No visible friends

Screenshot anime Baby Steps

“It’s like they’re not even in the same dimension…” That’s why my friends are invisible friends, even when they are not imaginary friends.

The “Science of Happiness” MOOC (online course) from Berkeley continues to presuppose that its students are humans. This is by and large a reasonable assumption. But I just finished the second week on Tuesday and it still does not apply to me.

The new “happiness exercise” this week was Active Listening. In this, you sit down with a friend or loved one and “invite him or her to share what’s on his or her mind. As he or she does so, try to follow the steps below. You don’t need to cover every step, but the more you do cover, the more effective this practice is likely to be.”
1. Paraphrase.
2. Ask questions.
3. Express empathy.
4. Use engaged body language.
5. Avoid judgment.
6. Avoid giving advice.

Somehow I think my coworkers would freak out if I tried any of that. While one of them occasionally rants about colleagues, our relationship is not quite such that we sit down and go through his problems. More’s the pity, since I am a great listener, except for the body language which is more detached than you might want.

Coworkers is as close as I come these days. I only know a few who I work with regularly over a long time. I don’t have any other visible friends. I do have relatives, but we don’t see each other every year. All the rest of my friends are invisible friends, even those who happen to have a body at this time. In most cases, those bodies are in foreign countries and I have never seen them except in photos, sometimes not in photos either. I have had comrades of whom I did not know their fleshworld gender, age, skin color or citizenship. Some presented themselves as characters in an online roleplaying game. Some took on the features of vaguely humanoid animals (anthropomorphs). I haven’t really seen this as a problem.

I guess it makes sense for materialists to focus on the body, which is after all made of matter. But as for me, I cannot clearly remember a time when I mistook my body for my true self. I probably did when I was a toddler, but we are not supposed to remain toddlers. By the same tokens, it does not make sense for me to mistake my friends for bodies, which is one reason why I felt at home on the Internet pretty much from the start.

Between this and my Invisible Friend and family from Heaven, there hasn’t really been much motivation for me to seek out and try to befriend neighbors and random townies. But my sims do this. They also have a lot of options for conversation, although not quite the same list as above. Too bad, or I could have tested it on them. It would certainly be easier than testing them on myself. But you are probably a more normal human, perhaps you want to give it a try, if you don’t do this already?

Things don’t just happen

Screenshot Sims 4. Romance and family aspirations collide.

Babies don’t just happen. Well, for Don they do, but for Carola they are a life aspiration. Sometimes life happens to us, other times we happen to it. (Don’t worry, no babies happened at the Chaos Node! The picture is from Sims 4, where the imaginary people are more normal than me.)

The “Science of Happiness” course from Berkeley is not all theory: Each week they introduce an exercise that is known to increase happiness in most people. The first week we were told to write down, each day, three good things that happened to us, or that went well for us, that day.

I managed to get three such things the first day, with a little imagination, and for the next two days I was on the lookout for them through the day. But my conclusion was that this was counterproductive and meaningless to me. (It is probably a great idea for most people, and I don’t see any reason not to recommend it for my readers.)

In my case, however, I don’t often see the world as happening to me. Rather, I see myself as happening to the world. This is certainly not without exception, but it is usually what I focus on. There are of course a great many things that I have no influence on, but which have some degree of influence on me, such as weather or traffic. But they usually don’t influence my happiness. They don’t register as “good” or “bad”. If it rains, it is probably not direct sunshine at the same time, and I can read on my way to and from work. On the other hand, it means I get wet to some degree – my walk to get to work and back is half an hour each way, not counting the bus ride where I read (or not). Conversely if the sun shines, I am unlikely to get soaking wet, but also unlikely to get any reading done. So I do something else instead.

In other words: I simply alter my micro-behavior according to the circumstance. This is not really something that registers as “good” or “bad”, but as “action” on my part. It is part of my self-view that I am the subject rather than the object, I am the one that acts. I don’t usually assign responsibility to the world. I am responsible, where possible (although I may not always act like a responsible adult). The world is the canvas on which I paint my life.

It is only when the canvas is badly frayed that I assign it some part in the outcome. When something happens that threatens my ability to maneuver around it, like a potentially life-threatening or disabling illness, or if I ever experience serious crime or accident. These have not happened so far, by the unusual and extraordinary grace of the Light, despite my 55 years on this planet, which certainly is a good thing, but not usually something you write down every day. I mean, “Did not die today either, was not shot or stabbed today either, house did not burn down today either” are certainly a list of good things; but it does not really have the flavor that the exercise was aiming at.

