The first thing Pixelle sees as she arrives in Blazing Falls, one of ten cities in the electronic world of the Sims Online, is a warning that all the piñatas are temporarily disabled due to a user prank. Blazing Falls has been touted as a party city, so this is encouraging. Not only is the Sim landscape so detailed that it has piñatas, but its residents have already figured out deviant uses for them.
Let’s just say Pixelle was built to appreciate deviancy. Scrolling through the hundreds of Sim bodies, outfits and hairstyles, I skipped the bugs, bears, and werewolves, and passed over the mall fashions and boring business suits. Instead, I gave her an electric-blue bob and matching lipstick, a halter showcasing abs that could cut glass, and jeans that ride low enough to reveal a glitter thong. My Sim was created to be seductively high tech, a Jessica Rabbit for the Snow Crash world. As a final touch, I named her Pixelle — a pun that will impress no one in the weeks to come.
Still, between Pixelle’s glitter thong and my typing skills, I think we should be able to make a serious dent in SimSociety. We will be rich and popular, fearless and clever. We will be wooed by a parade of paramours who will appreciate us for what we are: a blue-haired hoochie who can type really fast. We will “Be somebody. Else.” as it says on the box. We will play the game of Sim life. And we will win.
Our hometown exists online, but like all players we pay rent to Walnut Creek software maker Maxis Studios, a division of the video game giant Electronic Arts. The Sims Online is the evolution of Maxis’ extraordinarily popular line of simulation games, most notably the Sims, the number one PC game of all time. The Sims was an electronic dollhouse, populated by people whose lives you ran. Players built and decorated simulated houses, while helping their characters water the plants, scrub the showers, or fall in love. Perhaps not surprisingly, given its difference from typical video-game fare, it attracted an audience that is more than 60 percent female, a remarkable achievement considering only 28 percent of the game-buying public is female.
Game designer and Maxis founder Will Wright likes to say the Sims should only have sold one or two million units. In fact, it sold eight million copies, plus another sixteen million deluxe versions and expansion packs. He attributes the additional sales to what he calls the “metagame” — the social and economic bonds players form outside the game. There are now hundreds of Web sites where players chronicle their Sim lives or download extra home furnishings created by other players; some sites even have subscription fees. By Wright’s estimate, 95 percent of the content currently available for the offline game was created by players. As he told an audience at UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School in January, “The game becomes this little nucleus, but it’s not the main experience.”
The idea behind the Sims Online, which launched in December, was to combine the game and the metagame. In the new version, players are no longer confined to a desktop world, interacting with Sims that are essentially preprogrammed robots. Instead, all the Sims in the online version are avatars played in real time by gamers across the country, each paying a monthly subscription fee of $10.
Multiplayer online games are nothing new, but the Sims Online is unique in having no built-in plot or endpoint. Users are meant to create their own reasons to play, whether it’s running a business, building a palace, or socializing with their city’s hippest residents. The result is a very different social order. In the original Sims, you were a god. In the Sims Online, you are but a cog.
And Maxis isn’t alone in banking on the allure of a plotless game — the creators of other soon-to-be-launched virtual worlds such as There and Second Life are also betting that people will pay to play an open-ended scenario that closely mimics the daily adventures of life in the 3-D world.
The designers of the Sims Online expect players to create their own plotlines, and take the game in directions they can’t even anticipate. And indeed they have. Three months into its lifecycle, Blazing Falls and the other online communities have developed many of the same problems that plague us in real life. Even though new players start off with the same amounts of skills and money, there are already highly visible class divisions. And even though half the characters in the game seem to be on the make, it’s nonetheless difficult to make meaningful connections. Meanwhile, players whose goal is to build elaborate properties are frustrated by the tedium of the tasks required to earn the money to make this possible.
Will people pay ten bucks a month to live in a fantasy world that provides so little escape from the difficulties of our own? Or is that the precise point?
On her first day in Blazing Falls, Pixelle materializes above a map highlighting the most popular properties now online. She has started the game with ten thousand Simoleans, the local currency, but to be a playa and not just a player, she’ll need much more. After I click on a property advertised as a great place to make money, Pixelle is magically transported to its door.
