By Pamela Teh
In the real world I'm an intern with dreams of exotic travel, looking to find my place in the field of journalism. So when my editor sent me on a fact-finding mission into The Sims Online (TSO), I thought: it's cheap, it's nearby, I don't have to pack, and I still get to experience a new culture and meet new people. Perfect. TSO is one of many massively multiplayer games, but it's worlds apart from the typical "shooter" game. TSO is a fantasy world of not-so-everyday living. This is my virtual travel diary.
Before you can start playing TSO, you must choose a hometown. I select "Blazing Falls," described in the glossy brochure as "a land for those who are playful in spirit," which I am, "[with] miles and miles of tropical beaches, complemented by a smattering of brochure-quality islands." Next, I create my in-game identity. TSO lets you choose the gender of your character, its skin color, head, and an outfit from 226 choices. I feel like Dr. Frankenstein as I attach a clown's head to a female dressed in street clothes. Instead, I opt for a more approachable look and fulfill a secret childhood desire to look like Barbie. I name my character "Florencia" and prepare to "meet" some Sims.
I check out a map of Blazing Falls with blinking red lights identifying other active players. The town is separated into many neighborhoods, most named by players — Million Dollar Mafia HQ, Famiglia di Cartelii, Gambino Family Territory — someone's been watching too much Sopranos. To get a better grasp of the multiplayer atmosphere, I look for a house with more than a few players inside, settling on the oddly named "Logical Garden."
Never having chatted online with strangers before, I feel nervous and fear rejection. There are 12 Sims on the premises — some playing chess or computer games, some shooting pool, and a few running around in their bikinis and swim trunks. I type a "hello" and it appears in a speech bubble above Florencia's head for all to see.
No one responds. I feel estranged, lonely, and awkward. In real life, I start to hum. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I'm gonna go eat worms. I throw out a few questions like, "How do I play?" "What is there to do in this house?" and "Where can I buy some furniture?" Unfortunately, the only responses I receive are a few LOL's (laugh out loud). Big fat juicy ones, little tiny squirmy ones, I'm gonna go eat worms. I think I prefer being ignored to being laughed at. I feel like the new girl in school at recess when no one wants to play. Worse yet, how am I supposed to prevent my social bar from depleting when no one wants to socialize?
Social bar? Allow me to explain. "Social" is one of every Sim's eight basic needs, which also include hunger, comfort, hygiene, bladder, energy, fun and room. When any one of these bars gets too low, bad things start to happen. The first bar to run low is the bladder bar. Not wanting to be the new girl who peed on the floor, I quickly locate the bathroom. I click on the toilet and take a seat. Florencia is blurred to ensure that the private remains private. But seeing her use the toilet still makes me feel naked. A Sim from the swimming pool says, "I see you." I want to roll my eyes at him but I can't find the "roll eyes at jerk" button.
As I continue to wander around Logical Garden, a male Sim asks if I want to play. I'm excited to be acknowledged and quickly type, "Yes." But before I can blink, I find him greeting another female Sim with a passionate hug and kiss! Do I lose points for staring? Should I turn around and give them privacy? He types, "I'm sorry but my girlfriend's here. Can't play." I stand alone, feeling stranded. Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, sittin' in the garden eatin' worms.
I wonder what the others are thinking. Am I having a meltdown? And the fact that I'm asking scares me. After all, it's only a game. Which brings me to the question: How much of my identity should I invest in my Sim character? As I leave Logical Garden, the rest of the Sims pretend to be monkeys.
TSO role-playing reminds me of playing with Barbie dolls as a kid, except that Barbie and Ken didn't have bladder indicators and I had full control over every doll's reaction. In TSO, you don't have that power. Your fantasy is immersed in, and dependent on, the fantasies of others.
Before re-entering TSO, I quickly remind myself that this is just a game and that I should focus on exploration. I beam myself into Creative Charisma Castle. A half-dozen Sims are sitting at a row of pianos playing feverishly, like sewers in a sweatshop. I join the chain. Playing the piano increases your Sims "creativity" skill. As a particular skill level is increased, one gains access to new ways of interacting. But as I increase Florencia's skill level, boredom strikes. I leave.
Next I stop by a club called Star's Dance Club. Florencia wanders around inside and soon stumbles on a McDonald's kiosk, thanks to a multimillion-dollar deal between EA Games and the fast food giant in 2002. Just when I thought I could escape the golden arches, it's the game. Can you imagine a McDonald's kiosk in a real club? Not only would you leave with the stench of cigarettes on your clothes and hair, but also the aroma of grease. Nice. Out of curiosity, I buy an apple pie for eight "simoleans," the game's currency. The simolean to U.S. dollar exchange rate is not defined, but that still seems like one expensive virtual pastry.
