The Sims is a series of whimsical life simulators where you govern the daily lives of the members of a household: you tend to their needs (such as eating, sleeping, going to the toilet, having company, and so on) as well as their individual wishes and desires (progressing in their career, finding love, buying consumer goods, meeting new friends, et cetera). Although your characters may die, from old age or in an accident, the game is mostly free from violence; an angry sim may certainly slap, or even engage in a cartoonish fight with, another sim, but you can never inflict serious pain or murder another sim. Whereas sims are mortal, they are not killable.
This holds true also for the various animals added to the game in its Pets expansion. These animals may be grouped into a few different classes depending on how the player may interact with them. First of all you have the pets proper: these are dogs, cats, and horses that actually are controllable by the player and constitute full members of your household. In terms of gameplay they function as slimmed down versions of human characters: the pets are granted agency and subjectivity, and they have personalities and preferences of their own, as well as wills and wishes to fulfill. During the progress of the game, they will develop personal traits and gain new skills, and develop close emotional bonds to other pets as well as their human caretakers. Proper pethood in the game, then, comes close to what Haraway calls the middle-class “human-animal companionate family”.[i] Functioning as parts of an already formed family, without the possibility to create a “household” of their own, the game represents pets as reduced and slightly altered versions of human subjects, lacking the more advanced capabilities of their human caretakers, while retaining a sense of individuality and freedom. Although they are necessarily “owned” by a human sim, they exhibit an amount of agency similar to that of their owner.
In addition to the pets proper, there are also minor pets, which function as passive collectibles: these are various lizards, snakes, rodents, turtles, birds, and fish. They cannot be played and are not considered as members of the household, but rather constitute a special group of collectible possessions. The only way to interact with them is to capture them in the wild and keep them I terrariums and cages. Lacking wishes of their own, they must be fed by their human owners or they will die. And still, neither the proper nor the minor pets are made killable. Like human sims, they display mortality without killability.
A third category contains larger wild animals, like bigger birds or wild cats, that must be befriended by the human character in order to become domesticated pets. Some species remain wild, however, and cannot be domesticated. Deer and raccoons constitute opportunities for “wildlife experiences”, but they also function as pests: while raccoons will knock over your garbage, deer will eat all the carefully grown vegetables in your garden. However, while sometimes annoying, these pests are still exempted from killability: they may be shoo’d away, but they may not be hunted or killed.
All in all, Sims 3 prevents violence in general, and violence against animals in particular. As I have pointed out elsewhere, the game goes to such lengths to avoid the killing of animals that any meat products your sims may cook and eat are grown, like plants. Rather than butchering animals for their meat, you harvest steaks and burger patties from your garden.[ii] There is, however, one flagrant exception to this rule of non-violence: fish. Human sims may fish in ponds and aquariums, and while the catch may be kept as minor pets in aquariums, it may also be cooked and eaten. Fish, in other words, are the only type of animal to be made killable in the game. Fish can even be used as fertilizer when growing your crops, thus reintroducing dead animals into the game’s cycle of meat production: whereas steaks grow on plants like any other fruit or vegetable, these plants grow out of the bodies of decomposing animals. Somewhat contradictory, then, the game seems to assert that you should avoid violence against animals; but that fish are not really animals.
By implementing this exception, the game argues that fish are to be expelled from the circle of moral concern. If pets are rendered less than human, and minor pets are rendered less than pets, fish are rendered even less than animals, and thus made killable. Using a concept from gender scholar Tara Mehrabi, we may say that Sims 3 enacts fish “as the threshold of killability”.[iii] In Mehrabi’s words, “the spectrum of killability narrows down and pushes the threshold of killability, from human to animal and from bigger animals to smaller animals such as mice, then invertebrates and organic matter”.[iv]
In describing what she calls “meat culture”, cultural scholar Annie Potts points out how the very strangeness of fish, when considered from a human point of view, locates them at the far end of the ethical spectrum:
Attitudes in Western nations are influenced by anthropocentric discourses that position humans as superior to other species in a hierarchy where creatures deemed the most unlike humans (in physical appearance or form, ways of perceiving and experiencing the world, and/or modes of living) are deemed of less value or worth. Fish are relegated near to or at the bottom of this hierarchy. They are viewed as so different to humans that they have commonly been disregarded as sentient creatures.[v]
Sims 3 constructs an implicit model of such hierarchies, by grading animals from those who are close to us, in terms of emotional and psychological likeness (cats, dogs), to those that are too small and too strange to be apprehended as anything other than “just animals” (lizards, rodents), to those that are not even granted the status of animality or life at all. It is almost as if the fish never were alive in the first place; as if they were literal frutti di mare plucked from the sea. Were you to raise cattle in a game like the Sims, you would actively have to slaughter them by some kind of action in order to turn the animal into meat, and, thus, food. Fish, on the other hand, you simply pick out of the water, without ever having to engage in a “killing” interaction. You sink your line, reel it in, and suddenly have a fish in your inventory. This item constitutes a kind of “Schrödinger’s fish”, always in an undecidable state between life and death. Since you may put it in an aquarium, it must still be alive; but since you also may put it in a frying pan (for food) or in the ground (for fertilizer), it must already be dead.
Potts points out how the flesh from fish and other aquatic beings often is regarded as non-meat.[vi] For example, it may be served as an “alternative” to meat, and sometimes even be eaten by self-proclaimed vegetarians. According to Potts, this may be traced back to the Judeo-Christian distinction between consuming aquatic and land-based creatures. Interestingly enough, Sims 3 implicitly acknowledges the “meatiness” of fish by making characters with the “vegetarian” trait react to dishes containing fish as they would to any other meat, that is, be becoming nauseous. And nevertheless, the special status attributed to fish indicates its conceptual separation. There may be several reasons why we tend to think fish outside of animality. The fact that they live their entire lives in water certainly makes them seem alien to humans. This also allows us to falsely regard fish as an infinite resource, as we never have to face their diminishing numbers, and in Sims 3, fish function as a never dwindling resource, while pets are individuals. And finally, the aquatic nature of fish allows them to be killed passively, through the asphyxiation caused by simply being pulled out of the water. Perhaps, this is what allows for its dual representation as both dead and alive: when the sim pulls out his fish, it is still alive; and since you never have to give it a killing blow, it is almost as if it never dies.
A game like Sims 3 constructs a hierarchical relation between species, stretching from those close to us, whose own wishes and needs are of utter importance, to those thoroughly alien to us, who may be killed and used with little concern. Most significantly, the category of fish is made killable precisely by representing their death as a lack of violence, that is, as a non-event caused by a non-action.
[i] Haraway, When Species Meet, p. 47.
[ii] Erik van Ooijen, ”Att äta digitala djur”.
[iii] Tara Mehrabi, Making Death Matter, 182.
[iv] Mehrabi, 184.
[v] Potts, ”What is Meat Culture?”, p. 11.
[vi] Annie Potts, ”What is Meat Culture?”, Meat Culture, ed. Annie Potts, p. 11.