Although the speech balloons indicate that the folks inside the house are calling for Pixelle to join them, I can’t figure out how to get her through the front door. Instead, Pixelle ends up in the backyard, near a row of worktables. Cautiously, I click on one. A bubble reading “Make Gnome” appears. Make gnome? Well, fine. Soon, Pixelle is fabricating a garden gnome with a jaunty red hat. This is not what I expected from life in the online fast lane, but I cheer up when she earns thirty Simoleans. She bursts into a little dance, waving her hands in the air. She then moves to a worktable where she can make more money cooking jam. A jam- and gnome-based Sim economy seems bizarre, but I guess it beats a desk job.
By the time I figure out how to walk without smashing into the walls, the other players are ignoring Pixelle, so I move on to a jazz club shaped like a grand piano, a property ranked for creativity, not moneymaking. But before I can even ask where the gnomes are, I realize Pixelle is in trouble — her hunger and energy levels, depicted on meters at the bottom of my screen, are dangerously in the red. “Anyone know where I can get a snack?” she asks cautiously. To my surprise, instead of asking for money or mocking her naive request, the club’s genial owner, Mac, says “Sure.” He heads to the kitchen to fix a plate of food. But even after Pixelle cleans her plate, her energy is still low. Mac tells her she needs to nap, obligingly offering one of several beds. It’s weird to sleep in a stranger’s bed, and it’s equally weird later to pee and bathe in large unisex bathrooms where everyone else can watch. Although the game coyly blurs characters during such moments, there is no such thing as SimPrivacy.
As Pixelle blunders through her toilette, something red and shiny begins emerging from Mac’s mouth. After a brief scare, I realize it’s a balloon. Mac ties it to a string and explains that if Pixelle accepts it, they will become friends. A friend! In another stroke of luck, a dark-haired J-Lo look-alike in clingy jeans promptly invites Pixelle to move into her place, the House of Love. Now we’re talking.
The House of Love has darkened rooms filled with silk couches, plus a cheetah-spotted kitchen, hot tub, swimming pool, and vaguely romantic hedge maze. Ruby, Pixelle’s new roomie, has decided to host a dating game to attract guests. The more guests the better, since the game will automatically pay each of us a daily bonus for having visitors. Pixelle eagerly agrees to help pay to turn the second story into a theater for the game.
Just as Pixelle thinks it might be time to hit the hot tub, her in-game phone rings. It’s “Manny,” a Sim she’s never met before, offering to trade her ten thousand Simoleans. The catch is that I’ll have to create a second Sim in Manny’s home city — each player gets three — and give his character the virtual money there. This smells like a scam, so Pixelle checks with Ruby, who informs her that this is pretty rampant. Chances are, Manny will take our cash and never deliver his. My Sim is only a few hours old, and already she has to deal with SimScams! I decide to call it a day.
After a few days, Sim life becomes more routine. I learn to keep Pixelle healthy by giving her regular bathroom and food breaks, and make sure she has enough fun by swimming or playing pool. To help make her marketable, I improve her abilities, reading books to sharpen her mechanical skills, dancing to harden her body, and talking to a mirror to acquire charisma. There are many ways to make money. You can rack up cash by yourself making chemical potions, solving math problems, or telemarketing. But the truly lucrative work is all group-based, if equally goofy: making pizzas, breaking codes, helping people find their way through mazes.
I had expected playing a Sim to be fairly robotic, kind of like taking care of a demanding Tamagotchi. Instead, the game relies so heavily on chatting with other players that the relationship between a player and their Sim is more like that between a ventriloquist and a very hot puppet. But finding meaningful companionship is hard. By week two, Pixelle has given out all her balloons, and only has four friends. And she is failing to dazzle people with her repartee. Conversations in Blazing Falls tend to be alarmingly banal. People spend most of their time asking for food, begging for hugs, or engaging in lumberingly adolescent flirting, such as:
He: Can I stare at your ass?
He: Life is good!
