

Having a computer at home mainly started out as a useful tool for my dad, so he could check on work emails, finish a last-minute paper or look up something online when he was at home, but because he associated it with work so much, he never really wanted to use it for something fun. That’s what the TV, or going out for mini-golf and ice cream was for. He came around eventually, when the blaringly loud and crawlingly slow dial-up modem was replaced with broadband, which allowed him to access a seemingly infinite number of car crash montages and clips from Casino on YouTube at a respectable speed. Before then, though, I almost always had the computer room to myself in the evenings, only occasionally having to pause whatever game I was playing so my dad could check on something. I played so much I developed strange quirks as a kid, saying things like “click on me,” to demand my parents’ attention if I wanted to show them something. I was an early-adopter in every sense of the word.

My parents were initially enamored with educational games, maybe so my fascination with sitting In front of the computer could be seen as marginally less worrisome than a fixation on TV. So I played Mickey’s ABCs and Numbers on floppy discs, then graduated to Magic School Bus, Jumpstart, and Busytown on CD ROM. Gradually, the restrictions loosened. I was allowed to get Dogz, a pet sim, in lieu of a long-promised puppy, and the Monopoly game when playing actual board games became a frustrating exercise in finding missing pieces, setting up, and seeing through an often irremediable situation to the end. When I played Monopoly with computerized players, it almost felt more like a small drama unfolding, rather than a carefully negotiated and tense face-off between child and one or the other parent. The imaginative leaps brought on by watching a simulation unfold, occasionally intervening to apply God-like powers, had me sitting in my dad’s computer chair more than he ever would.

Image                Then, I think it was at Office Max, I saw a bargain box of Maxis games. SimTower, SimAnt, SimSafari, SimTunes, essentially, the ones that hadn’t taken off like SimCity had and were probably taking up warehouse space. It was probably around 10 bucks for the lot, and they were vaguely educational, so it passed the parental filter. I quickly got frustrated with SimTower, and found SimAnt interesting but the constant fighting and death discouraging. SimSafari was fun, and SimTunes I enjoyed but was too impatient and didn’t understand music well enough at the time to fully appreciate. These unsuccessful and almost forgotten Maxis games (especially in the wake of SimThemePark and The Sims, both of which were coming soon) took up countless afternoons of my childhood.

SimCopter was probably the most bizarre and the one that I was most fascinated by. Unlike most Sim games up to that point, which projected the image of a rather sterile (yet still compelling) sandbox, in SimCopter you were an actual human character within these dutifully disaster-ridden worlds. The rationale of the world itself is rather vague. Perhaps in a hyper-libertarian dystopic future, you play the role of a freelance rescue pilot whose responsibilities (should he choose to accept them) run the gamut from taxi service, to emergency airlift, to traffic mediator, to fire patrol. Missions are dispatched to you via radio (which cycles jarringly between emergencies, music and satirical ads,) and you go… if you want. There’s no real penalty for not showing up, hell, even dropping a Sim from your helicopter is only a 200-point deduction. What’s the motive for even putting out fires or breaking up traffic jams in the first place? Money, or having your hangar swarmed with a brass band and barely discernible blocks of female Sim who make coy “ooh-la-la” noises at you, I suppose. In light of the cheat codes (“superpowermultiply,” “I’m the CEO of McDonnell Douglas,” they still spring to my fingers even now) none of these rewards were very compelling, so I spent most of my time ignoring missions and instead pushing at the borders of what exactly I could get away with in this world.

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                Perhaps it was a way for me to cope with a game that was graphically (if you can believe it) and mechanically interesting to me, but didn’t pay off in ways that were similarly interesting. I played the other Sim games how I liked, making whatever type of world I wanted, and so I applied the same ethic to SimCopter. Instead of chauffeuring politicians and responding to the hapless cries of Sims, I explored the architecture of the buildings, saw what would happen if I flew as far away from the town as possible, explored the streets by foot, and well, if the mood struck, occasionally lent a hand. Again, I took on the position of an unpredictably benevolent god to a miniature, encapsulated world.

The idea of an encapsulated miniature was probably most significantly manifested in the Cabinets of Curiosities of the 16th and 17th centuries. The desire to collect, classify, and connect these specimens of a graspable and rationally organized world came primarily from the massive shock to Europe that was the age of exploration. Their reality was no longer easily ordered and explained due to an overabundance of new discoveries and scientific advances that flew in the face of classical and religious hierarchies. What is often interpreted as the beginning of the museum, a noble undertaking to understand and objectively document the world, was far from that. It was essentially a collection of personal reassurances, that the world could still be easily grasped and controlled. Now, faced with the irregularity and unpredictability of the world at large, we can turn to the reliable algorithms and statistics of sandbox games, exploring, but always within safety. As a kid struggling with fairly intense social anxiety, the feel of these sandbox game spaces, while occasionally alternately frustrating and rewarding, were always a safe space allowing for experimentation and control that I didn’t feel like I could have in my social life.

Of course, no discussion of SimCopter would be complete without mentioning the planted RTMark bug by designer Jaques Servin. While little exists on the internet documenting the “bug” in action, my 10 year old self can claim eyewitness knowledge of it. In a response both to poor working conditions, and the overtly macho/conservative/heterosexual narrative put forth by SimCopter itself, Servin (receiving a decent commission from the prank-art group RTMark,) inserted a rare event in which men in speedos, with flashing, fog-light nipples would appear instead of the usual Sim “babes,” and would make similar kissy noises when they were near the player character. At the time, I was totally naïve to any sexuality outside of vanilla married couple, and so only found it entertaining the one or two times naked men with flashing nipples came over and gave me a kiss. It’s hard to imagine that this subversion could truly irritate a player, but as Maxis quickly recalled games with the bug, fired Servin, and apparently changed the game to prevent future appearances of the “him-bos,” the possibility clearly was seen as a threat to Maxis’ reputation.

Image                I misplaced my original copy of SimCopter a while ago, and even though I’ve bought myself a replacement, I don’t know how to tell if it’s one of the original copies, and I don’t have the hours to spend attempting to lure out the men with the fog-light nipples… as much as I’d like to. Still, my time in the chopper sticks with me. Even now, when I pick up a game in my twenties, I don’t consider myself a goal-oriented player. I like taking the scenic route, seeing how much I can explore and push at the game’s structure before getting on with the main quest. I’m the kind of person who loses interest in a game when only the final battle remains, rather than getting pumped up. To be fair, I’ve become much more goal-oriented than I was as a kid but I still find pleasure in dawdling, refusing what the game wants me to do. A lot has been said about how video games are a collaborative art, in which the designers and players are “co-creators.” With a lot of games, I don’t buy this. It seems idealistic and like the typical tech-utopianism that surrounded early internet art and multimedia installations. But when there’s space for ignoring the goals and implicit narrative set forth, even if I have to carve it out myself by playing unconventionally, then I start to believe I might be writing a story of my own, using someone else’s pens and paper.

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One thought on “A Girl and her Chopper: On Goals and Sandboxes

  1. Pingback: A Girl and Her Chopper: On Goals and Sandboxes « Electron Dance

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