Interview: Rob Burkinshaw, game designer and creator of homeless Sims

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Yesterday we posted about Alice and Kev, homeless Sims that exist entirely in the world of Sims 3. They are a family. Alice is a girl with the traditional adolescent pre-teen worries but she’s saddled with a father who is high-strung, hates kids, and is generally a misfit in the orderly world of the Sims. They are homeless in that they live in a house with no walls and sleep on park benches. They have no source of food except for things given to them from other Sims or stolen in the course of the day. They can’t get clean in their own home – there’s no bathroom – and Alice’s sleep is interrupted constantly by Kev’s rants.

Rob Burkinshaw created the experiment, called Alice and Kev, as an examination of game theory and a test of his in-game photography skills but it quickly morphed into one of the most heart-breaking stories I’ve read in a long time.

All adults in The Sims 3 have a lifetime wish. An ultimate goal that they want to achieve before the end of their life. Usually this is to reach the top of a particular career path, or become the best at a particular set of skills. When you create an adult Sim, you’re given a selection of lifetime wishes to choose from, which change depending on that Sim’s personality traits.

When I made Kev, choosing a lifetime wish was a little difficult. I knew that he was never going to be successful in a career, which meant that almost all of the options the game offered me weren’t going to be possible. The only lifetime wish available to him that I thought he could aspire towards while still remaining homeless was to become a ‘heartbreaker’. He wants to be the boyfriend of 10 different sims.

So while Alice is asleep on a bench somewhere, I send Kev to the park to try to find him some romance. However, due to either his inappropriate or insane trait, he turns up without his clothes.

We talked with Rob over email to ask him about the project.

CG: Tell me about yourself. Age, location, and area of study?

Rob: I’m 24 years old, and studying games design/development at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. Before that, I worked in childcare and playwork, including a lot of work with children with autism and special educational needs.

Tell me about the project? What was the inspiration?

It began simply as an unusual, more challenging way of playing the game. I took screenshots as I went, as virtual photography is something of a hobby of mine, and posted them at the Quarter to Three games forum in order to show my friends what I had been doing, and to encourage them to do the same. People liked it, and started asking me to move it somewhere more accessible so that they could link their friends to it, so I set it up with its own blog.

The idea for playing The Sims as a homeless person began with the challenges that people would come up with on forums for Sims 2 for different ways of playing the game. The most common was the ‘legacy challenge’, where people would try to play a single family through ten generations. Another was the ‘poverty challenge’ where you would start with a single sim, remove all of their money, and then try to build them up to be successful from there. You couldn’t actually survive like that in The Sims 2, so it was mostly just a very hard way of playing the game as you had to manage your tiny funds to build your sim a basic house as soon as possible. I liked the idea, though, and felt so sad for my little person as they struggled to survive those first few days without a home. I knew it was going to be one of the first things I tried when The Sims 3 came out, and it turned out to play very differently, as the new features of The Sims 3 actually allowed you to legitimately survive and play as a homeless person.

It wasn’t started as any kind of social commentary, or social experiment, but I guess part of the reason I found the idea of that way of playing interesting is that homelessness is something I think about. I’ve had some very interesting conversations with sellers of The Big Issue over the years I’ve been working and studying in Cambridge.

Is it all “real?” Did the characters really act this way?

I have been trying to tell what’s happened in my game with as little embellishment as possible. I’m not trying to write fan-fiction, and I think these kind of game diaries are a lot less interesting when they are. Everything that I say happens on the blog is something that has happened in the game. When I specify what the characters are saying, that’s how the game describes their actions, or that’s me interpreting the images from their speech bubbles. When I give a reason for a character’s action, it is either why I think the AI has chosen to do something, or it is why I am making a character do something. I just don’t often distinguish between the two in order to keep a consistent style.

Occasionally, I do step slightly outside the empirical facts to talk about what I feel the characters may be thinking or feeling. It’s so hard not to have thoughts about that due to the expressiveness of the characters, and that’s the ‘little embellishment’ that I mentioned.

To what do you attribute the reactions you saw? 
Were you reading into the reactions? Were they plain to see? 

I’m assuming you mean the reactions of the other characters in the game.

Alice is often taking liberties with the hospitalities of the other sims living in the neighborhood, which eventually provokes some angry responses. If she was able to befriend some of the neighbours, and ask permission before using their stuff, she would enjoy much more acceptance. But her situation is often so dire she doesn’t have the time to try to cultivate the friendships that would make their long-term situation easier. They have to meet their immediate needs, and anything that isn’t going to help with that straight away is a luxury.

What does this say about human nature, even simulated human nature?

I don’t feel at all qualified to speak on the relationship between human nature and homelessness, or think that the Sims 3 is actually detailed enough to model that.

Why is this important now? After all, MMORPGs give you real human interaction on a grand scale. Why simulate it?

While I am a huge fan of the potential of virtual worlds, I don’t think this kind of experimenting could be done in an online environment using other players. MMOs aren’t a recreation of life as The Sims is. Nobody is in danger of starvation, nobody is living a difficult life in a virtual world, and if you tried roleplaying it, you wouldn’t get genuine responses.

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