And those are the full sentences. Most communication just consists of chat-room shorthand in which people rarely complete sentences and mostly just snicker. There is “LMAO” for “Laughing my ass off,” “RL” for “Real life,” or “OMG” for “Oh my God!” There is also the standard “Heh,” reserved for ironic or mischievous moments, and when a roomful of people respond thusly, it’s like being trapped in the Beavis and Butthead Hall of Mirrors. The strangled-sounding “AFK,” which I initially interpret as choking, turns out to mean “away from keyboard.” Since Sims spend so many hours doing repetitive tasks, many players simply set their Sim to perform a chore and then go do their real-life laundry. The result is a roomful of zombies.
Life in a computer-mediated environment generates other absurdities. Visiting a chalet, Pixelle stumbles across a wedding. The priest asks everyone to rise in honor of the green-haired bride, who is wobbling down the aisle. Everyone stands, but once they are asked to sit back down, there is a spontaneous melee as players unsuccessfully try to get their avatars to return to the same places, accidentally stealing seats and sitting on each other. Then, moments later, the groom dematerializes just as he is about to take his vows. “OMG!” the guests cry as one.
After the bride has done some sobbing and her friends offer her consoling hugs, the groom reappears, albeit sans tuxedo and clothed in an outfit more befitting a frat house.
“Server crashed,” he explains.
Pixelle herself is still a long way from marriage, since her plan to become popular isn’t going all that well. She decides the trick is to be sluttier, which certainly worked for some people in high school. But competition is cutthroat — women in spangled red dresses horn in on the guys she tries to chat up, and girls in purple bikinis rush the hot tub whenever a single man appears. The guys who do pay attention tend to be heavy-breathers who contact her over the in-game messaging system to whisper “U so sexy,” or brag that in real life they drive a forklift — a very big forklift. Pixelle thinks she has a shot at romance when she meets a very sweet Sim named Charles who sports a flannel shirt and soul patch, and constantly wants to go dancing. But when it turns out that he really wants to talk about his Star Wars novels, it appears he may be twelve in RL.
Not that Charles would bring it up, but yes, there is SimSex. Pixelle decides to investigate one of the many romance-themed properties in Blazing Falls. There’s the Kissing Booth, Sexteen Candles, and an S&M club called Submission, but Pixelle decides on Angel’s Beach because at that moment it’s the busiest. It is chock-full of heart-shaped love tubs, a new feature that allows players to kiss, cuddle, or scrub each other as they splash about. Almost instantly, Pixelle is approached for a dip in a love tub by Disco Iggy, a Sim with a white Super Fly suit, mustache, and enormous pompadour. One thing leads to another, and soon her hirsute suitor is hemming and hawing about other things they could be doing.
It’s a bit sudden, but Pixelle does want to be popular, so she follows Disco Iggy upstairs and I click on the four-poster bed. Pixelle obligingly puts on her pajamas, crawls in, and falls asleep. This is not what Disco Iggy had in mind. It turns out this is a “love bed,” and if you click on the right button and pay twenty Simoleans, your Sim gets naked (and pixelated), and the bed begins vibrating. Pixelle apologizes to the nude but blurry Iggy as I try to reverse the mistake, but suddenly, the screen goes dark. The next thing I see is an image of Pixelle suspended in space, floating above the town. Eventually, I figure out that her abrupt exit was because all the residents of Angel’s Beach had logged out of the game, so the property had gone offline and booted out all of the guests.
Adieu, Disco Iggy. Of such heart-rending moments are SimLives made.
What is history, if not the combined weight of the tiny victories and tragedies of ordinary people, learning, making mistakes, and totally failing to get laid? Although the Sims Online is only officially three months old, it already has a history, which goes like this:
The game’s prehistoric era is what veterans refer to as the beta, as in, “I’m beta.” Several months before the official launch, gamers were invited to play for free if they would report glitches and tell Maxis about their experiences. Players who have stuck around since then tend to refer to the beta as a wild adventure now shrouded by the swirling mists of time.
After the beta came the Wipe, the game’s equivalent of a massive flood, when Maxis deleted everyone’s properties in preparation for the paying customers. Although the official release date was December 17, the game itself was truly born on Christmas Day, as tens of thousands of people who had gotten the game as a gift logged on. Then SimTime began for real.
