Imagine the handsome playboy Franco standing at the door of a girl named Viola as he rings the bell, hoping that tonight he'll get lucky. The door opens, Franco leans over to kiss
Viola, and, indeed, she welcomes him in. He all but springs through the doorway, his little pixilated legs moving as fast
as they can carry him.
Watching this scene unfold on your computer, you feel the way you imagine God -- the one who set men and women at play in a world of free will, chance and billion-dollar-
grossing computer games -- might have felt. As a Sims player, you prod Franco and Viola toward their romantic intersection. Yet you can't help ascribing a certain amount of independent thought to the computerized bachelor and his ilk -- you and some 20 million other Sims players who have created an estimated 300 million characters on their PCs since the launch of the world's most successful computer game. (The new game, the Sims 2, will no doubt lead to a digital population explosion, especially because it introduces sim babies, who share the characteristics of both digital parents.)
It's all code work, of course, this illusion of creation and free will, a brilliant but rather simple trick that exploits the player's own desires to conjure a world. In the Sims game, says creator Will Wright, much of the story actually unfolds in the players' imaginations. Sims characters speak in a shorthand of pictures and pidgin language that prompts players to unconsciously fill in the missing details in character interaction, to ascribe emotions, motivations and worldviews to pixels. "Like a Japanese garden, this approach gives the impression that the model is a lot more elaborate than it is," says Wright, "but so much is actually unstated and completed by the players' personal experiences and aesthetics." Note the word "model," for that's what the Sims is: a model of the world, however simplistic.
Yet how powerful these computer games are, how strong the human desire to create and observe simulations of human drama.
Now imagine that it isn't the playboy Franco waiting at the door. It's Osama bin Laden.
"This is Pakistan," says Ian Lustick, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, as he points to a grid on a computer screen filled with thousands of colored squares. Each square represents a hypothetical group of people who possess one of 30 political identities that may be found within that country's unstable social structure. Lustick's computer model is a very serious game of what we might call sim politics, in which the squares take the place of the Sims' cutely
animated figures. Here the Pakistani bureaucrats are purple and mostly clustered in urban areas, including the capital, Islamabad, in the northeast; the military are yellow; the radical Muslims, khaki green. Pakistan's nuclear weapons are invisible, but in the event that one or more are detonated the colored squares at their locations become pocked with polka dots. What interests Lustick is how the behavior of the various political interest groups affects the fate of the weapons.
Lustick presses a key and the grid goes into motion on
the screen. Some squares blink and then change color, while others hold to their original hue. People are changing sides,
lining up with those they trust or perhaps those they fear -- changing their colors -- in front of our eyes. At first, color patterns conjoin lazily, with no discernible order. Patches of similar colors emerge, and split apart. Then, dramatically, polka-dotted squares -- the contamination from nuclear explosions -- appear and begin to spread ominously on the map until they encircle the other squares. Virtual nuclear conflict.
This, according to Lustick's model, is what might transpire in Pakistan over many months as the country transitions from a military government to a civilian democracy, a change the United States has at least nominally encouraged as a matter of policy. In the simulation described here, factional uncertainty and infighting among bureaucrats lead to a bungling of the transition; protection of nuclear facilities degrades; nukes trained on potential enemies are turned inward as the bombs end up in the hands of special interests.