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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Will Wright

Will Wright and his "self-Sim."
It's no secret (except, perhaps, among painters) that the "cutting edge" of art has little to do with brushes, paint, art galleries, one-man shows, or even weird conceptual installations having nothing more profound to say than "If you don't understand this, you're stupid." If you don't recognize the name Will Wright, you are probably not "cutting edge." Will Wright has won a lot of awards, made a ton of money, co-founded a company, and practically invented a whole new art form--simulation gaming. His first big hit you've probably heard of. It was Sim City in 1989, followed by Sim Earth in 1990 and Sim Ant,  (1991), Sim City 2000 (1993), Sim Copter (1996) and connoisseurs of his art eagerly await a second coming of Sim City in March, 2013. And while you may be aware of these titles, most people (except for gamers) seldom think of them as art.
Wright's first, Bungeling Bay,
a helicopter simulation.
Will Wright was born in 1960 in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from high school at the tender age of 16, then moved on to a succession of universities over the next five years. And like Microsoft's Bill Gates, he never manage to nab a diploma with his name on it. His studies included architecture, economics, mechanical engineering, sociology, and military history, though his overriding talent seemed to be in computer programing. His first game Raid on Bungeling Bay (1984), was written for the pioneering Commodore-64 (my first computer). Unable to find a publisher for his first draft of Sim City, he instead found a partner, an investor named Jeff Braun. Together they founded Maxis, now a subsidiary of Electronic Arts (EA).
Sim City, used by those teaching
urban planning  and civic

If Will Wright's fame as an artist rested solely on Sim City and its sequence of permutations, then Wright, would be little more than a footnote in last year's GOP presidential debate circus. (Remember Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax proposal ala Sim City?) However, almost from the beginning, Wright had bigger, more complex ideas, waiting only for the science of computer technology and programming as well as his own know-how in both areas to catch up. He wanted to create a "virtual dollhouse." His own board of directors nearly laughed him out of the room. EA, (by then a the owner of Maxis) was more sympathetic, though only slightly. Wright's "doll house" became The Sims, released in 2000, which broke down the old gender barrier maxim, "only boys play computer games." In quantum leaps, Sims 2 followed in 2004, Sims 3 in 2009. Hoping for a lucrative franchise, EA got their wish. The series set a gaming record, selling over 150 million copies worldwide, in dozens of languages. At around $40 a pop...well, you can probably do the eye-popping math better than I.
One of my own Sims 3 landscapes, painting with pixels, but so much more.
What makes the Sims series art as opposed to merely a highly successful gaming franchise? First of all, like all good art, it is dazzling in its beauty (especially Sims 3). The graphics are spectacular. Unlike its macho "shoot-em-up" cousins, with the Sims, there are no winners or losers. Although the Sims live and die, their masters (the players) do not. Some have likened the Sims to a soap opera where the player is creator, casting director, set designer, costume designer, special effects coordinator, lighting engineer, writer, and director all in one (even an actor if he or she so desires)-- Woody Allen with a mouse, so to speak. Can even the best genre painter come anywhere close to that?
Unique Sims 3 environment and my architectural "solution."
Will Wright makes the rules and provides the tools.
What I've always enjoyed most about the Sims (I've been a player since 2005) is the architectural elements, the original doll house features around which Wright first crafted his work of art. Being an amateur architect at heart, I love the fact that the Sims utilizes the best CAD features in a 3-D mode to create virtual structures (usually houses) from the structural engineering down to the color of the towels in the bathroom. Being a portrait artist, I also love playing God, creating virtual human beings and their pets of literally any age, shape, or color (from gorgeous to gruesome). These are the features which seem to attract male players. Girls like these features too (especially the interior design functions), but mostly, they traditionally like playing with dolls. Believe me, Barbie can't hold a candle to Will Wright's Sims.

Sims 3 "Create a Sim" screenshot, capable even of self-portraits, including clothes, hairstyles, personality traits, and aspirations.
Perhaps the greatest accolade that can be laid upon an artist is that he or she has legitimately broadened the very definition of art. Picasso did so.  Marcel Duchamp, D.W. Griffith, Andy Warhol, and a very few others have too. As the 21st century dawns in the art history books, Will Wright has joined that list.

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