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 Simsduring 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 Worldin 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 Simsin 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 Simswon'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.)

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.

Hearing these things, I feel both excited and defeated. I know I want to play. But I also know I might not be able to stop playing without getting sucked into another 72 consecutive hours behind the screen.

It's a risk I can't help taking.

 

2 - With a Click of the Mouse, I Can Make You Do Anything

 

"I think children, particularly boys, are playing video games right now... because they feel out of control. It does give them a temporary sense of some type of control."

--Karen Binder-Brynes,
a psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder,
ABC News.com, October 30, 2001

 

October 20, 2000

Sitting on the dusty floor with my Sony Vaio and my copy of The Sims, I create a family. At first Jack, Janet, and Chrissy do normal things: Janet catches a carpool to her job, Chrissy drinks espresso, Jack takes a shower. Janet naps on the couch, Chrissy drinks espresso, Jack watches TV. Janet feeds the fish, Chrissy drinks espresso, Jack talks to the woman who lives next door. I do this for hours before I start to notice how sad and boring these creatures' lives are--eat, sleep, work, eat, occasionally fondle the neighbor. I wonder, What's the point? Is the only goal of their lives to keep on living? I imagine my Sims world as Sartre's No Exit staged at Skipper's Beach House.

I get depressed.

I neglect my Sims.

The Sims get depressed.

When Jack comes home from work, slumped and despondent, I take pity on him. I allow him to play an Atari-like game on his PC for some 45 minutes until I have a terrifying thought: I work nearly 60 hours per week to earn the money to buy a computer game so that I can work another 20 hours per week making my Sim work 40 hours a week so that he can buy his own computer game. Nothing elevates my own daily routine above my Sims' simple tasks for survival. It's all the same.

After lunch, a growing existentialism starts to worm its way through my brain. I grow tired of these basic moves. I get no appreciation from my Sims for teaching them to feed, clothe, and bathe themselves. If I'm going to have the power to play God, I think, why not show these unbelievers a little wrath?

The next time Janet serves dinner to Chrissy, I prevent Janet from swallowing a single bite. She watches Chrissy hungrily and begins to starve. Soon, she is so defeated that she refuses to look at herself in the mirror.

Chrissy, having drunk enough espresso to underwrite a Starbucks outlet, leaves the table and heads for the bathroom. I repeatedly block her path. She whines like a distressed poodle and eventually wets her pants. Later, I find her sobbing into her hands.

Jack, meanwhile, swims laps out in the backyard pool. I pause the game and sell the pool's exit ladder back to its distributor. Then, I allow Jack to keep swimming. He swims and swims. Then he drowns.

A new epiphany: I don't have enough money to pay my bills, I can't afford to leave my job, and insomnia prevents me from sleeping when I'm tired--but in here, I can do anything I want.

 

January 3, 2003

Why won't anyone talk to me?

I've been playing The Sims Online for a grand total of 10 minutes, and no one has so much as gestured my way. Why are people treating me like I'm some kind of monster?

And then I remember I've got a man-eating insect's noggin for a head. But is that really it? No one's talking to the girl who looks like a Gap model, either. After clicking on the icon for a yellow house labeled "Welcome: New Sims!" I've entered a large suburban abode filled with pinball machines, home gym systems, a backyard swimming pool, and a dozen other Sims--all of whom are sitting on green couches, reading silently, a gaggle of bodies huddled together turning pages.

I have the sudden urge to make them into my own personal Jacks, Janets, and Chrissys. Kiss each other! I want to command. Slap that man! Dance to the jukebox! Do something! I need to interrupt their thoughts. I yawn. I stretch. I stand up. I do a wild dance on the rug. No one notices.

Only one thing could produce such a display of solidarity: greed. The more books these Sims read, the more skills they gain, and the more skills they gain, the more Simoleans (Sims currency) they earn. When the online game was first created, it was every Sim for himself--and, like true Americans, the Sims acted like a bunch of solitary opportunists interested only in trumping their neighbors' bankrolls. So creator Will Wright tried to force cooperation. Now, the more Sims you've got reading along with you, the faster you complete your task. Call it Simbiosis.

This is progress, I reassure myself. Instead of being a pathetic video game addict who plays by herself all day, I'm a pathetic video game addict who cooperates with other pathetic video game addicts.

 

3 - Your Leisure Time Is My Social Distortion

 

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 Kombatenemy 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 Simsseems 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."

 

4 - Futures Made of Virtual Insanity

 

The question is, What's wrong with playing video games if it gives you pleasure, turns on dopamine systems, and gives you a chemical reward? Why not keep doing it? But then you can also say, Why not turn on the same systems by using crack? Why not masturbate 50 times a day? The problem is, our brains just aren't wired to experience continual pleasure from any experience. After a while, the brain just exhausts itself.