When the road gets so bumpy that I can’t hold on, such as being rushed to hospital, I am unlikely to write it down the same day as a good thing. Years later, perhaps. But it takes about as much as that for me to notice the world happening to me, rather than I to it.

I explain this in the uncouth but memorable term that “shitting is part of eating”. When I choose to do something that has a range of likely outcomes, then any of those outcomes is a part of the original choice, even if their exact time and form is not known in advance. So you can’t eat and not expect a toilet visit at some future point. You can’t borrow and not expect to pay back with interest. You can’t go to bed late and not expect to be tired the next day. You can’t eat whatever you want and just sit still and expect to be in great shape for the foreseeable future.

Life has some randomness but it also has a lot of causality. There is little I can do about the randomness, so I leave that in the hands of Heaven for the most part (with the occasional request) and concentrate on the causal part, especially the part where I am the cause. When other people cause things, I tend to lump it with the “random” part, since everything I have learned implies that most humans have even less control of what they do than I have. And I certainly have my limitations, not just of the body but also of the mind. Make no mistake, the mind or personality (the psyche in psychology) is limited much as the body is. You can train them both and force them to some degree, but often you have to plan around their limitations or else accept them. Such is the life I live, it is focused on myself — yet not quite in the same way that most self-centered people are.

So how about you?

Not your kind of people

Screenshot Sims 4 - happy young sim using computer

Introverts won’t be cast as demons, creatures you despise. Except when trolling forums.

Today’s title is of course from the awesome song by Garbage. (Here on YouTube, although I have bought it on Google Music.) I have sometimes wondered if this would not be a good “national anthem” for Aspies (people with Aspergers syndrome, or more generally on the high-functioning part of autism spectrum). It certainly sound like it, although it is probably unintentional – it is hard to imagine Aspies going into the popular music career willingly. Anyway, I am only half Aspie. There is also religion, which I also clearly experience differently from most humans.

As I promised in my previous entry, I am going to say something about the MOOC (online university course) “The Science of Happiness” from Berkeley and the Greater Good Science Center. Ironically the title is the same as a book by Ryuho Okawa, the Japanese author who gradually has begun to think of himself as “God or Buddha”. I guess that is an occupational risk. Anyway, the book was better, at least in the regard that it did not bombastically declare that people need a lot of friends to be happy. Rather the record-breaking author and would-be god from Venus holds the same view that me, that happiness comes from within, or from Heaven, which isn’t really two different things in this regard.

In contrast, let us look at this semi-mandatory quiz that appears in week 2 of the university course. It starts with this “what the hell” inducing question:

When I feel lonely, there are several people offline that I can talk to.
I clicked “Strongly disagree”, but it is more than that. The whole question is off. When I feel lonely? Uhm, yeah, that’s been about 5 minutes, perhaps 10, over the years since I left my birth home at the age of 15, a bit over 40 years ago now. I won’t say categorically that I can’t be lonely if I am without human company (online of offline or simulated). Just that it is not a “when” in my life. To me the question reads approximately like “When I miss having a raccoon in my living room, there are several raccoons outside that I can let in.” Not that there is anything wrong with raccoons, some of my best friends (online) self-identify as raccoons. And there is Rocket Raccoon … but back to our narrative.

The rest of the quiz is not quite as bad, but it certainly seems to presuppose that much of your “self” does not reside in your own head but is distributed across a wide range of other humans, who help you make decisions, solve your problems and influence what you are interested in. Unfortunately this seems to be an apt description of humans. Obviously when you are small, this must necessarily and literally be true. As a toddler you cannot understand yourself. But we aren’t supposed to remain toddlers.

The course goes into the idea that our evolutionary history explains the “hypersocial” nature of humans. The helpless infants and long childhood made it necessary to have strong family ties, close friendships and many connections to the rest of the tribe in order to successfully bring children up to become adults in their own right. We are not like sheep, who only need to eat and hide in the pack in order to grow up and make more sheep who grow up and make more sheep. Making a human is a whole adventure and it takes a village, as socialists like to say. (Conservatives think that it takes a family, which in my experience certainly doesn’t hurt. Well, I suppose if is a really evil family, the village is preferable.)

It is weird how people say the appendix is a relic of our evolutionary past and want to remove it, but when hypersociality (hypersocialism?) is a relic of our evolutionary past, they want to make it mandatory. At least the appendix doesn’t hurt unless it is inflamed. Loneliness hurts day and night, from what I heard. Shouldn’t they funnel research into how to make people more autistic? For now, the only known method is to make the next generation more autistic by having kids with an autist. Not that I am volunteering or anything, I am only half Aspie after all.

