The Great and Powerful

The Great and Powerful
A God Among Insects

John Carr | 21 Oct 2008 12:49
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But why did I find killing ants in Experimental Mode so much more satisfying than raining disaster down on my SimCities? If part of the fun in these games stems from wreaking havoc, shouldn't destruction get more fun the larger the scale?


SimAnt's advantage here laid in another aspect of the scale shift. Unlike the population in the early incarnations of SimCity or the animals in SimEarth, each ant on the screen represented exactly that: a single ant. There was no abstraction about the size of the ant colony or how they behaved. It was the best digital representation of reality the technology of the time could provide.

A single ant's life may not have meant much to the overall colony, but it still had a modicum of individuality. An individual ant might zig when the others zagged, or veer off to the left where all the others went right. The player got the sense that ants' real intelligence emerged from the combined behavior of the colony, yet each ant simultaneously had a mind of its own.

While I spent the next few years messing with digital ants, Will Wright continued to think about what else he could do now that he had discovered this new scale. If people messed around with ants and kept ant farms because, on a certain level, it was easy to see ourselves in them, why not make a digital "people farm"? This, of course, led to the ant-farm-by-way-of-doll-house know as The Sims, the best-selling PC game of all time.

Through these games, Wright struck upon something essential in humanity. Messing with ants is the original "god game." Software simulations are both an extension and a refinement of this behavior. They let us focus our frustrations and desires onto something smaller than ourselves, something over which we can feel supremely powerful. We can single out a few digital people and decide if we want to make their day heaven or hell. Or we can simply watch them go about their tasks, gently nudging them along, content in the knowledge that we have the power to tear it all down at any moment. For beings that often feel powerless in the face of a vast, harsh universe, this is extremely cathartic. And after we've had our fun playing god, it becomes just a little easier for all us workers to get up the next day, march back to the office and try to not think about whether the magnifying glass could be aimed at us.

John Carr is a freelance writer who only gets involved with ants these days when he lets the dishes pile up. He still gets involved with the games of Will Wright on a regular basis, however. You can find him on Twitter as CyricPL.

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