For a Community of Gamers, The Sims Is a Gateway to the Real World of Architecture
Drawing inspiration from iconic architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, many fans of the popular life-simulation game are using it to design virtual worlds.
Nearly every morning, Jason Sterling starts his day by designing houses. He takes his time carefully fine-tuning the layout, choosing the color of the walls, and executing his aesthetic vision for the project. Some days, the structure is a countryside cottage, and on other days, it’s a sleek midcentury Modern estate. But Sterling isn’t an architect, and the house’s walls, along with everything else about it, are virtual — he’s building them in The Sims, one of the best-selling video game series of all time.
The Sims, a franchise of life-simulation video games published by Electronic Arts (EA), has sold more than 100 million copies (and counting) worldwide and claims four of the top 15 spots in a list of all-time best selling PC games. The game is a virtual dollhouse, letting players revel in the minutiae of everyday life: Humanoid characters called Sims can get jobs, socialize, and, yes, live in houses. But for a large community of players, the game is less about the Sims and more about designing their residences. EA even encourages players to share their architectural creations on social media using the hashtag #showusyourbuilds.
When Sterling, 47, isn’t busy running his hair salon just outside Oklahoma City or taking care of his son, he’s usually playing The Sims. He’s been at it for 18 years, discovering the game about a month after the first version came out in 2000.
Sterling’s had a lifelong interest in architecture, and discusses the works of Italian architect Andrea Palladio and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the same breath. Most of his builds are houses of his own design, but Sterling lists Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei’s ‘60s-era Oklahoma City redevelopment initiative as inspirations since his childhood. Recreating Wright’s Seth Peterson Cottage in The Sims was a natural extension of that admiration.
The relationship between video games and architecture isn’t a new one. Some video game developers commission architects to develop their virtual worlds, like in the 2016 adventure game The Witness. And world-building computer games like Minecraft have expanded beyond their entertainment beginnings — design studios like London-based Blockworks now act as pseudo-virtual architecture firms that create bespoke Minecraft environments for major clients like Disney. The Block by Block initiative, run by the United Nation’s housing arm, UN Habitat, in partnership with Mojang, the makers of Minecraft, uses Minecraft to help underserved communities in developing countries design their own public spaces.
Jon Brouchoud, who has a B.Arch, M.Arch, and founded Arch Virtual, a virtual reality development agency, believes there may be a connection between world-building games and the development of useful architectural skills in real life. “It helps the player learn to think in 3D, which is invaluable to real world architectural design. When you watch someone play Minecraft or The Sims, they’re constantly moving the camera around to get different perspectives on the design,” wrote Brouchoud in an email.
Dr. Luke Pearson, lecturer at University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, also notes the beneficial aspects of video games for architecture. Dr. Pearson co-founded You+Pea, an architectural design research practice exploring the intersections of video games and architecture, and says that world-building video games are “a way of engaging new audiences into architecture and help engage in processes normally closed off to [non-architects].”
Though the design tools are potentially similar, Dr. Pearson adds, the building components in a game are different from how architects approach projects in real life. Still, world-building video games “teach players how to synthesize architectural space in some fashion.”
The Sims’ players aren’t just recreating famous works of architecture, they’re also designing original concepts inspired by architectural icons. Mela Pagayonan, a 44-year-old software trainer and support manager from Toronto, crafted a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian-inspired house she calls “The Bay Forest House.”
Pagayonan has played every iteration of The Sims since 2000, usually for a couple hours each night. She doesn’t bother with creating characters, using the game purely for its build mode. In The Sims, Pagayonan says, “you can be as fantastic as you want or as simple as you like.”
Learning about architectural history in high school sparked Pagayonan’s interest in the subject. But beyond that, the game provided an alternative to Pagayonan’s surroundings in real life. “Toronto is not a great city architecturally — lots of tall condos and older buildings, and it’s fun to recreate that, but it’s also fun to take a look at different references from all over the world,” she says. “The design aspect is there, the creative aspect is there, but there’s also the idea that…you’ve gotta make sure the place you create is functional for gameplay, and that’s a challenge in itself.”
After developing the inkling of an idea for a build, Pagayonan researches as many architectural precedents as possible, looking at pictures and finding floor plans for similar buildings. “If it was a Victorian house, I’d start adding big castle turrets or bay windows,” she says. “I think about how practical [the layout] would be and want to make sure that Sims can move in it — I think about the doors, where the bathrooms are going to be.”
Pagayonan’s favorite styles to create are Victorian houses, due to their prevalence in Toronto, and midcentury buildings. She visits open houses in Toronto to check out designs that may inspire her, and lists Zaha Hadid’s works and Daniel Libeskind’s Michael Lee-Chin Crystal extension for the Royal Ontario Museum as buildings she’d love to recreate in the game.
Gamers aren’t operating in isolation, though. A Reddit community devoted to The Sims boasts nearly 100,000 subscribers. The Sims 4 Gallery, a platform EA created for users to share their own creations and download other players’ work, features user-generated builds like a Modernist house design with nearly 1.3 million downloads. In Sterling’s case, he takes screenshots of his builds and posts them on Twitter, interacting with online friends about their latest virtual projects. “I think a lot of people who do building in The Sims and share their creations, there is that part that comes back, that people like it and say it’s cool — that’s part of the draw, creating something that has real impact on a lot of people in a lot of ways,” explains Sterling.
Unhindered by real-world construction timelines, Sterling’s builds take anywhere from a couple of hours for a small one-bedroom to multiple weeks for a futuristic cityscape. Playing the game, he says, has helped him hone his eye for design, in his own house (“early American, typical two story Federalist front with porch, heavy oil paintings”) and in his salon (“very modern and sleek, lots of mirrors and grey tones”).
— SimsNaction?️? (@SimsNaction) September 6, 2018
The game is also a form of escapism: Sterling’s characters can live in urban cities, lush tropical forests, or sleepy beach towns — a departure from his real house in the suburbs. Beyond that, Sterling expresses regrets that he let his difficulty with math, his weakest subject in school, get in the way of his college aspirations of becoming an architect. “I know we’re not professionals, we didn’t go to college [for architecture], and you know, we’re not actively changing the world, which is what I think architects do,” says Sterling, “but we are architects in the sense that a painter can be a painter at home, or someone who writes a story at home is a writer.”
Dr. Pearson, however, emphasizes the distinction between licensed architects and virtual builders: “There’s a disciplinary rigor to architecture that games can challenge, and they can sit and have a conversation with,” he explains, “but that doesn’t mean we’ll have a generation of video game-raised architects [without accreditation].”
But that is not Sterling’s aim. Rather, by creating structures in the game for himself and other players to enjoy, The Sims offers a very real glimpse into the career he never had. “It’s not just my character working in the game in a pretend fashion, but myself working in a real way at my real desk for real people,” wrote Sterling in a follow-up email. “So, in that hobbyist’s way, my wish…is fulfilled.”
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