Second Lives are Lame

I have to admit that it was kind of strange for me when my seven year-old asked me if I wanted to see his wife.  Her name, he told me, is Lucy, and he was saving up his money to buy her a bed.  Unfortunately, he explained, he only had a twin in his house, so he's sleeping on the couch.  But, he was making $600 a week as a preschool teacher, so he figured he'd have enough money in about a month. 


I was all, wha' what?  Until he showed me that this was all going on in the alternate, iPad app universe known as SIMS 3: Ambitions.


I had a vague idea of what this game was about, only because I had heard some of the boy moms in my daughter's class talking about it once.  Apparently, you create an avatar for yourself and then proceed to live an adult life in the game, complete with a job, a mortgage, a budget, chores, and, yes, a spouse.  And if you are really family-oriented, you can even have a kid.  I was sort of under the impression that if my kids were going to play video games, then learning how the world operates is probably more educational than  planting zombie-killing cabbages or obliterating fruit with a ninja sword.  That is, until my kids spent half of spring break living a second life on the iPad while real life passed them by.


I'd ask them what they were doing as they wildly moved their fingers across the screen, to which they would reply, I'm going to the market. Or, I'm fixing the refrigerator.  Or, I'm harvesting my garden.  Or, my personal favorite, I'm playing with my toddler.  And I'd be like, well, how about coming to the real market with me?  Or, if you're enjoying chores so much, how about cleaning your room?  Or, how about going outside and playing with me?  But always, the answer was no, mom, I have to go to work in five minutes, or no, mom, I just need to make $300 more so that I can install a movie-theater in my house.


I tried to understand.  I really did.  I sat down and made them show me what was so exciting about a video game that requires you to do all of the things that I hate doing in real life on a daily basis.  I mean, what is so great about going to the market, or fixing the refrigerator, or buying a home theater that you can't actually watch anything in?  It's just fun, they said.  We can't explain it, it just is.  But, I argued, wouldn't it be more fun to actually do those things? Or, wouldn't it be more fun to do real kid stuff, like play games or go to the park or have a friend come over?  I can understand the appeal of a game like this for a grownup who has no friends or family and wants to live vicariously through an avatar, but for kids who could be doing a million other things that are infinitely more fun?  I just don't get it.  And my kids, without even looking up from the screen,  were like, uch, mo-oom, we don't even know what vicariously means.


So I took the stupid game away and made them look up the word vicariously in the dictionary.  My son cried.  What about Lucy? he wanted to know.  I told him to go to the fake courthouse and file for a fake divorce.  She wasn't that cute, anyway.



Interesting. Here are some thoughts. Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, when we were all very young and everyone lived in the forest, there was a game played by all little girls I knew save one...and me. It was called "house"...and it involved exactly the same sort of activities you described in your column. Shopping, cooking, looking after children, being married, paying bills (yuppers), cleaning, chatting with the neighbors, going to the doctor...occasionally playing doctor...getting married...real life stuff. The rules were rigid and surprisingly complex. O, it was played with dolls of sundry sorts, and in playhouses with tea sets made of everything from plastic to porcelain...but it was little different from what you describe. Boys played too, up to a certain age...because that's what their parents did.
Now, I loathed "house" and would not have a thing to do with the wretched business. Not a chance. I never dreamed of husband or wife, children (brrr), white dresses and veils, flowers or churches. I wanted to be an archaeologist and live in a black painted house with leaded glass, mullioned windows and crimson accoutrements, Victorian furniture, fringe and tassels and a silent pool under a stained glass dome for my private use only.
Parents encouraged and accepted it as part of development. Kids had personas: the Mom, the Dad, the baby...often Mrs. or Mr. So-and-so, or Baby Whoits. It's called role-playing...and it isn't all that weird.
Nor is it only adults with no lives who like this sort of thing. I am not much of an electronic son has limited access to The Box and grows very bored with it if his friends aren't involved. I find electronic games can never proceed beyond the limits set by the game's designers. You can't pick up a giant boulder, or Dempsey Dumpster, or fellow character and heave it at an irritating foe...that isn't in the program. Or invent a clever plan involving anything that isn't part of the package. Once you've outwitted the existing're finished. Phooey.
Adults play RPG's...role-playing games. Like (OMG) Dungeons & Dragons (but not just that, there are dozens, if not hundreds of different games...not all involving knights and princesses and magic). They create characters, and do things and have a lot of fun with it. They are not all losers who live in their parents' basements or garages, sporting neck beards and squashy physiques, who live on pizza and cheese puffs. I've known teachers, professors, geologists, preachers, scientists, a priest, IT programmers, pilots, soldiers, executives...all sorts, with "normal" (ugly word) lives who like to get together and play all night. No beer, no smoking, just a lot of entertainment. A lot of us are married, with kids. Some of us are even kind of old...we have grown children and all...We even have families we love, and clean our houses. I am probably the oddest of the lot I know, as I do have a cobalt buzz cut and tattoos...but my DH is an IT administrator for a petroleum exploration company and looks pretty much like a suburban dad. My son, 14, loves RPG's, one of his friends has a dad who runs a game for them. Nothing wrong with exercising the imagination, or playing a role for a while.
So, pitch the electronics...too limiting...but encourage the fantasy. If they're so obsessed with the mundane, maybe that's because they're not being exposed to enough of the otherwhere to stimulate their imaginations. You have control over their media (books are good. You remember books?) input, so get a little wild, and maybe someone will decide to be a barbarian or princess or magician or space traveler rather than a worried husband with a budget in their fantasy world.