First came an epoch of diaspora. Beta testers who originally lived in Alphaville spread out to the new servers, uh, cities. Population dispersed unevenly, and Maxis tried to level things out by closing some cities to new players. The first fan sites were born, although more slowly than in the original game, because the Sims Online does not yet allow players to incorporate customized objects. Still, chat rooms and message boards sprang up. The metagame had begun.
Beta players, it turned out, had some advantages over newbies. They already knew the rules of SimSociety and how best to earn money. Those who arrived earliest developed the first elaborate properties. And because they had the best digs, they could pick and choose roommates, selecting those who would spend the most time online, which in turn increased their popularity and wealth. While some kindly betas set up “welcome centers” to teach newbies the ropes, others preyed upon them, tricking them into giving out all their balloons, or unleashing the ten-thousand-Simolean swap. A class divide emerged, as those who spent the most time in the game became outrageously rich.
Maxis is tight-lipped about exactly how many people live in the Sim world, and says only that the Sims Online had about 85,000 subscribers by mid-January. But then the population plummeted. Subscribers got their first month of service free, and after that, unimpressed players simply dropped out. In February, Electronic Arts president John Riccitiello told the Los Angeles Times that only about 40,000 players had stuck around to pay for the next month. It had to be a profound disappointment for a company the Times said hoped to gain 400,000 subscribers and take in $96 million in fees by year’s end.
In addition to its disappointing sales, the game has received scathing reviews on Web sites such as Amazon.com, where it has garnered an average of two stars, and EAsucks.com, where former beta testers explain why they quit. A common gripe is the perception that Maxis rushed the game to capture Christmas sales, stripping planned features and ignoring beta testers’ advice. Some of the features promised on the box, such as the ability to run a business, have not yet fully materialized. The glaring absence of the ability to customize game objects has disappointed many players. And users primarily attracted to building and designing properties complain that the online game is basically a pretty chat room.
Players looking to build palaces or business empires are frustrated by the limits on the number of objects they can own, friendships they can make, or skills they can acquire. Decorating is so expensive that it requires hours of moneymaking, which means devoting massive amounts of time to the game — or cheating.
Beta testers who endured the wipe and have maxed out all their limits complain that they have no worlds left to conquer — or at least nothing left to shop for. “I like chatting with my friends, but it gets pretty boring to watch your character read a book for hours and hours when you can’t buy anything anymore,” says Trisha Prevost, a player from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, who also doubles as the editor-in-chief of TSOHerald.com, one of the Web sites devoted to chronicling Sim events. She says the game’s limits have provoked a “revolving door” effect that makes it difficult to keep her paper staffed. “It’s a four-week syndrome.”
Those who’ve stuck around no longer make much of an effort to reach out to the newbies, which also discourages gameplay. “People show up to the door and they don’t even get greeted any more,” Prevost says. “Owners have what they want — why put forth any effort to meet anyone new? They don’t have any balloons left, and their property is already popular.”
Competing with the in crowd is hard, too. When other players stop dropping by the House of Love, our visitor bonus melts to nothing. Although Pixelle installs new lighting and decor for the dating game, Ruby abandons her business model in favor of a new plan: running a honeymoon resort. We install a backyard wedding chapel, and Pixelle blows twelve thousand Simoleans on candelabra, urns of roses, a Victorian loveseat, and other accoutrements. Ruby explains that from now on, Pixelle or another roommate will have to do all the buying because she already owns the maximum number of objects a Sim can possess — 105. “Maxis is communist, I think,” she says.
And while marriage is a thriving industry, no one ends up patronizing our honeymoon suite, either. One day, Pixelle notices that Ruby has installed a plaque proclaiming: “If you are reading this … you must be really, really bored!”
The truth is, many of us are getting SimMalaise.
“What is there to do here?” a newly arrived Sim asks one day. “Oh poor, naive Sim, to think that there is anything more to do in this world than skill and make money,” one person sighs.
“I woke up this morning and I was like, ‘I am so sick of playing this game,'” a roommate agrees. “I only stay here because I love you guys.”
