I had to do it.
Computer games are my sin, my soul. At night when I’m tired, in the morning when I awake, they are there, always ready for another round of generated joy. Every so often I go under, bingeing on photons and electrons as though they were electric cocaine. For 72 hours straight.
I play first-person shooters, the heavy metal of the medium. Simulations, on the other hand, are easy listening. So when Will Wright released a new simulation called simply The Sims, I passed. If it was anything like his earlier creation, SimCity, it was not for me. SimCity is an exercise in urban planning—a meager form of recreation. After a day on the subway, the last thing I want is to mess with a virtual IRT. I prefer killing—blood-sport games played online against real enemies, with the bass thumping and thunder in my hand.
In The Sims, you just play house. Create a family and attend to domestic affairs. There is romance here, and though gay affairs are hard to maintain, polygamy is not that difficult. The game’s object is simple: Make your Sims happy, or else they’ll sink into depression.
But nurturing kids and building relationships had more appeal than I expected. A Sims subculture has already blossomed online, where players post their houses and peek into each other’s virtual families. The game debuted at the top of the bestseller list in February, as men and women alike bought it in droves.
And when I heard even self-respecting shooters talking about how addictive The Sims is, I couldn’t help but feel the itch. A junkie will try anything once.
I wound up playing The Sims for three days. Hardly sleeping and never working, I ate pizza out of the box and let the bonds with other humans slip away. What follows is a partial record of those hours.
10:00 a.m. The buy. The route to Software Etc. is crowded with people who actually work for a living.
10:30 Back home. While the CD loads, I scan the manual, then toss it in the trash.
10:40 Snug in my chair. I give birth to my Sim family. The Boals: seven adult females and one adult male. Choose faces for them. Clothes. Body type. Skin color. Where’s the body armor?
10:45 Assigning the Sims personalities. To six women I give high points in the categories of being active and outgoing, so they’ll perform well on the job, bring home the bacon for the man. He is assigned points for being playful. Stud duty. The seventh woman, neat and tidy: family house-slave.
I have a whorish imagination. My mind will wrap itself around any fantasy, lay down for any fairy tale. I am a sucker, in particular, for myths involving superhuman powers or other magnifications of self. Like Narcissus. He would love video games. Perhaps that’s why children, with their fragile egos, love them too.
10:50 Home is an empty lot. The Boals move in. They are cartoonish, and they jerk when they walk, revealing an ugly bump in the code. I study their surroundings: a classic suburban landscape. Leave It to Beaver in color.
I can zoom in or out. Rotate the plane of perspective. Peer at my plot of paradise, enclosed by a moat of blacktop roads. Will Wright told me French audiences complained about the width of these roads—too American.
11:00 A newspaper girl drops off a paper and hurries away. Pigtails flapping.
The prompt says:
—Find a Job
11:02 I get Yolanda and Jenni jobs as “team mascots.” Pay: $100 Simolians a day.
11:05 Jenni throws the newspaper in the trash before I can employ the others. Have to watch these Sims. They move on their own Artificial Intelligence. But those who prophesy the advent of spiritual machines make a mistake: AI is not the same as free will.
12:00 p.m. John Boal crosses his legs. A cartoon bubble appears above his head showing a picture of a toilet. We don’t even have a front door, let alone a toilet. I’m considering what to do about this, when he goes in his pants, leaving a puddle on the green grass.
12:15 Nancy goes on the grass.
12:16 Yolanda goes too.
12:17 Judy pees.
12:18 My lot looks like a swamp. Fuck.
1:00 I’ve discovered shopping.
“Hygeia-O-Matic Toilet, $300. Ingenious flipping seat and flush handle make using the Hygeia-O-Matic a blast.”
1:25 I also bought a fridge, couch, TV, couple of beds, stove, and kitchen cabinets, and dumped everything on the lot. But now that I have a toilet, I can’t get the Sims to use it. They just throw up their arms and start yelling at me.
2:00 My Sims are sad. I can tell this because their “happiness bar” has dipped into the red danger zone.
2:15 I try to cheer them up with a round of group backrubs.
2:30 Mary Boal begins to sob. Cries in short little bursts. When the Sims talk they sound like a cross between Charlie Brown and the Teletubbies. An infantile gurgle. Also, the volume warbles: The soundtrack fades and grows, producing a kind of aural hypnosis.
2:35 Flies are buzzing over dirty plates in theliving room.
