ChatGPT Meets The Sims: How Virtual Characters Turn Human

Researchers from Stanford University and Google Research demonstrated in an entertaining and educational way how ChatGPT can be used in behavioral research. They created a world populated by characters, similar to the popular video game ‘The Sims’ by Electronic Arts. The researchers created the town ‘Smallville‘, with a park, café, houses and a supermarket. There lived 25 virtual persons, who were defined by means of text inputs (‘prompts‘) – here at the example John Lin – as follows:

John Lin is a pharmacy shopkeeper at the Willow Market and Pharmacy who loves to help people. He is always looking for ways to make the process of getting medication easier for his customers; John Lin is living with his wife, Mei Lin, who is a college professor, and son, Eddy Lin, who is a student studying music theory; John Lin loves his family very much; John Lin has known the old couple next-door, Sam Moore and Jennifer Moore, for a few years; John Lin thinks Sam Moore is a kind and nice man; John Lin knows his neighbor, Yuriko Yamamoto, well; John Lin knows of his neighbors, Tamara Taylor and Carmen Ortiz, but has not met them before; John Lin and Tom Moreno are colleagues at The Willows Market and Pharmacy; John Lin and Tom Moreno are friends and like to discuss local politics together; John Lin knows the Moreno family somewhat well — the husband Tom Moreno and the wife Jane Moreno.

The characters were given tasks. And that started with a specification of what the daily routine should be like. From getting up, eating breakfast, cooking, working, doing art, to starting conversations with other characters.


More complex tasks were also assigned. For example, the character Isabella Rodriguez should organize a Valentine’s party for February 14 from 5 to 7 pm. Isabella then began telling the other characters about the Valentine’s party and decorated the café she ran. She also asked another character named Maria to help with the decorations, and she agreed as well. And then it becomes ‘romantic’. Maria tells Isabella about her secret crush on Klaus. Isabella then also invites Klaus to the Valentine’s party. Of the nearly dozen Smallville residents invited, five actually show up to the party, including Klaus, Maria’s secret crush.

Oooooh, how sweet! The study authors were also intrigued by this story, and they asked Klaus in more detail who he would like to spend an hour with. But here it becomes vague, because the character Klaus then lacks some context for this, which shows the limitation of the model of the study.

Another character named Sam was given the task of running for mayor of Smallville. He tells Tom and slowly it becomes the talk of the village. Residents begin to discuss Sam’s candidacy, gossiping about it, with some residents supporting Sam and others showing reservations.

Behaviors & Conclusions

From these small excerpts of what happened in the few days in Smallville, we see three emerging behaviors: Information dissemination, relational memory, and coordination. Human testers, by the way, found the Smallville characters’ conversations and behaviors more human than the real human conversations and behaviors presented to them for comparison.

Several conclusions emerged for the researchers. Thus, for ethical reasons, developers and operators of autonomous AI agents should always disclose to users that the agent is an artificial agent. The researchers also see opportunities to apply such simulations to test behaviors, such as how changing incentive systems in online forums might affect language choices or cooperation.


Or how dating can work more efficiently in the future. Simone Giertz, better known as the ‘Queen of Shitty Robots,’ suggested on the podcast with Lex Fridman that generative AIs could be used to send a virtual version of yourself on dates, pre-selecting which partner is a better match for you. Do we have the same sense of humor, how are controversial topics handled, do conversations flow or do they dry up very quickly? But then what if these virtual selves suddenly start sleeping with dating partners? What if they sleep with everyone else? How does this affect my reputation in real life? What if my virtual self sets up an OnlyFans page? Am I then entitled to a share of the royalties? The dating world will never be the same.

Announcement: New Book

My second book on artificial intelligence will be published at the end of November 2023. After When Monkeys Teach Monkeys, which was published in early 2020 and in which I already described autonomous agents as mentioned here, Creative Intelligence: How ChatGPT and Co Will Change the World is coming to bookstores. In it, I will talk about generative and autonomous AIs, how they came to be, how they work, what they can and cannot do, how they are being used, and how they are changing our lives.

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