SimSavvy Girls: Not Just Playing with Dolls

Elisabeth Hayes, Elizabeth King, Barbara Johnson, Jewel, Samantha, Bronte, Carrisa

While The Sims series is consistently among the top-selling computer games in national rankings, these games have received relatively little attention from game scholars and educators. This may be due to stereotypes of The Sims as a “girl game,” beliefs that The Sims is not a “real” game (because of its open-ended design and emphasis on player production), or simply lack of knowledge about the game’s features and its potential for supporting complex and sophisticated learning. A common conception, reinforced by the media in articles such as one that appeared in The New York Times (“Welcome to the New Dollhouse”, May 2006), is that The Sims is primarily a space in which young girls “play house” with digital dolls. Girls do indeed play The Sims in considerable numbers, but their game play is far from simply a rehearsal for home management. The Sims offers an incredibly complex and sophisticated array of digital tools and content, as well as a vibrant online community, that support the production of a seemingly endless variety of digital scenarios, storylines, environments, and artifacts. Rather than simply inculcating the values of a consumerist society among its players, as some critics have argued, the game often serves as a site for girls (and boys, as well as adults) to engage in transgressive play, challenging societal norms for everything from gender roles to the design of college campuses. In addition, The Sims, because of its varied design tools and compatibility with other software, can serve as a starting point for young people’s development of fluency with various aspects of computer technology — a point of particular significance for educators concerned with engaging more girls in computer science-related education and occupations.

Four middle school age girls will be the lead presenters/facilitators for this Chat ’n’ Frag session, with the support of three adult women. All of the session facilitators have been participating in an ongoing “SimSavvy” group, which has been meeting weekly or biweekly since January 2007. The girls will demonstrate how they have used The Sims in often unexpectedly creative, productive, and subversive ways; for example, constructing factories staffed with captive labor, replicating scenes from the Harry Potter series, figuring out how to make buildings “float,” and using cheat codes to bypass the overt rules of the game and thus modify the game for their own purposes. Through this demonstration, we will introduce participants to the wide range of tools and resources available for production in The Sims and discuss how game play within and around The Sims can be used to support IT fluency, including understanding IT concepts and applications, as well as engagement in complex problem-solving, acquisition of specialist language, design knowledge, and ability to engage in social practices associated with an IT-based community. The session will include opportunities for participants to experiment with The Sims (we will have several laptops with the software) and share their own experiences, as well as interact with the session facilitators.

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