No Violence Necessary: The case for The Sims as a role-playing game

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Rowan Kaiser
March 2nd, 2012
No Violence Necessary: The case for The Sims as a role-playing game
This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.
Is combat a necessary component of a role-playing game? It doesn't seem to be, by any number of common definitions. Yet if you look at how the genre is interpreted, combat seems to be essential. RPGs are built around swords clashing and guns blazing, with occasional conversations. Sure, there are a few games like Fallout and Deus Ex which offer non-violent, alternative pathways, but the bulk of the game is still oriented towards players who want to fight.

There's a wildly popular, but under-discussed role-playing game that only includes a tiny amount of violence. It's The Sims, a game that shares almost every trait with role-playing games ... except combat. Don't believe me? Well, what do you actually do in The Sims?

The first thing you do is create a character or a party of characters to venture out into the world. You pick the traits that define their interactions with the rest of the game. They're called "Commitment Issues" instead of "Bloody Mess," sure, but it's a trait system. The original Sims even allowed for direct statistical alterations. Instead of strength, it was introversion. You also pick how they look. In The Sims 3, you can even go so far as to edit the shape and location of their cheekbones. And if there's one thing I know, having played hours of Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it's that if you're spending fifteen minutes on a character's cheekbones before even starting to play the game proper, you're playing an RPG.

Once your characters are set, you engage in the core structure of any role-playing game. Your characters are given quests, and they use their skills to succeed in those quests. If they are too difficult, then the character can work on improving their ability to succeed in those quests. In The Sims, there are three primary motivators. First, your Sim has a career path to follow, getting promotions in order to get more money and buy cooler items, which increase its happiness, making promotions more likely. Those promotions get more complicated later on -- make a certain amount of friends, for example, or have specific skills improved. It is the conventional "beating the game" motivation, accomplished through RPG-style mechanics.

Even in the moment-to-moment playing of The Sims, there are RPG moments. You don't have a health bar, but a mood bar. When it gets low, you don't cast healing spells -- instead you cook food or take a bath (and in both, you sleep to replenish yourself). You can even give yourself temporary bonuses, by playing computer games for entertainment or looking at a beautiful picture, and avoid "disgusted" debuffs by cleaning dirty dishes. There are even dice rolls. Ask another Sim to be your friend, and maybe your relationship will improve, and maybe it won't.

The second motivator in playing The Sims is to make your Sim behave the way you think they should. You turn them into a character, and the world is their story. Maybe career success is the way you want to do this, but it doesn't have to be. It is playing a role through a video game, which is of course directly related to being a role-playing game.

The third motivator is simply to see what happens. This is not directly RPG-related, but instead exists in any game that creates an open system for interesting events to occur within, from Skyrim to Grand Theft Auto.

With all these mechanical similarities, it seems pretty clear to me that The Sims is a role-playing game. So why is this controversial statement? Perhaps some of you have given up reading this article and are now angrily scrawling comments below in retort.

One charitable reason is that The Sims is open-ended. Instead of having a specific narrative to be followed, you can do whatever you want with your characters, and see what kinds of stories emerge. This is more common in strategy games (notably SimCity) but it's not totally foreign to RPGs. Massively multiplayer games tend to be open-ended, and Roguelikes also tend to have a similar feel due to their randomness and constant restarts. The Elder Scrolls games are entirely playable even when skipping the main plot.

The setting is another probable reason The Sims isn't considered an RPG. The vast majority of games within the genre are fantasy or science fiction, with a few science-fantasy games in-between. There are a tiny amount of real-world RPGs, like Jagged Alliance or Alpha Protocol, but these are focused on niches of society that reward violence, which brings me back to the original point: violent struggle is implicitly considered a necessary component of role-playing games.

There are reasons for this. Role-playing video games started primarily as simulations of the mechanical combat aspects of tabletop RPGs, and most refinements they've undergone since are built around making combat better and making the world surrounding it better to deliver stories and pictures about violence. This is hardly limited to RPGs, of course. Successful application of violence has been the goal of most conventional genres of games, from first-person shooters to real-time strategy games to sidescrolling platformers. In all of them, complex modeling of violence and survival takes precedence over other considerations.

I've been playing several games lately that buck this trend, in addition to The Sims 3. The new browser game Prom Week, a finalist in the 2012 Independent Games Festival, builds complex forms of interpersonal relationships in a high school setting. The strategy game Crusader Kings II is built around dynastic power struggles. There are battles between armies, yes, but keeping your vassals happy and your bloodline intact is even more important. Or there's Portal, a first-person shooter by most definitions except those that also require violence.

So let's open gaming generally, and role-playing specifically, up to a wider variety of styles. We don't need every single RPG to be about stabbing dragons in the belly. Not that there's anything at all wrong with dragon-stabbing, but we can also have science fiction games with guns, spies with gadgets, and yes, families struggling to make ends meet. As long as the core mechanics are there, and as long as there's room for players to play roles, why not acknowledge The Sims as a role-playing game?

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.
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