2:40 I debate whether to fish my manual out of the trash. It’s not so much the banana peel on top that gives me pause, but the fact that I never use manuals. Find them obvious. But this game is hard, and I’d like to win it sooner rather than later.
2:42 To hell with it. I need the manual.
3:30 I’ve learned that Sims won’t piss in public. I’ve also discovered the building tool.
3:35 Laying bricks. With a cross between a drafting application and an interior-design program, I build the Boals a simple house. Then I decorate.
4:30 I’m eating pizza, taking a break. Notice that my apartment is smaller, proportionally, than the Sims’ house.
6:00 A Sim day runs out several times faster than a day in real life. It’s already getting dark in Sim land. They fall asleep on the floor. Snoring loudly.
6:30 A new Sim day. The carpool comes to take Yolanda and Jenni to work. Jenni says: “I’m too depressed to work,” refuses to budge off the couch. I try to get her to make out with Sharon. No luck. I consult the manual.
It says Sims can be het or gay. What’s wrong with my girls?
7:30 I have to go outside. I’m tired of worrying about what happens to these cartoons. On the street, I am startled by the darkness. The streetlights loom above the ground. People look vaguely menacing. I head uptown to see a Sim addict I know. Figure he can explain about the girls.
7:32 The cab drops me off a block too soon. After studying angles in the game for so long, I’m struck by the straightness of the street. How it forces me to walk in one direction. Grids.
7:35 Inside. The addict knows. Last week he flew from JFK to Hong Kong, an 18-hour trip. On a flight sim. Navigating in the weather in real time so that when it rained over France on his screen, it was raining over France, the country. He says The Sims is far less complicated than steering a real plane. But he had the same problem as me: couldn’t get two guys to kiss. He’s gay and found this annoying. I tell him I wasn’t annoyed by the lack of kissing, just . . . never mind. It’s stupid.
10:00 Home again.
10:20 How are my lovely Sims? Sharon is in the kitchen, preparing lunch with a food processor. John is jumping up and down, complaining about something. Yolanda is watching TV. Two others are slapping each other.
10:31 Sharon set the damn kitchen on fire.
10:32 Everyone’s screaming fire, fire.
10:33 The second cabinet is aflame.
10:35 I find Extinguish.
10:36 Too late. As Yolanda puts down one flame, Sharon has already caught fire.
10:37 Sharon is dead, burned alive. A gravestone rises to mark her passing.
10:38 Fuck this.
10:39 I need some good, clean action. Loading Unreal Tournament, my latest shooter.
11:40 I’m darting through time-space. Circle strafing some punk from the Five Towns. He goes down easy. Move. Kill. Move. Kill. The reptilian pleasure of a clean shot to the head. Survive. Taste immortality.
We don’t know why, exactly, games bathe the brain in endorphins. But the pleasure must be one percent survival—the adrenaline of fight and flight—and 99 percent the result of mathematics woven into light.
Pythagoras was a vegetarian and a spiritualist. Thought math would save his soul. His mantra: Numbers are things.
12:00 a.m. Still playing. Polygons crash my retina, enter the cortex, set dendrites on fire. The code renders my enemy as a stack of squares. My ammunition: tiny, tiny squares that must reach the opponent’s square before he moves, along a line, to another square in space. Every second a new puzzle.
12:45 Somersaulting in zero gravity, on a roller coaster in four dimensions, I draw a bead on a moving target, spray blue orbs of death at his back, spiral down and—slam—hit the bounce pad, rocket up again, soaring into starry space as his lasers explode beneath my feet in a dazzle of yellow light. Missed, bitch.
1:30 Enough. My eyes belong to someone else. My hand is a rock. I shut the box down. Drink a shot of rum (it was lying around). Pass out.
8:30 a.m. Wake up starving. Delivery order: Scrambled eggs, bacon, rye toast, and extra home fries. Vanilla milkshake.
9:30 I bulldoze the Boal family. Start again with a new brood. Just two adults, easier to take care of. Caution is the order of the day.
10:00 Discovered that the Sims’ radio plays MP3 files. Very cool.
10:30 Discovered another secret. The way to excel at The Sims is to pretend you are the characters. You have to give a shit. I’m making sure Sim Mark takes a shower. Goes to the bathroom. Has a quick snack. Then there are phone calls to make after work, to keep the social score up. Sitting in the hot tub relaxes Mark and Mary. They like it in there with all the bubbles, outside in the backyard, with the sun setting, radio playing their favorite tunes—my favorite tunes.
