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The Sims 3 may not have a built-in narrative, but gaming diary Alex and Kev shows just how thought-provoking, and sometimes gut-wrenching, the "god game" can be, writes Gamasutra correspondent Lewis Denby.

Lewis Denby, Blogger

November 2, 2009

7 Min Read

[The Sims 3 may not have a built-in narrative, but Robin Burkinshaw's gaming diary Alex and Kev shows just how thought-provoking, and sometimes gut-wrenching, the "god game" can be, writes Gamasutra correspondent Lewis Denby.] When I started my column earlier in the year, I had a solid idea of the sort of thing I wanted to write about. So often is the gaming press focused on picking apart and observing the mechanical specifics of a product that, frequently, the very nature of the experience gets lost in communication. And that's a shame because, at their very core, video games are about giving in to infinite possibilities, letting go and allowing yourself the pleasure of intense human reaction. I assumed I'd be talking about plenty of games. I didn't expect to be talking in any great length about a piece of writing about games. But Robin Burkinshaw's Alice and Kev is one of the few accounts of a gaming experience that wholly captures that magic, and demonstrates just how intense people's reactions to video games can be. Alice and Kev is Burkinshaw's online diary of his time playing The Sims 3, during which he guided a homeless man and his daughter through the various stages of their lives. It's at once poignant, hilarious and disturbing, and it just recently finished. It was an ambitious project for Burkinshaw, who originally updated the blog daily but, by the end, simply couldn't keep up that momentum. Still, he didn't need to. By that point, the story already contained a vast number of chapters, and new readers were arriving every day. "While there are quite a few gaming diaries like this about people's experiences playing a game, I think the reason this one has spread so widely is chiefly down to its subject matter," says Burkinshaw. "The Sims 3 is the only big budget game that is all about people and relationships, rather than some kind of fantasy or science fiction. It's the only game I can think of where its happenings are recognizable to just about anyone." What's most striking about Alice and Kev is the humanity displayed by the pair of digital creations. The Sims 3 allows players to define various traits in their characters, and guide them to various degrees as they plod along with their lives, however mundane or exciting they might be. Alice and Kev was indeed guided to some extent. But its brilliance emerges during those times when Burkinshaw lets go of the controls somewhat, and allowed the pair's relationships to develop of their own accord, based on the character traits he had assigned at the start of the game. "I was playing the game, but not the obsessive levels of efficiency I might do normally," says Burkinshaw. "I was trying to help and guide them, but I also wanted to see the effect of the personality traits I chose for them. So if they started to do something on their own, I would let them finish, even if I was about to command them to do something else. Sometimes I would guide them towards a situation, then let them take care of the details. Other times, they would set something in motion, then I would start giving commands to carry things on along the same lines." Feeling Charitable Perhaps the most remarkable point in the story sees a teenage Alice, who for the first time in her life has a few meager coins thanks to a dismal part-time job, begins selflessly donating her wage to charity. On the Alice and Kev blog, Burkinshaw discussed how this development -- one orchestrated by the character herself -- forced him to re-assess his own, real-world actions. "I said that seeing Alice give away everything when she had nothing made me examine my own life, and that's true," he says, looking back. "I can know the underlying logic that led to the game making her wish to give to charity, but seeing the little character I have been caring for give the appearance of acting so selflessly is still enough to make me stop and think about how I'm using my own life." Indeed, it's moments like this that show games like The Sims 3 in a whole new light. No longer are they merely pieces of entertainment, driven by the masses' obsession with reality television and playing God. They are, potentially, windows into our own psyche: important creations that lead us to question our own ethics and encourage deep, sensitive thought. Burkinshaw even went as far as using the blog to encourage readers to make charitable donations. Though reluctant to speculate too heavily on the effects that may have had, his statistics show an encouraging trend. "I know from my web stats page that about 15,000 people clicked on the link to the 'charities' page on the blog. I know that when I put the link to the donation page for the 'Homeless Truths' radio station run by homeless people, there were over a hundred pounds of donations made over the next few hours. "The blog wasn't begun as a project to raise awareness of homelessness, but I will be very glad if it has that effect. It's certainly made a difference for me, at the very least." "I have learned a lot about homelessness since starting this, from the comments on the blog, from people that have emailed me, and from the charities that have contacted me. I've learned the places where the lives of Alice and Kev hit upon things that are true, but also the perhaps more depressing instances where things would probably have been worse for them in the real world." Gaming Growth Aside from such fantastic, unexpected results, the passion with which readers have followed and responded to the Alice and Kev blog is simply astounding. A number of readers initially assumed the story to be a comic piece, but quickly, it became apparent that Burkinshaw was telling an ultimately serious story. It has its gloriously amusing moments, but at heart, this is a tragic tale. One reader, just a day into the story, commented: "This is already soul-wrenching." Towards the end, after a particularly moving incident, another reader claimed to be "honestly upset" by the story's latest development. "I can’t believe it," they added. By this point, an abundance of readers from around the globe were analyzing the characters of Alice and Kev, and discussing the reasons why their lives may have turned out this way. Video games have grown to astonishing degrees since their inception decades ago. A medium that started out as fun, few-minute diversion has sprinted through a variety of guises, and today, the range of titles that offer something more than pure entertainment is staggering. The general gaming public still tend to flock towards the epic blockbusters, the games that offer spectacular action sequences and brutal gunplay, or those that stick more rigidly to gaming's initial formula. Many assume that, for a deeper playing experience, it's worth looking exclusively to the independent studios who can express themselves without worrying about making several million dollars in return. But the awesome popularity of Alice and Kev, the stories Burkinshaw managed to tell, and the ways in which The Sims 3 adapted so fantastically to his thought-provoking storytelling speak wonders. This is a hugely commercial game, the latest in the third best selling interactive franchise of all time. That such a popular piece of entertainment, not usually considered as a deep and meaningful storytelling device, can still influence and affect people so profoundly -- while still entertaining millions on a more typical basis - is a truly wonderful thing. The Sims 3 was his canvas. But however large a role the game itself played, and whatever his original intentions, Robin Burkinshaw should be exceptionally proud of his work. [Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Wander over to his website for a blog, more information and contact details.]

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