Maxis executives acknowledge that social development inside the game was slow during the first few months, as players concentrated on making cash and building skills. But lead designer Chris Trottier says a renaissance is now underway, as the company expands its audience and players get used to the game. She believes players are now tapping the game’s creative potential. “For a while, I was just kind of sitting there twiddling my thumbs like, ‘Okay, everybody, it’s time to take the game in ways that we can’t anticipate,'” she says. “They’re doing it now, and it’s just fantastic to see.”
Trottier says she has already had one of the best moments any architect of an autonomous society could have: the moment she realized she was no longer in charge. Ever since the beta test, she had been dropping into the game as a player. One of her regular tasks was helping Sims figure out how to make money by baking pizzas. On one particular visit, her advice was rebuffed by players who’d made up alternative rules and were adamant that she was doing it wrong. In fact, she made so many “mistakes” that one player threatened to kick her out of the property. “They had kind of developed a system and a formula that everyone knew about it, and if you didn’t know about it then you kind of were the unsavvy guy,” she remembers. “I was the unsavvy guy, and that was kind of bizarre. That was one of the few times I wanted to say, ‘But I’m the designer!‘”
She took this as a healthy indicator that Sims players are developing their own culture and cliques. After all, pizza-baking is really just an excuse to get people to talk to one another. “Every single mechanism we put in place is there for the reason of making the connections,” Trottier says. “Even in an environment where suddenly you’re anonymous … people can still have a little bit of shyness. We wanted to give them enough reasons to come together that it didn’t feel incredibly awkward.”
Some players say the repetitiveness of the moneymaking tasks is a disincentive to Maxis’ overriding goal. “Conversation with others only impedes advancement,” says John S. Dvorak, a seventeen-year-old ex-player from Berkeley who gave up after a week. “The player can only gain skill with an item, not with another player. The only exception being the ‘group’ activities that only encourage a very thin social interaction, generally a click and a ‘Hi.'” He says this undermines what many people signed on to do — build a cool house and then brag about it to friends. “The only players that can actually create anything are the ones who are the least social.”
But Trottier sees many signs players are coming together in interesting ways. For example, a Sim Mafia set up a Web site outside the game naming their capos and detailing a code of ethics. Several rival newspapers send reporters out to cover events and trends. One player started a cult, paying other players money for their devotion, which prompted his fundamentalist neighbors to protest by peeing en masse on his front lawn. Then there was the February hostage crisis, in which players captured some of the automatons who staff the game’s McDonald’s hamburger stands — (yes, product placement) — in an attempt to force Maxis to release long-awaited casino fixtures into the game.
Players are even coming up with unusual methods to circumvent boredom. People have “drop” contests, where you continue to do a task until your Sim starves or falls asleep. They try to get everyone to pee on the floor at the same time, and have discovered that you can use rocket launchers to set small fires. There are players who claim to be on their eighth or ninth Sim, tearing down their properties and starting over from scratch each time. One day, Pixelle even gets propositioned by a player who plans to execute his Sim at week’s end and wants to die with her in bed.
“Sometimes it feels like a giant game of improv,” Trottier says. “It’s like a nun and a biker guy and a rabbi walk into a bar — what happens?”
Well, SimCrime, for one thing. Some dishonest players have taken to stealing profits from others who have gone AFK while making money. There are SimHookers who talk dirty for a fee and, of course, the rampant Simolean-trading scam. Players also have exploited glitches in the game itself, most notably the now-patched bug in which anyone with a level ten bodybuilding skill could get ten thousand Simoleans just by whacking a piñata. And if you’re ready to spend your real-world cash to cheat, you can buy computer programs that promise to automatically earn money for you.
As for the many player complaints, Trottier says Maxis is listening, and that the game is a work in progress. Some limits are there for technical reasons — for example, crowding too many possessions on a single screen would slow down the game, although the company hopes to engineer a solution. Other limitations have more philosophical origins. For example, if Sims could have an infinite number of friendships, the concept wouldn’t mean as much. As for skill acquisition, Maxis tried to strike a balance between giving players something to work for and not frustrating them with impossible goals. “A lot of online games have these almost infinite skill-development ladders,” Trottier says.
