Life Simulations: Are You Playing to Win?

After work, I made myself a delicious Lobster Thermidor because my cooking skills are top-notch (level 10 to be exact). The TV is on the fritz again so I attempt to repair it on my own before calling the repair man. This is a tragic decision as I am electrocuted. Luckily, my husband is home and can afford to gamble his life in a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with the Grim Reaper.

Up until the last bit, the scenario sounds plausible, and while the latter half might sound outrageous, that’s as far as the envelope of reality is pushed in The Sims. As a fan of the game, I always found my interest in it perfectly normal. The game allows the player to fantasize about living a different life. I can pick up the newspaper and apply to be a criminal. Of course I have to start as a low-life pickpocketer, but with enough time and effort, I can achieve my dreams of becoming a criminal mastermind.

I am currently on my third life cycle in Bit Life, a life-simulation game. There is no objective in the game, just live the life of your assigned person. There is no mythical aspect – you are just living someone else’s life. To clarify, there is a difference in the simulation games available. I am focusing on the mundane, or real-life, simulations: “In a medium that built itself on unprecedented interactivity and literally boundless potential for action and adventure, the relatively passive experience of caring for an animal, a town, a field of crops, or even a little cartoon version of yourself, has become big business” (Nintendo Life). Games can transport us to different realms and time periods – yet with all these options available, I find myself most enjoying simulations that require me to do about everything that I hate in the real world. In Animal Crossing, I design homes and keep my villagers happy by performing various requests –  typically involving bug catching or fishing. In Harvest Moon, I have to go to bed super early to tend my crops and livestock all while wooing my partner in hopes of presenting them with a blue feather before I die (I usually stop playing before that can even happen #cheatcode).

Growing up, I suppose costumes were our first entry point in role playing. You could  become an entirely different person through selecting an outfit. A seemingly good use of a child’s imagination and a convenient way to have your child begin thinking of possible career options. Then there is “make believe” or as my brother used to call it, “be whatever you want to be,” to which  my sister and I would select a rock or tree to ruin his attempt in having fun. Yet even in this attempt, we still existed as something other than ourselves – do you know how hard it would be to curl up into a ball and say absolutely nothing? This imaginative play also contains house or school – you know, since attending 6 hours there was never enough. As children, these games are important as they allow “children [to] role play and act out various experiences they may have had or something that is of some interest to them. [These games also allow children to]  experiment with decision making on how to behave and . . . social skills” (Learning 4 Kids). Essentially, these games are training grounds for children to enter the real-world.

At my house, we had an elaborate game based on an episode from The Cosby Show. Theodore believes that he is ready to make it on his own, so to prove to him that he is not ready, Dr. Huxtable, removes all of Theodore’s possessions and charges him for amenities and supplies. When my cousins would come over, we would remove most of the furniture from the downstairs guest room and turn the play room into a furniture store. Using Life money, we would sell the room, furniture, and food. Unlike The Cosby Show, our episodes would always end with some sort of scam: selling faulty furniture that would constantly need repairs, or a shady landlord that would rob its tenants – we were criminals in the making. Perhaps that is what is so alluring about these simulators. In these games, we are allowed to engage in activities that would be frowned upon in the real world. We are finally allowed to feed into the voice that we desperately attempt to starve out.

Most of my favorite games fall under the life-simulation genre. I like being able to engage with the constant “What If?” nagging in the back of my mind. In these games, I can find the answer without endangering myself. “What if I told people what I really thought instead of just keeping my mouth silent?” Click, Scroll, Select: Insult. On the other hand, the simplicity behind these games is extremely rewarding. I can completely furnish an entire home, raise a family, and tend to livestock without having to leave the comfort of my room. Whereas I was barely able to attend college, student teach, and work part time. With my often chaotic schedule, it was soothing to enter a world where I was completely in control and constantly rewarded.

As huge of a fan that I am, there is a major problem with these games. As we began to age, there is an increase in the dissociation of self caused by them. From what began with being participants in costumes, and continued to masking our wishes behind dolls and action figures, we are now merely tapping a button. Simulations have become a double-edged sword. On one end, now more than ever, we are truly allowed to transport ourselves into another life without making any adjustments; however, in this transportation, we miss our stop, forgetting that in this instance, the journey is not the destination. We become so consumed with these fictional lives that we don’t realize the absurdity behind them. When playing The Sims, I would make sure that my family was skilled in every possible trade – I sat in front of the computer watching them read cook books, and despite the fast forward option, it was still time consuming.  To think, in that time, I could have read a real recipe! Instead of having a Sim that made a fabulous Lobster Thermidor, I could have become an accomplished chef. As I mentioned earlier, these games often lack fantastical elements, so rather than providing an escape from reality, they simply become an alternate reality – and that is where the danger lies.

Just look at the shift in what children watch. It used to be Barney or Sesame Street – puppets replicating appropriate behaviors and social skillsNow, children go on YouTube to watch other children playing. I watched the above mentioned shows to fuel my imagination – to see and learn about things that I couldn’t see in my own life. But today? Children are watching to get an imagination. We used to be the ones calling the shots, clicking the buttons, but we have now become the ones waiting for commands. I used to joke around at the possibility that we are just like The Sims, controlled by some outside force, yet now I am laughing a bit less. Perhaps we should direct our focus on instilling an imagination in the upcoming generations instead of determining how we can make these simulations more authentic. After all, for me and for what I believe to be many others, the enjoyment of these games derives from the simple fact that it is not real. The escapism is what is alluring, but we need something to escape from. It’s time to customize our approach – there is no winning in life-simulators and there is certainly no winning if we continue on the path that we are on.

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