My Sims, Myself

Days and nights in the belly of the video gaming beast

I've already killed four people and I don't want to stop. I want to starve every woman who seems a little too content making mini-hamburgers for her kids. I want to drown every working stiff who comes home from work to relax in a bubble bath. I want to burn down every house that holds the kind of family you see on Children's Tylenol commercials. I want to extinguish every happy life that I can't live myself. And it's all because of a video game.

Sort of.

I'm sitting here, staring at my blank computer screen, holding a brand new copy of The Sims Online. Released last December, the multiplayer game is a chance to play The Sims with hundreds of thousands of other people around the world. You construct a virtual you--choose a haircut and an outfit, select a hometown, find a house to live in and roommates who are just psychotic enough to live with you. And then you try to live the best cyberlife you can. Keeping your front yard in shape, buying a bigger television for the family, boosting your popularity by chatting up your neighbors--these are the ways you keep up with the virtual Joneses. There is no dragon to kill, no world to save, no magic mushroom to eat, no points to earn, no "winning" the game--just bills to pay, toilets to clean, and a job to work every day until you die. (Or, as in real life, until you're brutally murdered by your own personal God. But we'll get to that later.)

You'd think that such a routine existence would drive you crazy. You'd be right, but not in the way you think.

1 - Playing the Game of Life


"It's like any other addiction. You either die, go insane, or you quit."

--Elizabeth Woolley,
whose video game-obsessive son committed suicide,
Sydney Morning Herald, May 4, 2002


October 20, 2000

It's a cold Friday morning. My roommate Ross is out of town visiting friends, leaving me here alone in our ramshackle basement apartment. I've told my boss at Urban Outfitters that I'm vacationing with my boyfriend in New York. I lied. This way I can remain here all weekend, with nothing to do but listen to the leaky ceiling dripping onto the moldy carpet below, the mice scurrying around behind the walls, and my computer humming from running PC games for 72 hours straight. I've bought three Domino's pizzas, four packs of Winstons, and enough Maker's Mark to see the assembled throng from an AA meeting through a weekend-long bender--all so that I won't need to leave the house until Monday morning.

It's 10:00 a.m. I have two full days left. If I want to play video games until I'm red-eyed, carpal-tunnel-afflicted, and seizure-prone (and still pack up the evidence before Ross witnesses my sorry state), I will have to work quickly.

I'll sacrifice anything to buy and play video games. Because Ross is a playwright (which means, really, that he works at Kinko's) and I am a freelance journalist (which means I work at Urban Outfitters, a temp job, and an internship), we are both broke. The only things we have inside our apartment are an old futon bed surrendered in a moment of pity by my boss, a stained couch, a few unwanted rodents, and two of the saddest-looking kitchen chairs you've ever seen. There is no kitchen table. In fact, we have no dressers, no posters, no stereo, no television, no desks, and--having moved to Minneapolis only a few months before--no friends. We do, however, have a pair of laptop computers.

This is my first mistake.

The fact that I use my laptop to play The Sims during every waking hour I spend in this apartment?

This is my second mistake.

In an attempt to cheer Ross up one weekend, I buy him The Sims, a sort of computer game version of The Real World in which you create people by selecting their gender, general age bracket, race, looks, and personality--right down to their astrological sign--and then proceed to control their lives. After building a house for these Sims to live in, the player makes each individual Sim fulfill his or her basic needs by filling up necessity meters (eat to fill hunger, shower to fill hygiene, sleep to fill energy, etc.) and skill meters (paint to fill creativity, play chess to fill logic, study cookbooks to fill cooking, etc). Or one can employ a combination of actions to attain higher goals (date other Sims, establish a career, have a baby).

In the meantime, the Sims' days are filled in much the same way as the player's: decorating the house, reading the newspaper, paying the bills, taking a carpool to work, keeping the pet fish alive. As cultural commentator David Brooks wrote about The Sims in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (November 24, 2002), this is the epic heroism of everyday life.

The total amount of time Ross will spend on The Sims won't surpass three hours. Three hours is the amount of time I will spend simply trying to figure out how to see my Sims naked. (Hint: Trying to sell the shower while they're soaping themselves doesn't work. And the move that does work will unveil only Barbie and Ken anatomy.)

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