Ted Friedman: The Semiotics of Sim City

[Readings] (02.10.09, 12:03 pm)

This is a summary of an article that Ted Friedman wrote for First Monday in 1999. The article is ostensibly about simulation and semiotics, but relates simulation to subjectivity and identification in an interesting way. His argument is that simulation becomes an extension of consciousness, and the player identifies with the simulation as a component of him or herself. This would have strong support in the space of cognitive science, especially in terms of cognitive extensions. It also provides a way of connecting a model-based view of the world to an embodied and experiential view of the world.

Friedman initially compares the experience of playing a game to the experience of reading a book. Books are non-reactive, though there is exchange between reader and book. Games are artifacts with reactive feedback loops, enabling a tighter sense of identification with the artifact’s contents. Reading gives a variety of interpretive freedoms, but simulation is not free from perspective of player. Any simulation is rooted in the assumptions of its model. Sim City has received criticism for its model and economic assumptions, but Friedman explains that these are not flaws but principles. “Computer programs, like all texts, will always be ideological constructions.”

It is frequently argued that simulation games have an aura of mystification, in that they appear to be realistic. Friedman argues to the contrary that the player succeeds by learning its model and understanding how the model works, which is a process of demystification. I would challenge this, though. The level of mystification is dependent on the self-consciousness of the player. Many players learn the system of a game but do not reflect on its values. Mastery and understanding are different things.

Simulation in Sim City is constant, it does not stop. It is easy to reach a trance-like state where the simulation is an organic extension of the player’s consciousness (referencing Haraway). The actual experience of playing puts the player in a variety of roles, according to what the player actually controls. The player is much more than just the mayor and urban designer (the ostensible roles given to the player). The player has control over details unavailable to those real life roles, and is able to manage and micromanage different parts of the game with relative fluidity. Thus, the player has shifting identifications. This seems like it ought to be jarring, but it is not. Friedman argues that experience is a form of identification, but with the simulation. Losing oneself in a game is identifying with its simulation.

From the perspective of a god-game (like Sim City, The Sims, etc), which gives the player significant controls over the entire system, or a major part of it, a simulation is engrossing. The entire simulation becomes an extension of the player’s cognitive processes, which are both visual and visceral. This suggests that the experience is in some sense embodied. I think it is possible to look back on this, though, and realize that most digital games have simulation elements, but restrict the freedom of the player within them, putting the player under constraint of not only the rules, but also giving the player a more limited part of the system. Civilization, for instance, places the player in control of only one civilization. It can be argued that the player still experiences extension and identification, but only with the substance that the player can control. So the player will identify with the entire city in Sim City, the household in The Sims, the civilization in Civilization, or the avatar in a platforming game.

Friedman concludes the essay suggesting that simulations are a kind of postmodern quasi-narrative: systems of interwoven strands of subjectivity.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFriedman, Ted
TitleSemiotics of Sim City
Tagsgames, semiotics, simulation, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar

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