Humans as sims

Grumpy child from Sims 3

Here to talk smack about us sims again? We’re just as good as other people, you know!

By now, a few expansions and patches into Sims 3, the little computer people are disturbingly lifelike in their behavior. Or rather, and this is my point, humans are disturbingly sims-like in their behavior.

I hold the view that ordinary humans are barely conscious most of the time. Instead, their behavior (including their thoughts) can largely be described by two “engines” that work together: HABIT  and IMPULSE.

The skeleton of a normal human life is the habit engine. It is itself not conscious: We don’t give any thought to whether we are going to get up in the morning – well, most of us don’t – or whether we are going to get dressed before going to work. We have large, overarching habits that gives us a structure for the day, and which again triggers smaller routines of habit to accomplish subgoals like buttoning shirts or tying shoelaces. In other words, we have a habit of stringing together habits in a certain sequence. This fills a good part of our day. As we get older, habits tend to grow stronger and fill ever more of the time.

The other engine is what I call the impulse engine. For fellow programmers, you may have thought of it as triggering an exception. One reason for such an impulse could be that a need has reached a trigger level: Hunger, thirst, excretion, attention. Usually a trigger event occurs well before critical levels are reached, although some needs have shorter fuses than others, so to speak. But in many (most?) cases the basic needs are already taken care of by our habits.

But the impulse engine is not triggered just by internal needs. It is also triggered by external objects. Seeing a bowl of snacks can trigger snacking, although I am not sure where the border goes to habit in that case. Seeing a sexy woman can definitely cause a trigger event in a man. Seeing a baby can trigger most women and many fathers, although most childless men consider babies part of the furniture unless the thing screams or stinks. And of course the whole business of advertising is based on triggering impulses. Of course, if you do that often enough and in the right context, it can eventually lead to a habit.

Both the habit and impulse engine are reasonably well modeled in The Sims 3. The little electronic people have a disturbingly human-like electronic mind. What they don’t have is a human soul (in the classical sense) or human spirit. This has to be provided by the player.

“Great souls have wills; feeble ones have only wishes” says a famous Chinese proverb. In that light, sims are exceedingly feeble: Without the support of their player, they will achieve their goals purely by accident, and higher goals (like reaching the top of a career or maximizing several skills) not at all. They will however be able to stay alive, employed and reasonably satisfied about their needs, and even reproduce and raise (usually crazy, neurotic, grumpy or hot-headed) children.  From what I hear, they are not very different from Texans.

The purpose of religious ritual, like keeping the Sabbath or saying grace, is to interrupt the automatic working of the twin engines of habit and impulse, and give the soul a bit of “space” in which it has the chance to wake up for a moment and become aware. It tries, like this blog, to make people suddenly sit up and think: “I am right here, right now. This is it. I am alive!”

I may not have mentioned it on this blog, but I have noticed that the median weight of Norwegians has increased steadily after saying grace went completely out of fashion here during my childhood and youth. Of course, there are numerous other factors like the size of dinner plates and the widespread use of cars. But still… if you woke up each time you sat down to eat, and became acutely aware of who you were and what you were doing, would it change nothing?

Sims never say grace. But even if they did, it would just be another habit.

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