But as I said, this is not simply a matter of genes. It would be cool if Aspies are the new breed of man, Homo Superior, which is set to replace the primitive Homo Sapiens the way these replaced their grunting ancestors. A beautiful narrative. But it seems far-fetched that the Buddha, Lao-Tzu, and the innumerable saints and sages of the great world religions were all Aspies. They were filled with happiness even during prolonged solitude, and even in adversity where those around them resisted their message and responded with anger, threats and outright violence. Clearly it was not their friendships and social network that carried them through these times, unless you count their Invisible Friends.

It takes a lot of friends on Earth to substitute for one Friend in Heaven.

So being surrounded by family and friends can make people happy, but being alone can also make people happy. I sometimes say that “Evolutionary Psychology is the science of explaining why whatever is popular in the USA this decade is the natural state of humans and the rest of the world has got it wrong”, or words to that effect. And Americans are extraordinarily extroverted by most measures. It is not a country known for its monasteries, exactly. And not really for its happiness either. I mean, sure, compared to the developing world. But on a “happiness per dollar” scale, they fare very poorly indeed. Perhaps a little more peace and quiet would do them good.

Sims 4: More human than me?

Screenshot sims 4, two sims playing chess and talking

I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing.

Since the original “The Sims” game in 2000, the little computer people have become more and more like normal humans. With me, however, it seems to be the other way around. This fall it seems that they have become more human than I, in some ways.

Obviously I don’t mean the body. Mine is still flesh and blood, while theirs is pixels on the screen. What I talk about is how well they emulate human behavior, whereas I have my own style that is pretty unusual in some ways where the sims are not.

Specifically, this is about social interactions, social needs, even social wants. As mentioned before, the sims now have a lot of social interactions and they love to use them. Even a sim with the Loner trait rolls around a fourth of his wants about social interactions, like talk to someone, tell a joke, compliment someone, practice talking, use a pick-up line (!) and more. Strangely, these wants cannot be satisfied over the Internet, so the sims need to actually go out (or have others come over) to fulfill their wants.

The social need is borked, if I may say so. In The Sims 3, Loner sims would experience their social need meter go down fairly slowly. Eventually it would go in the red, but it would take its sweet time. This may be simply lazy coding, but in The Sims 4 the meter goes down seemingly as fast as for everyone else, it is just that they don’t suffer any negative effects of it, quite the opposite. But the meter still takes on the orange and eventually red color of impending desperation, and a quick look at the screen will make it seem like the Sim is in danger. Only when you look more closely you see that it is just the social need that is bottoming out.

Of course, I have had this problem with my journal too. When I innocently mention that I don’t have any friends except invisible friends, people get worried as if I was about to jump from the nearest bridge, while I feel quite happy this way. Even when I mention that my last kiss was some 30 years ago (and even that was rather a surprise) people worry about me. Now if they were just worrying about my genes, I would understand it, for they are overall pretty amazing genes. It would almost be too bad to dilute them. Someone should deep freeze some of my blood so I can be cloned when that becomes more trivial. Unfortunately, genes don’t guarantee the same personality, as you can see with identical twins:  Identical twins that grow up together are more different than identical twins that grow up apart. (In the real world, that is. I haven’t tried that in the game yet.)

There is another reason this is on my mind: A MOOC (massive open online course) from BerkeleyX, the electronic arm of Berkeley University, distributed through the EdX platform. Yes, I am MOOCing this year again, and more successfully. But anyway, The Science of Happiness spends an inordinate amount of time elaborating and belaboring how absolutely necessary a rich social life is for human happiness. And I am like WTH you people, but then I think to myself: At least this may be useful for playing The Sims 4, if nothing else.  Actually I guess both the course and The Sims 4 may be useful for understanding ordinary humans, of which I am clearly not one. More about that next time, probably.

Sims 4: Easier and harder

Screenshot Sims 4 - two sims in deep conversation.

The sims are not only more emotional now, they are also more social. There are easily a hundred different social interactions to choose from, and almost every skill, job or hobby adds to the list.

Compared to its predecessors, The Sims 4 is both easier and harder, simpler and more complicated.

It is very easy and simple for those who just want a “human fishbowl”. You can start playing some of the existing families, or roll random characters, or download some of the thousands of sims that are shared on the Net. Put them in a pre-made house, or put together a house from pre-made rooms, then let them take care of themselves. The sims are more intelligent, and they have gotten better at multitasking. They can mostly take care of themselves, even more so than in The Sims 3. I’ve seen a social type sim got out of the house and start chatting up neighbors while I was doing something else, and they are able to hold down a job. They still have trouble with broken equipment, though. But apart from that, there is a good chance that you can go to work and still find your sims alive and well when you come home.

