See the work on exhibit at PSLarcology.xyz
I originally disclosed my increasing theoretical and artistic interest in building in the Sims in a now somewhat infamous confessional-cum-design-manifesto for the Dirt Substack. Dirt is unique in that it funds its authors via NFTs of editions. It was natural to me to think of my Sims builds and their stories as art in the NFT space because of their innately liminal ontology. They are real architectural spaces and real worlds to the viewer—but they aren’t physically instantiated in our own world, so the non-fungible nature of the token lends itself to the medium’s ontological status.
The Sims 4, in which I build the structures and worlds central to my work, in many ways embodies the peak pre-"late capitalist" suburban aesthetic of the early 2000s, before the financial crash. The game is structured to facilitate building largely residential, private family homes, and to incentivize filling them with in-game possessions that increase in price and desirability as a Sim makes more income through fame or salary.
What I enjoy most about the Sims 4 is using it explicitly contrary to this purpose. I design against the grain of the game’s built-in assumptions about what architecture should be. While much digital work in socially mediated gamespaces (including my own) is indebted both to the exhibition practices and media theory writing of Hito Steyerl, my work is in some ways best compared to the Drawing Restraint series of performances by Matthew Barney. In this series, Barney, who began his practice while also a student-athlete at Yale, creates various physical obstacles that hold his body back from mark-making, including literal restraints, obstacle courses, and difficult substances. What I enjoy about the Sims 4 as a medium is precisely this sense of constraint.
As an artist, to come to the Sims gamespace as a medium initially surprised me. My background is in art history, in which I have a doctorate, and I often write literary-critical essays about architecture in particular, so my interest in buildings and their textual frames was long-established.
The classic reference one typically uses for the Sims—which was included in a MoMA retrospective on Applied Design as a whole game in 2013—is Baudrillard on simulacra and simulation. But my perspective on the Sims is not particularly rooted in Baudrillard, but rather in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and in Bourdieu’s work on ‘conspicuous consumption’ and the work buying and displaying objects does in defining the self under capitalism.
I originally used the Sims 4 to think through theoretical issues in my academic writing about English Baroque and Japanese Metabolist architecture. During the pandemic, I became serious about building in the game as craft, and started to create increasingly complex that became immersive world experiences without ever playing the game in ‘Live’ mode.
The game is very limited as a design tool compared to typical purpose-built professional software like AutoCAD or Revit—it doesn’t even allow for curved walls. It has a strictly fixed number of in-game assets that can be placed in a build, and hacking and reconfiguring these assets to make “new” objects that don’t already exist in-game is an essential part of my process. So too is using the game’s footprint restrictions on how Sims can use and interact with objects. My rules, or restraints, for myself, include that the build must be technically playable in the games ‘Live’ life simulation mode, that I do not use mods or import custom content to increase the number of build assets, and that I build any given story-world/structure within the bounds of a single in-game lot, which are limited to four floors in height. I tie my hands to make more interesting fictive worlds
FUNDING AND FUTURE WORK
The PSL Arcology is designed to be an early work that starts to test the limits of using the Sims as a medium for architecture as storytelling. It inspired its own story text as I built it, with the in-game constraints shaping what was possible to narrate and describe.
In the Pumpkin Spice Launch Arcology Build in particular, there are no exteriors and no windows—a structure of this scale simply renders horribly in the game’s exterior view—so stacking display objects to convey stories and experiences in a glance, like the flâneur passing the arcade in Benjamin’s 19th Century Paris, became increasingly important to me. I hope to build more structures in the future that exploit the game’s exteriors and landscaping tools, as well as intimate single rooms and tiny houses, to which I can add even more granular detail, and in turn, frame texts that reflect my ongoing literary interests in speculative world-building and formal experimentation, from Borges and Calvino to Le Guin and Delany. Eventually, I would also like to explore other restricted in-game building modes to combine with text frames, including historic legacy software for design and urban planning from the 90’s.
Funding from the Pumpkin Spice Arcology sales will launch an extensive research-and-visit-based project to push the experience of my born digital spaces into lasting works that impact viewers’ everyday experience of their own physical spaces. Through the manipulation of the built environment in the Sims as an intentionally restricted medium — and through its extended, creatively attuned ekphrastic description — my intention above all is to create a world for viewers to enjoy, explore, and engage with challenges.