Workers march single file, carrying out the day’s task. Soldiers flank the column, ready to defend it from myriad enemies. But then tragedy strikes – the fire from the sky, a threat against which even the soldiers are powerless. Bodies sizzle and char while others flee, panicked and wild. So things go with ants and their cruel and capricious gods.
Since the dawn of the American suburbs, a dirt-smeared kid killing ants with a magnifying glass has been one of the iconic ideas of our culture, right up there with baseball, apple pie and the atomic bomb. Ant farms were a staple of Silver Age comic book advertising, and you can still find them in toy stores across the country.
I’d bet good money the fascination goes back a lot farther than that, though. Find the least contacted community in the most underdeveloped corner of the world, and you will probably find kids with sticks playing with ants (assuming the area isn’t dominated by siafu). The insect’s charm is understandable. In ants, we find tiny but industrious creatures that work together to build cities and surmount obstacles far too great for the individual. We enjoy observing and meddling with these miniature societies, because in them we see our own.
In 1991, Will Wright combined this cultural cache with a scientific curiosity in what remains one of the quirkiest titles in the designer’s oeuvre: SimAnt.
Up to that point, Wright’s simulation games had functioned on a decidedly “macro” scale. They zoomed out, making big ideas easy to grasp and fun to explore. In the process, individuals within the systems he designed became abstract variables. SimCity put the player in the role of modern urban planner, but the “people” living in these digital cities were little more than points in a scoring system. The animal life of SimEarth really just represented the complexity and diversity of a given planet in a simplified model of a global ecosystem.
Wright’s approach shifted with SimAnt. Here he zoomed in, creating a game that functioned on a “micro” scale. Focusing on the struggle for survival that occurs between blades of grass on a suburban lawn, SimAnt lets players control a colony of black ants in their war against the red ants. Players achieved victory not only by dominating the lawn, but by infesting the nearby house so thoroughly that the humans inside had no option but to move out.
Alternately, the player could opt for Experimental Mode. Here there were no specific goals, nor did the player control the ants. Rather, the player had a set of tools with which he or she could (surprise, surprise) experiment with the creatures. Players could place rocks and food at their whim, build insurmountable walls, dig tunnels, freely create black and red ants and create pheromone trails. They could even introduce ant lions and spiders into the environment. Wright had updated a basic human behavior for a new era – digital dirt in which kids were free to screw with ants to their hearts’ content.
I count myself among the kids who enjoyed playing with ants. I rarely opted for the weapon of mass ant destruction that is the magnifying glass, though I’d be lying if I said I never did anything so cruel to the little six-legged commuters. Most of the time I just used sticks and leaves to transport or redirect the ants, or made a trail with my Kool-Aid to see how far they’d follow it. But sometimes I’d pour out a little extra to see how they responded to flash flood conditions and, as I recall, on at least one occasion my dad’s lighter entered the equation.
There were also many times when I would find a lone ant and just watch it, try to follow its seemingly random path for as long as I could, and try to imagine what was going through its mind. I’d wonder how close to it I’d need to be before it realized I was there. I’d put my finger down and watch as the ant treated it like any other obstacle – sometimes it went around, sometimes it climbed right over – and contemplated whether the ants ever knew I was there, or if I represented some vast, unknowable force of nature to them.
By the summer of 1992, however, I was about to enter eighth grade and began to worry that other kids would think I was immature if they saw me playing with ants. I needed to find a new outlet. As luck would have it, my parents decided that with high school looming it was time to get a computer.
Up to this point, the most advanced electronics in the house had been my Super Nintendo. I was excited to explore the whole new universe of games the computer would open up for me. My dad, however, insisted that the expensive new 386 was strictly for school-related purposes. So, like any smart kid, I worked the mom angle. During a trip to the mall for back-to-school clothes, I finally got her to break – kind of. She agreed to buy me a PC game, but it had to be “educational.” I was not exactly thrilled by the prospect of playing MathBlaster at home, but looking at the selection, “Sim” jumped out at me. A few months earlier I had discovered SimCity on the Super Nintendo and had fallen in love. When I took SimAnt home, I fell in love all over again.
It was Experimental Mode that really did it for me. I could lose an entire rainy Saturday just playing with virtual ants. One of my favorite games was creating an enclosed arena of walls with a little bit of food in the center and few ant lions spread around. Then I’d place a few black ants and a few red ants on either side and watch them tear each other apart. I was Caesar, and these were my gladiators.
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.