I had one of my best experiences today at a place called Kissing Booth. I exchanged balloons — a friendship transaction — with "DallasX." He is the first Sim I've added to my "friendship web." The friendship web allows you to bookmark your friends. As your web grows, you gain access to different "transactions" such as back rubs.
The warm welcome from DallasX makes me feel more at ease with this new environment. Slowly, I let my inhibitions go. I simply stop caring about what other people-controlled Sims might think of me. I decide to have a blast.
I stumble across a treasure chest and click on it. Suddenly I have a cornucopia of costumes at my disposal. It's dress up with Barbie all over again! I change into a serpent superhero costume with a cape and yellow scaly tights. I have a sudden urge to run around with my hands in the air like Superman. I hop on a mechanical bull and select the medium setting. After all, I am Super Serpent Cowgirl.
"Yyeeehaaa! Woohoooo! Who's your daddy?" I type for all to see. Just when I was really getting the hang of it, Florencia falls off the mechanical bull. DallasX says, "ROFL," and suggests the easy mode for now. I ask, "What is ROFL?
"Rolling on floor laughing," comes the reply.
I type, "ROFL ROFL hahahhahaha."
Back in reality, I'm laughing my head off and the colleague who shares my cubicle is sending me looks that ask, "Are you normal?"
Today, I decide to retire Florencia and create a new character. I pick a handsome male with long dark brown hair and a goatee, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. I name him "PBS Reporter." The name reveals my purpose, but my physical identity is masked by my avatar's male gender. I've always wondered what it would be like to be a man and this is the closest I'll ever get.
I select a city named Interhogan, a "lush paradise of tranquility" and "a place to satisfy the romantic in you." My target destination is a club called Hot Bodies. This is where "roomies will do what they can to help you stay hot. Clothes optional, !@# get naked and hot with us." Sounds like a personal ad. This should be interesting. I enter.
The club "owner," Connor, welcomes me. We chat a little and he claims that he beta tested The Sims in 2002. He tells me that he has been playing TSO for 500 days. Interestingly, DallasX back in Blazing Falls told me the very same thing. Is it possible that DallasX and Connor are the same person? Considering how easily I changed my own identity, you can never be too sure.
My name gets me some attention. A speech bubble appears and reads, "Are you a PBS reporter irl [in real life]?"
"Yes," I bubble back.
All believe me except for one Sim. And I don't blame him a bit. After all I could be anybody, even a female posing as a male Sim.
I enter Hot Bodies looking to question Connor about a possible alter ego in Blazing Falls. To my dismay, he is offline. I receive a warm welcome from the others and decide to do a bit of dancing. Having not been dancing in the real world for some time, I look to TSO for a virtual fix. I jump into a dance cage and watch PBS Reporter go wild. In time, four other Sims jump into individual dance cages around me. It doesn't take long to notice that we all have the same moves. I ask, "Are these copyrighted?" This gets me several "LOL"s. They think I'm funny!
As my man bangs his head on the bars, I type, "shake shake shakin' it like a Polaroid picture."
"I'm an Outkast fan too," a Sim replies.
My strangest interaction today is surely my encounter with "Tessa di Amour." It all starts when I notice a Sim asleep. I click on her and find that I can select "romance" as a transaction. "Miss Tessa," I bubble, "what happens when you romance a sleeping Sim?" She tells me that I might get slapped. Might get slapped, huh? I sense an opening, but I'm not sure I'm ready to find out where this is leading.
Tessa di Amour says, "I'll go and lie down so you can molest me."
Unprepared for this, I say, "Molest you?! I'm not that kind of guy."
"I promise I won't slap you," she says. Hesitantly, I play along while she continues to say things like "!@#! me good." I laugh this off as playful flirting banter. At this point I realize that my Sim has limited options — because PBS Reporter is a newbie, his character requires further development to gain more "transactions." He can only cat call or blow kisses at Tessa. Both seem pointless and not at all romantic.
Curious as to what might develop, I spur on the conversation. Tessa di Amour offers to show me a real romance exchange. I accept her offer. Tessa di Amour and my PBS Reporter share a few passionate kisses (is this acceptable PBS behavior?) and I get my PBS Reporter's butt grabbed. All this in the name of journalistic research. It was oddly exhilarating but I'm not sure what this means, nor do I really want to know. Miss Tessa could be a man in the real world. Have I entered a new realm of issues? Never mind.
All in All
As I left TSO for the last time, I felt a touch of sadness saying goodbye to the "people" I had connected with. That, I think, is why the game could easily become an addictive trap. The emotional connections I made inside TSO made me want to log on continuously, if only I had the leisure time.
Despite my attempts to alter and conceal my true identity, my real personality inevitably crept in. At the same time, I had the freedom to explore sides of myself that I tend to keep under wraps. The ability to appear as any type of person I chose and the ever present "quit" button allowed me to explore without fear. In this way, The Sims really is like taking a vacation, but instead of a break from your hometown, it can be a holiday with your truer, more playful self.