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.