It is easy to get started, and there is very little that you as a player need to decide or meddle in unless you want. But chances are that you *do* want to meddle, rather than just watch “unreality TV” with imaginary people. And this is where it starts getting complicated.

Most things are just more detailed. This detail is optional. If you just want to get started, you can ignore it. But if you have the time, you can go into ridiculous detail when designing your sim, from the shape of the eyes and nose to picking half a dozen sets of everyday clothes that your sims will choose from when they get dressed in the morning. (You can also have several pajamas, party clothes, swimwear etc, with matching accessories.) The only notable exception is the ability to color every object in a unique pattern of self-made colors, which supposedly filled up the save files like whoa in the Sims 3. You still have various colors and patterns to choose from, but can’t create your own.

Once your sims move in, the rapid growth of options continues. Even without any expansion packs, the social interactions have multiplied in the extreme. Increasing the charisma skill unlocks new options, but there is also a separate comedy skill that gives you more jokes and funny stories to tell. (So instead of “tell joke” you have “tell joke about penguins”, “tell joke about fashion”, “tell knock knock joke” etc.) There is even a pranking skill that lets you expand your ranks of pranks to play on other sims, if you are that kind of evil, detestable person. In addition there are interactions that are unlocked when the sim is in a particular mood, and there are a whole rainbow of such different emotions. Even choosing just the Friendly interaction menu gives several pages of possible interactions between two sims, in the base game without any expansions, and that’s before I have maxed any of the social skills.

Other skills have also got an excess of optional detail. Take painting, for instance. There are now a wealth of different styles to choose from, increasing as the painting skill goes up. Abstract, realistic, pop-art, impressionist, classic. Some emotions also have corresponding painting styles, like “confident painting” or “playful painting”. Paintings in these styles can only be started while in the corresponding mood, and contain a mood aura which can be activated after the painting is finished, and will influence nearby sims with the same emotion. So if you know that you will need to be confident at some point in the future, make sure to start making confident paintings at any time you feel confident, so that you can put them up in the house and activate their confident aura the day you need it.

Or you could write a self-help book, if you have a fit of confidence and sufficient writing skills. Reading the self-help book will make a sim confident for a few hours, then it fades. I appreciate the realism in this. ^_^ (Regular readers may know what I feel about self-help books: Given how many there are of them, and how well they sell, we would expect to live our lives surrounded by weakly godlike superintelligences. That is pretty far from the truth. But that they can make people feel confident for the duration of a short date, I suppose that could happen. It seems to work for the sims, at least unless they accidentally fall under the sway of a different emotion such as getting angry by getting chewed out by a bitching bystander.)

The complexity just continues over the top. Maxing your cooking skill is faster than it was in The Sims 3, but there is now a separate Gourmet cooking skill that is unlocked a ways up the ordinary skill, and that is needed for the more advanced culinary endeavors. I am honestly not sure where that idea come from, but you can now be a master of making ordinary meals and a total noob at gourmet cooking.

Computer gaming is serious business, as one might expect from Electronic Arts. Gaming is now a skill that you level up through practice, either on your computer or FlatPad (tablet) or smartphone. You unlock more games as you level up your gaming skills, but you also unlock conversation topics. This is the case for other skills as well. Sims who may seem strikingly different in other ways, like a lazy snob and an athletic outdoors lover, may bond over their elite gaming skills or their love of the violin.

Some of the skills are associated with a career. The number of careers seems somewhat limited, but bear in mind that each of them now has two different branches that you have to choose from halfway through your career. Acing your career has become much harder: In The Sims 3, you basically just had to improve the associated skills. Now you have to do that, but you also have to do various job-related tasks at home.

For instance starting in the culinary career as a dishwasher, you have to wash dishes at home as well a few times for practice. Then for the next step you must improve your mixology (drink making) skill to 2. Next you must make an outstanding grilled cheese sandwich. This is a tricky one, and you’ll find something similar in other careers, like paint a brilliant painting. The thing is, there is no choice to “make an outstanding sandwich”. You have to grill sandwiches until you make an outstanding one. The quality of your food depends on your skill level, your mood, your experience with that particular dish, your kitchen equipment, and a random element of luck. Maybe you can get it right the first time, perhaps it takes ten times.

In The Sims 3, everyone could reach the top of their career if they improved their skills and went to work regularly. Now it has become something you achieve if your life revolves around it. Chances are you will retire without reaching the top, if you try to have an active social life, or a large family, or a couple unrelated hobbies. This is more realistic, of course. We aren’t all bosses (and some of us are quite happy with that). But I am sure some long-time Sims players will feel frustrated.