The most complex issue the company is trying to address is the lack of an inter-player economy. Currently, everyone buys their furnishings from the same source, pays the same price, and wears the same clothes every day. And because the game lets players teleport from property to property by simply picking up a phone, Matrix-style, Sims can zap themselves home for food or a warm bed, instead of needing to purchase them from another player. Since nobody wants to pay for what they can get for free, restaurants, resorts, and shops are practically pointless.
Maxis’ designers plan to let players take on professions such as doctor or firefighter that will give them moneymaking abilities other players don’t have. (This will also introduce concepts such as death and sickness into the game.) And they will allow people to move their properties to encourage themed neighborhoods and give players more reasons to interact with one another. In some areas, it’s already happening: Vegas strips and gay communities are beginning to form. A few weeks ago, Maxis began permitting players to buy their home decor from each other, not from the game. Eventually, Sims should be able to run stores where they can buy objects cheaply and resell them at a profit.
The company also promises that players will eventually be able to download fan-created objects into the game. Until then, Maxis will shoulder the task of providing new content, and the promised next addition — new clothing — is heavily anticipated.
Trottier believes most disgruntled players left not because of limitations of the game’s economy, but because they never found their place in the social mix. “You know what, they didn’t find their special somebodies to hang out with,” she says. “Because most of the ones who have played out the game are still going in for that reason — they’re really attached to the people that they’ve met there and they want to continue hanging out with them.”
Trottier wants each player to have so many friends that logging into the game feels like going to their favorite hangout: “It’s like when Norm Peterson walks into the bar and everyone’s, like, ‘Norm!'”
Andy Dunn plays the Sims Online for its many “Norm!” moments. In the real world, he is an Upland, California Internet entrepreneur. “I am a hermit and I live in a cave in real life,” he says. “Hell or high water will not get me out to a bar or party or retail mall.” But in the Sims Online, which he plays every night from 10 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., he is Twiddler, a dashing rake who refers to women as “skirts” and endorses what Maxis refers to on the game’s box as “comic mischief” and “mature sexual themes.”
If some former players claim that the Sims Online fails as an actual game, players such as Dunn suggest that it’s succeeding as a social experience. “Sim land is like Vegas!” he says. “It never shuts down and you can always find excitement.” Twiddler’s exploits are the subject of his Weblog, SimsOnlineSecrets.com, which also informs players on how to get more out of the game with simple tricks and cheats.
Dunn likes the game. But he loves the metagame. He hangs out with a crew of friends, and uses his game time to chat. “We are at the start of a virtual gaming revolution,” he proclaims. “It’s as fun, or almost as fun, to hang out with friends around the globe virtually as it is to hop in the car and head down to a social event in real life.”
Veterans such as Dunn tend to take a long view, noting that Sim society is still evolving rapidly and it’s unfair to demand that Maxis get everything right off the bat. “The players that got bored or burnt out are gone,” he says. “Things are on the upswing once again, and the towns are growing again. I think the players who are on now will be here for a long time.”
Take, for example, Tracy Ricken of Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, who leads an almost entirely nocturnal existence just to be online at night when her friends are. She says the game’s inherent plotlessness encourages players to form real-life bonds, particularly people hampered by disabilities, geographic remoteness, or shyness, she says: “Most of the games out there, you have to kill stuff, whereas in this one you have to nurture friendships.” She even started a Web site, SimsCityGuides.com, to further such connections. “I was going on a Sim date one day and we didn’t know where to go, so that was just an idea that popped up,” she says.
But you don’t have to run a Web site to play. Hilary Rickert, an avid player from New Jersey, uses the game as a safe, anonymous form of dating. “We usually go to a property for dinner, go dancing, and then end up in a love tub,” she says. “Being a single mom, it is hard to do these things in real life, so I think that the game gives me opportunities that I would not normally have.”
Antiseptic as this may seem, some users say that even though playing the Sims Online boils down to manipulating cartoon characters, its visual elements make in-game romance more satisfying than using a conventional chat room or exchanging e-mails through a service such as Match.com. “Which is more fun?” asks Dunn, with a touch of Twiddler’s sauciness and not a hint of irony. “A.) Typing a kissing-face emoticon? B.) Typing *kisses*? C.) Clicking “Hot Kiss” and watching some sexy blonde grope your ass while she French-kisses you on the lips?”