11:30 Managing their joy effectively.
1:30 I like the way Mark looks when he’s working out. The little weights on the bench press move up and down. He huffs and puffs, getting stronger.
3:00 Doing splendidly. I’ve made friends. Advanced Mark up the career ladder by getting him to study hard. Mary has a great job, too. They are both happy most of the time. Occassionally, they are supremely happy. My favorite new purchase: a color flat-screen TV. You can change the channels.
3:15 Watching Mary in the kitchen prepare dinner. I am watching Mark watch Sim TV.
“Surveillance: n. A watch kept over a person, group, etc., esp. over a suspect or prisoner.”
3:20 Mark and Mary are kissing. Finally. Would you like to have a baby? Sure.
3:30 A phone call. A social worker is coming to take away the baby. Child abuse. What the hell? I fed her.
3:35 I need help. Surf to thesims.com, where true believers congregate. Find thousands of postings. Links to hundreds of fan sites. People write fictional stories about their Sims and post them. Fantasy within a fantasy. Found this tip:
“In order to keep that love alive, EVERY morning, and after work, and right before they sleep, they both hug and kiss each other, no matter what, unless either one of them is in a bad mood. I find that strategy to work the best for me, and I hope it works for you. Good Luck :-)”
4:30 I keep Mark and Mary kissing. Her hand caresses his back, slides down to his ass. This gives me a brief jolt. A little jealous, I consider my own sex life—find it lacking.
5:30 Debating the merits of downloading the naked “skin” for Mary. A skin is a hacker modification that lets you change what the Sims look like. Playing Barbie.
6:31 I must be crazy.
7:00 I go for a walk. Someone once said a schizophrenic going for a walk is healthier than a neurotic in a chair. Bump into a lamppost I’ve passed millions of times without mishap. Call comes in on the cell: Have dinner with me. Get lost finding the restaurant. I try to explain about the game, how it casts a spell of scale, how you get pulled into this generous miniature and you can’t easily find a way out. She looks at me like I’m a little off.
7:15 It’s not me, I say. It’s the game.
7:20 She says, “Relax, I’m used to dealing with lunatics.” She’s an editor at a fancy magazine.
9:00 Back home. Thank God. That was taxing.
10:00 I am Mark. And Mary. But less Mary than Mark. I know this because I make Mary pay the bills. My bills are buried under newspapers. The inside of my fridge: a biology experiment. I need (a) Mary.
11:00 I don’t care about this game.
11:02 I do care.
9:00 a.m. Still playing.
12:00 p.m. Ditto
1:00 Drinking Go-Go to stay awake. It has a rad can: an anime babe with giant eyes, orange hair, purple micromini. Dolores in a digital line.
1:15 I’m hard-wired from two sips. Cut Go-Go with two fingers of Bombay gin. Not bad.
I remember this: “The difference between art and games? I don’t know. Art is such a big word that means different things to different people. Art is a form of communication. Games are a form of symbolic manipulation.” Will Wright, March 16, 2000.
2:00 When you’ve been playing for 17 hours, and are now in a silent dialogue with your Sims, this distinction falls away.
3:00 I think I need a new couch.
4:00 And a few more friends.
4:30 Feel slightly insane, out of touch with the present. Think perhaps the present does not exist. Nor the future. Think we invent the future to escape the present, and all its horrible immediacy.
5:00 I turn back to the Sims. For solace.
5:15 I am good at this now. Playing is contemplative. Relaxing.
5:30 When the future arrives, we’ll all play at being ourselves in a game like The Sims. We’ll upload our little fantasies and then—gaze at them. Which is to say that in the future we’ll regress, since fantasy always looks backward over the shoulder of Time, to a moment that never happened.
6:00 I zoom in to touch my Sims, pan out to watch. Telescoping intimacy.
7:15 Bathing Mary in a bathtub. Can hear her lather up. One thing the definition of surveillance doesn’t tell you about keeping watch: The voyeur doesn’t just gaze; he connects. Think of guards who watch prisoners. They sometimes date the convicts. Even get married to them. Surveillance as a form of love.
7:30 What am I learning, right now?
7:31 Either this is a special experience, or an utter waste of time. Or both.
7:40 I need a break. My social meter is low. I turn off the game.
Can’t take this lonely sim. I know science isn’t done with us yet, but I hope when it is we turn out to be more than digits in a wetware shell.