The question of whether people can be trusted to create normal human beings, instead of ubermensch, may be answered by the parallel society of Sims characters that inhabits computer monitors around the world. Players (ages 13+) of the Electronic Arts (EA) Sims Online game (retails for $29.99 with a $9.99 monthly subscription fee), the most successful PC game to date, have chosen to make their computer-generated persons like themselves, falling in and out of love, finding and losing jobs, meeting in bars and coffee shops, and raising pets.
In just four years, The Sims phenomenon has grown to tens of thousands of players interacting worldwide, with over 28 million games sold. The world of Sims is finally going public as the Sims Gallery centerpiece in the "Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art and Artifacts" exhibit that ran from January through April, 2004 at the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts in San Francisco.
Twenty-first Century minds who were pondering how realistic virtual reality could be are now grappling with the question of whether a computer-enhanced society is a form of artistic expression, geek fantasy or, worse, an imitation of reality. Like the initially misunderstood French impressionists of the 19th Century, video game developers in today´s salons may experience greater success in the eyes of the populist than in the reviews of art critics. Already their work has generated more annual revenue than movies, and so evolves the question of whether video game images are creatures of commerce or artistic imagination.
Really, does the world need another topic for its pundits to throttle with their intellectual tendons? If consumers like it, sell it!
Rainey Straus and Katherine Isbister may be called the Sims Gallery artists for convenience´s sake, but really they are the curators who constructed the exhibit of a virtual community that exists on its own based on the collective participation of thousands of people they´ll never see. As the exhibit enters new territory, Straus says, "I wouldn´t consider video games art in a formal sense. They are commercial products, not ´artistic´ products set to investigate specific aesthetic, philosophical or political concerns. They are however artful; it takes an amazing amount of creative talent to produce a successful video game."
Since video games rose up from commercial ventures, developers such as Will Wright, the creator of The Sims and The Sims Online, aren´t starving artists like Van Gogh or Melville who didn´t´ live to see their impact on Western civilization.
Isbister, on the other hand, is more interested in seeing the virtual worlds of The Sims and other video games continue to evolve than to get caught up in semiotics and philosophical debates. "It´s so hard to define art, really," she says. "Are some games works of art of aesthetic genius? Yes. Are some games complex and layered commentary on culture, worth of display and archiving? Absolutely."
One truth that can be derived from The Sims collaborative reality is that video games are becoming a movement that will soon come to a museum near you. And visitors may be just as taken with Lara Croft as Vermeer´s Young Woman with a Jug.