On ‘SimGirls’ and Patriarchal Computationalism in Video Games

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When I was about 14 or 15, I played this computer game called SimGirls.

It was story-based game where you play as a male student at Fukoma High School who was trying to get a girl to date and eventually sleep with you. At the beginning of the game, you choose what “style” you want to have: Criminal, Playful, Intelligent, or Casual. The goal is to increase your Charm, Strength, and Knowledge attributes to get a girlfriend.

You go up levels the more you answer your love interest’s questions correctly and do nice things for her—flirting, buying her gifts, talking on the phone, dating, etc. You have 100 days (or energy points) to do it or you lose the game.

The game is in the bishojo romance genre that became popular in Japan and other places in Asia in the 90s. Japanese cultural critic and philosopher Hiroki Azuma writes that these games follow a standard format where “the player tries to win over female characters of their choice through various game systems, and, if successful, they can view pornographic illustrations as a reward.”

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I played it, but I do think it was an eye-opening experience. The game was a stereotypical geek masculine fantasy with hot teachers, sexual innuendos, camera angles up girls’ skirts and hentai as reward (if you build up your relationship with different girls in the game, you unlock pornographic scenes with them). But as an adult and more critical player, what interests me about SimGirls is how it combines a type of computationalism with patriarchy.

Borrowing from the work of David Golumbia, computationalism reduces subjective experiences to computational processes. To re-appropriate Frank Pasquale, it assumes that “at bottom, humans simply are patterns of stimuli and response, behavior and information.” Patriarchy is a social system — enforced through explicit or implicit ideas, beliefs, attitudes and laws — in which men dominate women. Therefore, patriarchal computationalism is a system of beliefs and attitudes that view women as objects that can be dominated by stimuli-and-response computation.

One way it manifests would be men seeing women as a code to crack, or relationships more as a kind of algorithm where the outcome is sex, as opposed to an organic mutual relationship. An example here would be “pick-up artistry” (PUA), the pop-cultural phenomenon where so-called “pick-up artists” teach men various behaviorist techniques to get women to sleep with them. PUA gamifies courtship, convincing the “player” to optimize his chances for sex.

Patriarchal computationalism can be found—to varying extents—in things like the HER film, the Gatebox, a cute-girl home robot; or other video games like romance novel NinNinDays or sex comedy Leisure Suit Larry. Un-ironically, there is actually a pick-up artist video game. These games reflect what Jess Morrisette describes as “patriarchal play”—when a game’s narrative and ludic elements force the player to perform a “prescribed set of gendered actions” that “reinforce existing gendered structures of power rather than meaningfully subverting or otherwise problematizing them.” To make the concept more simple, think about how a typical compliment for a man who gets a lot of women is that he has “game.”

Looking back, I think SimGirls gave me a safe place to explore my youthful desires, anxieties, and the masculine expectations surrounding sex. Straight men grow up in a society that promotes sex as the sufficiently masculine means to love, intimacy, affection and mutual recognition. Video games are also meritocracies in ways that real life is not, they are simple in ways real life is complex; so games like this also give boys a sense of control over their sexual fate. In accordance to the player’s input, sex and all the good things attributed it is an output that cannot be denied.

In a pretty on-the-nose way, SimGirls follows what theorist Robert Scholes describes as a “orgasmic structure.” In the book “Play Like A Feminist,” Shira Chess describes it as “a singular path leading towards a singular climax that completes the story.” Though this is a theoretical concept, the game’s mechanics and narrative makes this structure explicit.

Even though men’s root sexual desires can be far from harmful, patriarchal ideas can transform these desires by persuading men into seeing women as objects. SimGirls literally made “getting the girl” into a game — a set of rules you follow, inputs you do, resources you employ in order to get the “win” or the prize at the end. The problem is that in real life, you can execute all of these actions successfully but the woman you are courting can still be disinterested in you. Being an intelligent, causal but playful criminal doesn’t guarantee sexual intercourse. Yet in a video game, especially one like SimGirls, female NPCs don’t have a choice (unless you, the player, decide to not play the game).

Patriarchal computationalism says two plus two must equal four, oblivious to the fact that women aren’t computers and don’t run on the cold simplistic input-output of a math equation. Since it reduces women to their social and biological processes, patriarchal computationalism robs women of their individuality and subjectivity. They become objects to be consumed for male pleasure instead of beings with their own motivations and who make their own choices about giving or denying sexual consent.

The game’s individual pervy aspects deserve their own scrutiny, but I’d argue that its overall design and narrative is what should get a closer look from gamers, academics and gaming academics. Through SimGirls, we can understand how sexism can be reified within pop culture like video games and how gets encoded into their design.

Joshua Adams is a writer and journalist from Chicago. UVA & USC. Taught media and communication at DePaul & Salem State. Twitter: @journojoshua

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