--Kevin Turnquist,
psychiatrist

 

October 22, 2000

It's Sunday. I've played The Simsfor such a long stretch this weekend that I feel like one of the dope bingers from Infinite Jest--a guy who is so steadfastly against leaving his room that he uses an old sports trophy as a bedpan. I can't remember the last time I blinked. In the last few hours, an almost imperceptible crackling sound in my brain has convinced me that I've somehow activated the huge vat of Pop Rocks that, until recently, had lain dormant inside my skull. My hands and forearms ache from pressing buttons. My vision is blurred. My cognitive activity has slowed to a sloth's pace--the world stands before me as if preserved in cough syrup. Yet the physical reflexes still work: My fingers are twitching and my adrenaline is rushing. I'm starting to think I could run straight from here to Texas right this second, just to take the edge off.

Gaming is a solitary activity for good reason. No one should be able to see me like this. In fact, no one should even be in the room. When my neurons are firing autonomic impulses, my ears seem to observe human voices, as if they're drifting past. Friends' questions receive no answers--not because they're disturbing the game, but because the meaning of these words doesn't register, and my brain no longer realizes that a response is even necessary. When I'm gaming all alone, I drop into a blissful half-conscious haze, devoid of larger context. My mental capacities serve only as a switchboard for my button-pressing fingers.

Rising from this epic session of gaming, I can't do anything that requires concentration--no reading, no working, no thinking at all. I want nothing but to release the pressure in my head through physical activity, to punch something as hard as I can. Instead, I decide to take a walk. When I venture out of the house for the first time in days, I feel changed, as if the hallucinogen of my choice has just kicked in. Suddenly, I'm stuck in a feedback loop, seeing everything through a limited lexicon of possible commands. And with this precise list of actions, I can control the world. While folding clothes at Urban Outfitters, I notice that a 13-year-old girl spends two hours trying on a single Playboy T-shirt. Mentally, I block her in the dressing room with a wall of bricks. During lunch, some drunk outside the pizza shop tells me I look like Buddy Holly in my glasses--I imagine him guzzling the Sims' generic beer while I repeatedly block him from the restroom. At home, I remember that Ross has left me with a mountain of dirty dishes. I wonder if I can pause the game and delete him from our house.

In real life, that's sociopathic behavior. In the gaming industry, that's what gets you to the next level.

 

January 4, 2003

I'm beginning to think my life would be better if I were a Sim.

I've spent the last four hours wasting time on my computer. But in the Sims world, I've been reading useful materials, filling my skill levels, and making thousands of Simoleans. I'm feeling focused, driven, and incredibly productive.

Because I need all 10 of my fingers to maneuver my Sim, I've learned to drink without using my hands. It's a feat surpassed only by the time in college that I discovered I could smoke while showering. I decide that such things should have a Sims skill meter of their own: logic, creativity, and puffing nicotine in unconventional positions.

When I finally move away from the game for the first time today, I create points for every task I complete. They get longer and more ridiculous as I go. Watching The West Wing fills the Adult Education in Government Studies meter. Eating the semi-rotten sandwich found in the back of the fridge fills the Recycling Precious Food That Can Never Be Shipped to Needy Children in Africa meter. Googling myself fills the Boosting My Confidence Even While Recognizing That I'm Narcissistic Enough to Google Myself meter. With all these accomplishments, I feel confident that the I'm Wasting My Time meter is empty.

 

 

5 - Time Bandits

 

"I decided to embark on my big project: to find out not just what 10 years of gaming had done to me, but what it could have done and could yet do... I took a hard look at my life. In 10 years, little has changed. I still haven't written the TV series, or the script, or the novel, or taken the world of stand-up comedy by storm. I haven't got married, had kids or bought a house. Hell, I've only bought four CDs since 1992. I've stopped my diary, sold my car, lost touch with my friends, given up my other writing jobs, been abroad twice and had three relationships that lasted more than a month. Alarmed, I set about compiling a list of what I have achieved in that time. I have completed Doom, Doom II, Hexen, Heretic, Myst, Quake, Quake II, Stonekeep, Phantasmagoria, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max, Gabriel Knight, Half-Life, Fallout, Syndicate 2, Fallout 2, Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Megarace 2, Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Command & Conquer, Red Alert, Nox, Tiberian Sun, Heroes of Might & Magic III, Might & Magic VI, Magic: The Gathering, and Micro Maniacs. Many more than once."

--Andy Bodle,
The Guardian (London), April 4, 2002

To me, The Sims has always felt like W.W. Jacobs's much-anthologized story of the monkey's paw: You come upon this strange and magical thing that promises to fulfill some of your greatest wishes. But soon you realize that these wishes are illuminating aspects of your personality you'd rather not see. They can make you greedy, power-hungry, and obsessive. Eventually, you know you must get rid of this thing if you want to get anything accomplished, but you've already started an epidemic. When friends come over and see what it does for you, they'll want one, too. The process repeats itself.

Yesterday my boyfriend and I completed our favorite Nintendo Game Cube game, Super Mario Sunshine. It's the simplest of children's games, complete with smiling sunflowers and dancing mushrooms. And yet we'd devoted the last two months of our lives to playing it. When the final credits rolled across the screen, I felt a sudden sadness. I had worked so hard on this. And now it was over.

"What are we going to do now?" he asked me.

"I don't know," I replied.

I really didn't.

My first thought was reassuring: I still have The Sims Online. There's no "Game Over." It ends only when you want it to.

My second thought troubled me: It ends only when you want it to.

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