My Sims, Myself

Days and nights in the belly of the video gaming beast

Somehow, I don't yet realize just how sick this makes me.

 

January 3, 2003

Two years ago it may have sounded like the most boring premise of all time: The game of life--every mundane detail simulated by your computer. But with nearly 20 million copies of The Sims and its expansion packs sold since the game's debut in 2000, it's now the best-selling PC game franchise in history.

As countless video-game cover stories in major magazines and newspapers have attested, the Sims' target audience is expanding. Some $6.35 billion worth of video and computer games were sold at retail in 2001, with an additional $196 million coming from subscription fees to online games (a number that is expected to grow to $1.4 billion over the next five years). We spend more money on video and PC games than movie tickets. A recent issue of Wired reports that the profits from Nintendo's Mario franchise alone double the $3.5 billion in box office sales for the Star Wars films.

But what those numbers fail to reveal is just how consuming it can be to play these games. The average user of EverQuest, the most popular online multiplayer title, plugs into its fantasy world at least 20 hours per week. Other players of games like Ultima Online and The Sims Online are spending so much time advancing their status within the game that they can make thousands of dollars per week--in real American currency--trading their personal accounts (the points and skills they've racked up) on eBay.

It's a part-time job that many think has the power to subsume us: In May 2002, 21-year-old Shawn Woolley, an obsessive EverQuest player living 30 miles east of Minneapolis, committed suicide. His mother blamed the game. Nearly a year later, in February 2003, a group of five fanatical players of Grand Theft Auto--a PlayStation 2 game in which players steal cars and shoot bystanders (see "Steal This Video Game," November 27, 2002)--roamed around Oakland in an old Buick, killing five people, one of whom was a 14-year-old boy. The perpetrators explained to the police that they'd spent all day with the video game, and when night fell, they simply played it for real on the streets.

Granted, not everyone attributes such morbid omnipotence to the games they play. But even if video games aren't fatal, they have far more power over us than we imagine. In 1998, a groundbreaking study in the journal Nature asserted that playing video games changes the chemistry in your brain, increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with the reinforcing effects of addictive drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. The result is staggering: I've been addicted to every Nintendo, Sega, and PC gaming system I've owned since my parents bought me an Atari back in grade school. After one particularly grueling game-heavy weekend back in 2000, I ended up having to hide my copy of The Sims from myself.

Nearly three years have passed.

I'm aching to try The Sims Online.

Although the multiplayer version of The Sims offers the same premise as the original--art renders life that imitates life--there are countless more options on offer. If you're willing to pay $49.95 for the software and $9.95 per month for Internet use, you can frolic with thousands of people from all ends of the earth. (Foreign language platforms are forthcoming; for now, most everyone plays in English.) You can choose from hundreds of heads and bodies--America Online even offers downloads for the Sims likenesses of Ludacris, LL Cool J, Beyoncé Knowles, and Avril Lavigne.

The Sims universe transcends the usual neighborhood crawl: After you select the Sim city where you want to live--there are 10, from the sandy beaches of Alphaville to the rocky terrain of Mt. Fuji--you can click on the leisure-time location of your choice whether you're up for dancing at a night club, a game of pool at a local bar, or a meal at McDonald's. (The fast food mecca offered EA Games $2 million to set up shop in Sims cyberspace.) The Sims' possible actions are endless: If you're anti-Big Mac, you can even stage a protest by organizing with other Sims players on an independent website. (On a recent discussion at Slashdot.com, Shift.com columnist Tony Walsh called upon Sims players to make their virtual selves "lie down and play dead. Emote the vomiting, sickness, or fatigue that might overcome you after eating a real-life McNugget.")

What if the whole activist scene just isn't your thing? You can care for your pet guinea pig--but if he bites you, you'll become infected with a deadly plague. Although you can't wander around aimlessly between destinations (invisible boundaries prevent it), you can beam yourself into a different part of town, Matrix style, by picking up the receiver from a random pay phone. If you'd rather just stay at home, you can hold an in-house beauty contest and dictate that only scary clowns need apply. Ambitious Sims can start a home business by crafting and selling wooden gnome figurines. Really, you can do almost anything you think of. Or if you're tired of living creatively, you can at least die creatively--there are dozens of ways for you to kill yourself.

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