And that is the problem with The Sims 4. It is amazing, but it is also somewhat frustrating. The learning curve is not steep, but it is very long. For those of us who were masters of the earlier games and felt in control of them, the jungle of options seems entirely too dense. I cannot imagine how it must look to someone who has never seen a plumbob before. In one way this wealth of options is a benefit, because people won’t quickly put it aside as “finished this game, on to the next”. But in my experience it requires the player to stop from time to time and relax. Tell yourself “Hey, it is just a game.”  But with the sims becoming as lifelike and complex as they are now, this is harder than ever.


Sims 4: The Sims get emotional

Screenshot Sims 4 - female sim outside

But we still got plumbbobs!

For 14 years, the “sims” – the small computer people invented by Will Wright at Maxis – have been the more or less constant companions of me and many others around the world. At a time when computer games was seen as a boy thing, girls and grownups embraced the ever more complex life simulation that was The Sims, The Sims 2 and The Sims 3, each of them adding more content with a stack of expansion packs as well. It did not surprise anyone that there  would be a Sims 4. It did not surprise anyone that the base game – the starter pack, if you will – would lack much of the content from the previous games. But gamers have grown a bit cynical about this over time, and with the announcement that the game would not have toddlers, a wave of disdain washed over the Net.

There are no toddlers in The Sims 4. The open town from Sims 3 is also a thing of the past – now you once again get load screens if you travel to community lots or visit other sims, although you have a block of up to 3-4 houses (depending on size) that are always loaded like your home lot. On that note, it seems that the “story progression” has also bitten the dust, the engine that kept the rest of the town living some semblance of a normal life, marrying and having children before growing old and dying. At a glance, it seems as if the game is shrinking, except for the price. And of course there are a bunch of bugs. The reviews have been less positive than at any other point in the series’ history.

I, on the other hand, am quite impressed. To me there seems to be a relentless progress in the underlying direction of the game series: To portray human life in as much detail as the current generation of computers can handle.

This time, the sims have been given emotions. They were not entirely without them before, at least indirectly: Your sims could make enemies, have a nervous breakdown, or enter “platinum mood” where they functioned at peak efficiency, more so than usual. But now there are a list of emotions to literally color their lives. (The various emotions are color coded, such as pink for romance and red for anger. Perhaps in order to map the moods onto colors already associated with them, the spectrum is not evenly populated.)

You can see the dominant color of a sim at a glance, but their portraits are also more expressive and give a fairly realistic facial expression and stance for the mood they are in. The emotions are not simply for decoration: They influence what sims can do, and how well they can do it. Social interactions tend to go down the drain when sims are angry, and this emotion tends to spread in a group because people who get insulted or shouted at take it out on others again. On the other hand, the romantic mood opens a bunch of new interactions and lends more powers to romantic options that are open more widely. Confidence also stands out as opening a fairly wide range of interactions. Some colors will improve your sims ability to learn the corresponding skills – the “focused” emotion is pretty much all about this, and is quite valuable for learning logic and programming but not for socializing. Aspies are going to feel at home in this one.

The sims have two “whims” at any one time. These are wishes that follow from their life aspiration and personality traits, or from skills they have acquired. If your sim has started getting the hang of cooking, they will start rolling whims to make food, to make group servings, and eventually to make specific dishes. But there is also a third whim, which deserves its name even better. It is only active when your sim has an emotion, and only for the duration of that emotion. If a different emotion breaks through – for instance because of some bodily discomfort – the whim is forgotten, and any effort toward fulfilling it will not give any perk points. (Fulfilling whims accumulates points that can give sims some pretty powerful benefits if you save up long enough, including some degree of rejuvenation.)

In addition to the whims, there are now separate requirements to fulfill for your sim’s lifetime aspiration. You level up toward this by doing related tasks, which may or may not also be whims, usually not. A similar system applies to jobs: In order to advance, you need to fulfill certain requirements on your free time. While most of them can be gained reliably, there are some that require luck so you will have to just keep trying till you get it. While positive emotions improve your chances of a good outcome, they are not enough and not strictly required.

One amusing detail is that emotions have a fairly strong influence on your sims’ stance and how they walk. You can set a default walk, but emotions tend to overrule it.

Not only the emotions of the sims have become more detailed, their bodies are also slightly more realistic and easier to shape in the create-a-sim module. You can zoom in and drag or push details like eye shape or ear size. Unfortunately I am too left-brained to benefit much from this, although I have learned to use the brand new butt slider. Strangely, the sims don’t react to this at all, and not to the breast slider either, which is inherited from one of the Sims 3 expansion packs. Oh well, perhaps in Sims 5 they will notice! It should be out around 2019.