My Sims, Myself

Days and nights in the belly of the video gaming beast


For most humans, thinking helps us produce positive thoughts that have a pleasant chemical result. But for some people, too much thinking results in painful thoughts about their own self-worth. Those people might play video games because it helps them avoid thinking in the first place. If playing video games can make your brain produce the same chemicals you get from good thoughts, the activity can almost border on addiction. If you take it away, it produces withdrawal systems--irritability, moodiness--because your brain is clamoring for more.

--Kevin Turnquist,
Hennepin County Mental Health Initiative psychiatrist,
phone interview, February 12


October 21, 2000

Jack is dead. I killed him.

Forget playing God--I want to be the Grim Reaper.

Violence in video games has never fazed me. I can rip the bloody, flesh-chunked spine from any Mortal Kombat enemy with one hand while downing a slice of pizza with the other, feeling neither moral nor digestive distress. Perhaps that's because, although I'm allowed full access to the carnage, I never get to see MK's Johnny Cage and Sub Zero go home after a long day of tearing out still-beating hearts to laugh quietly over a book, sleep in the fetal position, or eat Cheerios in their flannel pajamas. There's no real "life" to extinguish in Mortal Kombat, the linear path to fatality is simply a matter of defeating the enemy. By contrast, The Sims seems far more subversive: The possibility of suicide and murder undermines the very purpose of the game--and maybe your own worldview too. Why spend so much time and energy feeding yourself, bathing yourself, trying to convince yourself that there's a reason for living, when it's far easier just to die? Maybe the possibility of death makes life more precious. Or maybe it just makes things more entertaining. Whatever. Does it matter?

All day Saturday I go on a Sims killing spree. When the maid comes to clean the house, I pause the game and build a wall around her, "Cask of Amontillado"-style, with no space to let air inside. She knocks on the bricks frantically until, much later, her body suddenly disintegrates.

When Janet lights a fire in the fireplace, I trap her close to the heat with chairs and force her to keep lighting matches. Her body burns up.

When a neighbor comes by to visit Chrissy, the dishwasher breaks down. I place a broken lamp on the water and watch him fry.

Chrissy is left in the house alone. The ghosts of Jack and Janet rise from their graves in the backyard to haunt her in her sleep.

When I fall asleep that night, I dream of them, too.


January 4, 2003

Am I becoming antisocial? It's a Saturday night, I have three unreturned phone messages from friends blinking away on my answering machine. But instead of joining them at the bar, I'm playing The Sims Online. It occurs to me to wonder whether, when my friends eventually desert me, I'll be able to make do with my virtual barmates.

After double-clicking on a Sims nightclub, I enter a two-story building complete with glowing dance floor and lavish bar. I approach a young, emo-looking guy. At first, we talk about bands we like. A few minutes later, we're accosted by a man who looks as if he's got a Chia Pet attached to his chest. Soon, the two are asking me to join them and their blond lady companion on the vibrating bed upstairs.

How dare they ask me such things? I'm not that kind of woman. If I'm going to romp around with strange men on vibrating beds, they've got to promise me better anatomy than Mattel has to offer. Taking my leave of the loverboys, I spot a girl who is dressed like she's going to a rave. She's standing by herself on the dance floor.

"Hi," I say. "How's it going?"

She stares at me. "Why do you have an insect for a head?" she asks.

"I thought it would be cool. You know, like something from a B-movie," I explain, feeling like I'm in junior high.

"Oh," she says, unimpressed. She walks away.

My social life is doomed.

The Sims creates a strange simulacrum of society: People connect along the same divisions of geographic location, relative popularity, and economic status. But here, the pizza delivery boy can own his own business and the loner can be homecoming queen. In the Sim city of Jolly Pines a redhead, "Nikki," is ranked number one on the game's Most Liked list. In real life, she's a 24-year-old secretary and full-time student who plays 20 hours a week. When I instant message her to ask her why she is so hooked on the game, Nikki reasons that The Sims Online sometimes trumps reality. "If you go to a club or a bar in real life, you're still thinking about your problems. Here, you're just thinking about the game."

The distinction between the real and virtual worlds is one that Robbi--a blond, girl-next-door Sim who also ranks high on the Most Liked list--knows can be blurred at times. A 34-year-old service manager in her non-Sims existence, she spends 40 hours a week on the game. "I play all night Friday and all day and night Saturday," she admits. "It's just about all I do. I guess you could say I need to join Sims Anonymous." Robbi recently married another Sim in cyberspace, but her online spouse's real-life wife was so upset about the union that the relationship quickly ended in divorce. "She can't seem to keep the game in the game and real life in real life," Robbi explains. "I guess that's hard for a lot of players."

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