• Joshua Renner

Procedural Rhetoric and the Possibility Space in "The Sims 3"


Published by EA Maxis in 2009, The Sims 3 is considered to be the best life simulation video game by many gaming enthusiasts, and has sold over ten million copies worldwide. In this life simulation game, players are presented with a possibility space in the form of an entirely customizable town that appears to have no set rules, but they quickly realize the incredibly rigid structure in place only moments after starting to play. Using procedural rhetoric, this rigid structure teaches players a number of lessons about the real world.

Coined by Ian Bogost in 2008, procedural rhetoric is defined as “the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes . . . [These] arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior [and] the construction of dynamic models” (125). In terms of video games, Bogost defines the possibility space as “the myriad configurations the player might construct to see the ways the processes inscribed in the system work” (121). These self-creates spaces are they “dynamic models” that Bogost uses in his definition. He then goes on to argue that video games “make claims about the world . . . not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images . . . [but instead] with processes” (125-26, emphasis in original). Using its signature “sandbox” style of gameplay, The Sims 3 makes a number of claims about the world using its own fictional one.

In The Sims 3, players are presented with a fully functioning city complete with premade houses, businesses, characters (collectively referred to as “Sims”) with established social connections, and plenty of room for expansion. The player is allowed to jump into any household that is inhabited by a family of Sims, or they may instead create their own family from scratch. This family can then be moved into one of the uninhabited premade houses, or the player may then opt to create their new family a home to serve their needs. However, one small issue stands in the player’s way: simoleons, the currency used in the game. Players are given enough simoleons to create a basic household furnished with cheap furniture and appliances for their Sims, and then they are presented with the primary dilemma of the game—how do they make more simoleons so that they can acquire more goods? In this vicious cycle, players soon recognize the need for improved furniture and appliances. In order to keep their Sims employed, players must ensure that their needs and desires are met using their current inefficient furniture and appliance. Cheap furniture does not increase these “need” meters as quickly, meaning that more time must be spent maintaining their Sims’ happiness compared to other aspects of the game. To remedy this, players can use simoleons to purchase household upgrades (a better bed, stove, or television, for example) that decrease the amount of time required to fulfill the needs of their Sims. These items eventually create different needs, and the cycle begins anew.

According to Bogost, “[Developers] rely on the practice of procedurality to craft representations through rules, which in turn create possibility spaces that can be explored through play” (122, emphasis in original). In the possibility space of The Sims 3, the number of methods by which a Sim can make simoleons is limited; thus, players have to decide how much time a Sim spends working, and thus how much money they can make. However, not every job pays the same amount per hour. A Sim who fishes at the local pond will not make as many simoleons in an eight-hour period as, say, a Sim working as a movie director; however, a Sim has the ability to fish from the moment they are created, while the movie director Sim has been working toward that goal for months of in-game time. In order to better their financial standing, players must continuously navigate their relationship with the possibility space. By definition, these negotiations are persuasive in nature, and thus are a form of procedural rhetoric.

One top of these needs, however, is a fourth need: interpersonal relationships. The biggest obstacle to job progression is the need to create and retain relationship with coworkers. Getting acquainted with a Sim’s coworkers is as easy as going to work, but to truly develop friendships, Sims must spend time outside of work with their coworkers. The Sims 3’s possibility space when it comes to friendships, romance, and marriage is less rigid than many other games of the genre. Bogost’s article uses the animal village simulator Animal Crossing to make his claims about procedurality in terms of interpersonal relationships (117-118). However, a key difference between these two titles is the amount of freedom one has in making these relationships. In Animal Crossing, friendships are only developed by performing tasks for the various animal residents of the town. In The Sims 3, Sims can develop relationships with others simply by interacting with them—no extra work necessary. Should players decide not to converse with a particular Sim for a while, the relationship may deteriorate somewhat, but it can quickly be rebuilt by simply interacting with that Sim again. In Animal Crossing, however, certain animals may choose to leave the town permanently if not enough attention is paid to them. Thus, the possibility space in Animal Crossing has a much more rigid structure than its counterpart. Rhetorically, both games stress the importance of these relationships by barring certain events from happening without first having a specific number of relationships. This is similar to real life, where, as the saying sometimes goes: “It is not what you know, it is who you know.” However, the application of this concept is different, as, in the case of The Sims 3, a more accurate statement would be “It is not what you know, nor who you know, but how many people you know.”

The most rigid structure in The Sims 3 is the concept of time. Each action requires a certain amount of time to perform, which means that only a set number of actions can occur in an in-game day. While this structure is by far the most rigid, it also affords players a virtually infinite number of options with what to do with that time. Of those infinite options, however, only an infinitesimal number of them are able to perfectly meet the player’s needs, and it is entirely up to the player to determine that definition of perfect. For example, does the player wish for their Sim to make more simoleons? To accomplish this, they must sacrifice time to focus on studying key skills necessary for a job. For example, using the movie directing job, Sims are required to have a high creativity score, an extremely high charisma score (which is obtained through Sim interaction), and to have dabbled in the mechanical skill (to fix equipment as necessary). What if, however, the player also wants their Sim to be an excellent chef at home? In order to improve a Sim’s cooking score, they can either cook a large number of meals (which, unsurprisingly, also costs simoleons), or spend an inordinate amount of time reading cooking textbooks. Similarly, if the player wants to have their Sim improve their physique, they must either purchase expensive gym equipment, or visit the local gym and deal with the local jocks. While this would also potentially create some new relationships, many Sims are turned off by even the thought of visiting the gym. Alternatively, the player can simply allow their Sims to make their own decisions in terms of personal betterment. Essentially, the entire possibility space in regard to how one chooses to spend their time in The Sims 3 directly compares to how one chooses to navigate their own possibility space: they can either work hard to improve themselves, or instead choose to slack off. Both choices have pros and cons, and one must determine which is the perfect choice for their possibility space.

The Sims 3 is described as a “sandbox” style of game—that is, a game that does not have a concrete ending. The game can continue indefinitely as generation after generation of Sims are born and die, and players are always being faced with an ever-changing possibility space. It is through their actions that the player can mold this possibility space to their will, but only for a moment. A new variable, from an extreme event like a house fire to the birth of a new baby Sim, will change what choices the player and the Sim must make to once again have the perfect possibility space, and it is through these decisions that The Sims 3 is the perfect example of Bogost’s procedural rhetoric. By studying how players make choices in this video game, one can determine how a player will react to certain events that occur in their real-life possibility space.

While a rather new concept in the field of rhetoric, procedural rhetoric brings the digital media field to the attention of rhetoricians, and life simulator games like The Sims 3 serve as the face of this growing field. Through its creation of ever-changing possibility spaces as created by the developer and determined by the player, The Sims 3 will forever allow players to put themselves into somebody else’s shoes and live lives vastly different from their own.

Works not otherwise linked:

Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning, 2008, pp. 117-40.

The Sims 3. EA Maxis, 2009, Computer software.

#videogames #rhetoric