Real-world connections are the final step for some. John Chandler, a business owner from Atlanta, discovered this accidentally. As a joke, he created a Web site, RealSimsOnline.com, where he posted his own picture and a short biography of his real-world self. In less than two months, his site had mushroomed into what he now believes is the game’s largest amateur site. “It’s snowballed into something that’s basically its own industry,” says Chandler, who now spends a substantial part of his day playing hooky from work to build up the site. “People are now meeting in real life off of it — it’s become a Sim dating thing. Here in Atlanta, we’re putting together the Southern Sim Saturday in March, where people from around the Southeast will come meet each other. I have over 1,100 pictures now online and a thousand members on my message board. It’s crazy!”
Even when he’s in the game, Chandler doesn’t disguise himself; he shares his name with his Sim and runs a house in the online city of Interhogan where he invites guests by to chat about real-world issues. “I just play it like I’m John,” he says. “Like, ‘Come hang out at my house and we can use it to talk about Iraq, or the Grammys, or Joe Millionaire.’ “
In fact, many veterans play Sims who are much like their actual selves — although maybe a bit younger, cuter, or less inhibited. “It is impossible to put up a false front for very long,” Dunn says. “You might be able to act for two hours. Try to act for forty hours a week. Your true personality comes through.” And players get emotionally caught up in the game’s drama, making and breaking friendships, fighting with roommates, looking forward to dates.
By the end of week three, Pixelle is certainly caught up in the lives of her friends, beginning with the undaunted Ruby. Sure, her fly-by-night business plans wasted plenty of money, but Ruby is usually there to dispense advice or offer a cheery word. And it’s hard not to admire the pluckiness of someone doing exactly what Sims subscribers are supposed to — inventing ways to amuse other players and reasons for themselves to play the game. Although her dating contest fizzled and the honeymoon suite was a bust, Ruby has doggedly moved on: she is going to run a lottery.
Pixelle also has finally made some friends she looks forward to chatting with, a warm household of lesbian and bisexual beta players who dress like Xena the Warrior Princess and constantly discuss classic rock, but are witty and talk in complete sentences. Although most of these players readily admit that the game often bores them and that they’ve torn down and rebuilt the house endless times to keep themselves amused, they genuinely like spending time with each other. And SimSisterhood is powerful: When Pixelle complains that she’s getting harassed by some goateed guy, the women promptly call him back and chew his ear off. When each friend materializes on the front lawn, everyone hastens to greet her, offering her a meal, and asking her about her day. There really is something about walking into a room where everyone knows your name.
Finally, on the last hour of Pixelle’s last day in Blazing Falls, after endless dance sessions with the endearingly shy Charles, he gets up the nerve to ask her into the love bed. Sadly, it’s dreadful, with all of the awkwardness — and then some — of a real-life first encounter. As their pixelated bodies writhe beneath the covers, someone telephones Pixelle four times to remind her about a gnome-building contest happening later that day. Charles’ oblivious roommate keeps walking in to ask what’s going on. There is the horrifying realization that I’m expected to type in sexy dialogue, and the unnerving moment when it dawns on me that once your Sim gets in a vibrating bed with someone, you really have no way of knowing what is happening on their end of the line. Whatever was happening on Charles’ side of the modem certainly was not what was happening on mine, unless he also had a crowd of journalists gathered around the monitor urging him to announce that he has SimHerpes.
Saying goodbye turns out to be even worse, because while Charles is making plans for their future, I’m pulling the plug on Pixelle. One last click, and she slowly dissolves, blue hair, glitter thong, and all.
And even though she never became the richest or most popular resident of Blazing Falls, there is a twinge of sadness to leaving town, realizing that I’ll never again know who Charles is dancing with, what the Xena crew is chatting about, or what insane business plan Ruby will dream up next. It will be a letdown to go back to being a three-dimensional person with brown hair and ordinary underwear. For a moment, I consider drafting my Sim friends a goodbye letter, but it seems too final, so I decide against it.
Maybe they’ll think I’m just AFK.