Editor's Choice

Maxis: Reflections on the Early Years


From simulating human cities and ant colonies to the evolution of planets and the genesis of life itself, let no one claim Maxis Software has lacked for range or profundity. At the very mention of a classic Maxis title – SimEarth, say – my eyes are known to slip their focus as my mind wanders back and forth across billions of years of game-time. In such moments of fervor, I like to think Will Wright’s hands are magic, but in fact, the salient charm of Maxis’ games is more akin to science.

Wright and company won their early fame by making games that built on environments or natural biology and erected a framework of rules, within which the player had complete freedom to experiment. 1989’s SimCity was the first of an esteemed line, and it laid the foundation upon which a legacy of outstanding games would build. In a burst of creative output, Maxis published a slew of simulations in the succeeding years, including SimEarth (1990), SimAnt (1991) and SimLife (1992). In simulations such as these, the experimental mode of thought comes easily. A little food spilled here, a quick spray of pheromones like so, and then watch as the ants scurry and writhe; a tweak of the gene-pool on one continent, a meteor impact on another and see whether life persists. Leave the simulation running for an hour while you shower and eat, then return to see how well the world has managed on its own. If scientists were giants, this is how they would play.

While Maxis has moved on to newer and even more successful franchises, we still have much to learn from these early games. They suggest a way in which we should live our lives: as oriented outward, not inward. They embody attributes of reverence, learning, whimsy and humor, and they are appropriate aids for addressing the central human problem of how we fit in the world we inhabit.

Manual Instruction
SimCity is the first of a new type of entertainment/education software, called system simulations. We provide you with a set of rules and tools that describe, create, and control a system.” These calm, inauspicious words at the fore of 1989’s SimCity‘s instruction manual illustrate the stark simplicity of Maxis’ approach to games. The classic Maxis simulations are certainly impressive for their realism and attention to detail, but more important to their success is their infectious enthusiasm for knowledge. There is a reciprocal relationship between what one knows of the world and what one can learn about it from a Maxis game: As either increase, so, too, does the other.

Considering the common non-fictional theme of Maxis’ run of hits, it’s fair to say that the company’s early market niche was educational games. These days, when “educational” is applied to computer games, it indicates the antithesis of fun (and perhaps more to the point, the antithesis of marketability). But the market climate that existed in the late ’80s and early ’90s was more congenial to titles that encouraged (or on occasion even required) players to engage in old-fashioned book learning in order to excel. Indeed, the very instruction manuals to the early series of Maxis titles stimulate gamers to incorporate studying with their playing.

For example, SimCity‘s manual contains a lengthy essay by Cliff Ellis entitled “The History of Cities and City Planning,” which explains everything from the original motivations behind city-building in prehistoric times to the peculiar economic and social concerns of the modern industrial city. None of this information has any direct bearing on how to play SimCity; it is only present as a matter of topical interest. There follows an extensive scholarly bibliography and a suggested reading list for children, the latter comprised of both fiction and nonfiction books. Today, it would seem silly to suggest that reading should go hand-in-hand with gaming, but Maxis went to great lengths to make sure its player base knew what made their games tick.

For SimAnt, Maxis’ Michael Bremer saturated the game’s manual with entomological knowledge. Rather than simply including a distinct educational essay in the rear of the book, Bremer incorporated relevant real-world information on ants all throughout the book’s 176 pages. The resultant tome seems equal parts game manual and textbook. It contained detailed explanations of ant anatomy, behavior and communication; retellings of ant-related myths from cultures around the world; dozens of quotes from famous writers and poets on ants; a discourse on the relationship between ants’ emergent intelligence and computer-based AI systems; and a thorough glossary explaining such technical terms as stridulation and trophallaxis. The latter consists of one ant transferring food to another by direct regurgitation or defecation into the mouth, thereby resolving the enigmatic exclamation on the back of the box: Experience the joys of trophyllaxis!

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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