Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
Maxis: Reflections on the Early Years

Phillip Scuderi | 26 Dec 2006 11:02
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In the early '90s, it was common for companies to publish long, lovingly crafted game manuals. But even in an era of big manuals, Maxis' devotion to edification was outstanding. By no means was it necessary for a player to read external sources in order to understand or enjoy Maxis' games (nor even to read the manuals themselves, so intuitive were the interfaces), but Maxis took every opportunity to reinforce the value of doing so. After all, the deeper the rabbit hole, the grander the promise of reward - and for many gamers, the promise is what matters most.

Art and Artist United
Of course, it would be misguided to think SimCity provides a thorough examination of the structure of human societies, or that SimLife explains the details of evolutionary biology any better than a rudimentary textbook. In fact, Maxis' games teach little in the way of traditional, propositional knowledge. Their educational value is not in explicit theories or formulae, but in the motivation for further study that they instill in the player. Sometimes, the motivation to learn can be very simple: The player has fun considering certain rules of biology in the game, and so begins to associate biology with fun. But the early Maxis titles are often more stirring than that to the player's soul. At their best, the games take on the aspect of art, with all the heady implications that word has come to entail.

Like the gardens at Versailles, in which vivid plants grow within rigidly prescribed geometric designs, Maxis' simulations show how intrinsically chaotic factors can operate within overarching, orderly constraints. In one light, the juxtaposition is gross; in another, it is sublime. The player cannot decide what's more impressive: the sheer complexity of the world or the fact that humans have begun to grasp it. The marvels of the universe become mirrored in the player's own face, its very laws grasped as tools in hand.

One noteworthy contrast between the Maxis games relates to their conceptions of perfection as a goal. SimCity and SimAnt presuppose certain attributes as desirable: the efficient layout of a power grid or design of an ant burrow, for example. Some designs are plainly not as effective as others, and these will lead to an unhealthy and unappealing society. SimEarth and SimLife are of a different kind, since the large-scale features of entire planets and ecosystems do not usually involve any kind of social order. Decisions here come down to aesthetics, and it's hard to tell whether a jungle landscape is more beautiful than permafrost or if reptiles are lovelier than birds.

In the end, whether one enjoys a simulation of many individuals cooperating as a social unit, or a simulation in which individuals are rendered inconsequential, there is no choice but to surrender the sense of one's own individuality to the game. To play these games is to receive a fuller sense of oneself as part of a greater whole. Our race is building toward something, even if it's only a more complete knowledge of the universe. As Bertrand Russell wrote, "It is in such profound instinctive union with the stream of life that the greatest joy is to be found."

Phillip Scuderi writes for Gamers With Jobs, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of South Florida. Beyond this, his loyalties remain uncertain.

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