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Fate And Agency: Rod Humble On The Sims 3

Does he have more choice than you?

During EA’s E3 press conference last night there was one moment that was by far the most extraordinary of the evening. Rod Humble, the man in charge of the Sims, came out and began to lecture on free will. The corporate reason for this was the announcement that The Sims 3 is to come out on consoles this Autumn – not something we need to concern ourselves with, unless the changes and improvements of the console version are not also updated into the PC version. But that’s a concern for another time. Because as far as we’re concerned, this was a glorious moment of sunshine amongst the usual pomp and explosions of a gaming press junket. You can watch it below.

Humble’s entrance is magnificent. Rather than jogging out, pumped, and working up the crowd, he shuffles out, stands still, head bowed, and scratches his hair. Finally he speaks:

“Did we have any choice in being here today? Or was it pre-determined since the beginning of the universe that all of us would be here today, in this theatre, thinking these exact same thoughts? In short, do we have any free will at all? In the Western tradition, Greek myth and literature examines this subject to great depth. It’s a subject of fate and agency. And what I love about the Greek gods is they’re not smarter than us, and they’re not wiser, and they’re certainly not more emotionally balanced; they’re just more powerful.”

Silence from the audience.

Humble goes on to argue that in The Sims 3 they’ve created an artificial free will – an unpredictable pattern of behaviours that play out according to myriad circumstances. “Unexpected emergent results.” In fact, in mentioning the experiments of Benjamin Libet (that our unconscious brain appears to prepare to act before our conscious brain chooses to act), Humble postulates that Sims may in fact have more free will than we do. (There’s great stuff about this in RadioLab’s discussions from their Choice and Beyond Time episodes. The former is at the bottom of the post – the latter, directly relevant to Libet’s work, sadly is not embeddable.)

The consequence of all this is my realising I’ve never taken Sims 3 seriously enough, despite protestations from my colleagues. See if it works for you:

What a fantastic moment. I especially love the near complete lack of applause at the end, the audience presumably a little surprised by what happened. Humble is a hero.

Here’s the RadioLab clip about free will. For the Libet material, head here and skip to minute 38.

Big props to BuckSexington for tweeting the Humble clip.

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John Walker

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One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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