Benjamin gets up in the morning. He goes to the toilet. He leaves the seat up. He showers and fixes breakfast. He reads the paper. He finds a job — as a Test Subject — starting tomorrow. It’s not much, but times are hard. He reads a book, and then another. He fixes lunch, naps, reads again. He goes to bed. He gets up. Toilet, shower, breakfast again. He does not make his bed. He goes to work. He comes home, prepares another meal. He talks to his room mate Bert a bit. Hannah drops by. He flirts with her some. He goes to bed, gets up, does the whole thing all over again.
Days go by. Not much changes. His cooking improves. He makes new friends — Ted, Gersholm, Asja. They drop by sometimes; sometimes he visits. There is the new furniture. That makes him a bit happier, but not much. He gets a promotion to Lab Assistant. It’s the night shift, but the pay is better. Then he makes Field Researcher and is back working regular hours. After a while he becomes a Scholar. He is so creative, but it helps to have friends if you want to get ahead. He aspires to being a Theorist. The pay is better. And the hours. He dreams of yachts and big screen TVs. Benjamin is a Sim, a character in a game called The Sims.13 One could be forgiven for imagining this was somebody’s life.
In The Sims, you create characters like Benjamin, build and furnish homes for them, find them jobs and friends. All in a world without a sky. Perhaps a game like The Sims could be a parody of everyday life in ‘consumer society’. Benjamin and his friends dream of things. Things make them happy. They find a nice sofa so much more relaxing than a cheap one. As the game’s designer Will Wright says: “If you sit there and build a big mansion that’s all full of stuff, without cheating, you realize that all these objects end up sucking up all your time, when all these objects had been promising to save you time…. And it’s actually kind of a parody of consumerism, in which at some point your stuff takes over your life.”14 Others disagree. Game scholar Gonzalo Frasca: “Certainly, the game may be making fun of suburban Americans, but since it rewards the player every time she buys new stuff, I do not think this could be considered parody.”15 In The Sims, characters can have lots of different jobs, but as Fredric Jameson says: “parody finds itself without a vocation.”16
Perhaps a game like The Sims could be an allegory for everyday life in gamespace. In the allegorical mode, says Walter Benjamin: “Any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else. With this possibility a destructive but just verdict can be passed on the profane world: it is characterized as a world in which the detail is of no great importance.”17 For Benjamin, the fragmenting of the modern world by technique, the profusion of commodities that well up in the absence of a coherent whole, finds its expression in allegory, which fragments thing still further, shattering the illusion of bourgeois order, revealing the means by which it is made. “What resists the mendacious transfiguration of the commodity world is its distortion into allegory.”18 And yet this possibility too seems exhausted. The fragmenting of the fragmented seems routine to a Sim. No other world seems possible.
Perhaps a game like The Sims is not just an allegory but also an ‘allegorithm.’ To be a gamer is a slightly different persona to being a reader or a viewer. Lev Manovich: “As the player proceeds through the game, she gradually discovers the rules that operate in the universe constructed by this game.”19 Alex Galloway: “To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system. And thus to interpret a game means to interpret its algorithm (to discover its parallel allegorithm).”20 What is distinctive about games is that they produce for the gamer an intuitive relation to the algorithm. The intuitive experience and the organizing algorithm together are an allegorithm for a future that in gamespace is forever promised but never comes to pass. The allegorithm by which the gamer relates to the algorithm produces a quite particular allegory by which gamer and algorithm together relate to gamespace. In a game any character, any object, any relationship can be given a value, and that value can be discovered. With this possibility a destructive but just verdict can be passed on the profane world: it is characterized as a world in which any value is arbitrary or absurd.