chapter four: the phantom who loved itself
The Sims Social is as sharp a computer tool as the blacksmiths in Silicon Valley have yet forged. It’s not a Tamagotchi — it’s a mini-us (or a mini-otherperson). That’s always been the appeal of The Sims: look at the little people inside the screen, there. Now it’s been skin-grafted onto Facebook’s thigh, where it coddles our narcissism — we all have narcissism (it’s all over us like bacteria) — and massages our brains.
The Sims Social is a game about sitting around in your house, playing the computer. The Sims Social is “The Life and Times of Everybody Tweezerhands”.
I’ve had a good think about it — and about The Modern Culture, and of the Global Financial Crisis, and I realize it’s all the same thing. It’s all one big bloody, messy thing. I’ve got my hands in it up to the elbows. I’ve got my forearms in it. I’ve got my forearms in it, and it’s paying my rent.
When I think of trying to conclude this essay, all I can remember is The Smaller Man and The Larger Man. They’re Stanford men; they wear suits well. They’re several years younger than I am. They look several years older than I am. They’re the swim-team-captain-looking sort of strait-laced white-teethed all-American Caucasians who will someday make a real woman genuinely happy, who send their mothers flowers on Mother’s Day. Even if I hadn’t seen their Facebook pages and knew what I was about to say was a fact, I’d theorize that they probably have photos on their Facebook pages of themselves in Nigeria or Namibia or Kenya or some other African country whose name instantly screams “Africa” to the modern know-something world-citizen. These country names scream “Africa”, and “Africa” screams “poverty” and “poverty” screams “adventure”. Here’s this guy, playing Modern Day Indiana Jones, his shirt off, a bandanna on his head, a grinning child with a rice bowl at a wooden table, cracked earth behind him. Here’s another photo: he’s lending a hand in building a house, one of those unmistakably “African” trees, all bent and ghosty, popping up out of the crackled reddish earth behind him. He’s got a not-clean towel wedged in the back of his shorts; his bare torso is gleaming with sweat, his tan the color of a roast turkey. His mouth-shape is halfway between joy and irritation — he’s maybe three mood-drops from “inspired”. Get to know him for real, and you’ll see that he was there for a week. Here I am, not building any houses for anybody, at my office in a loft in a sparkling old warehouse — a hipster hovel somewhere near Pixar, in Oakland, California — masterminding two virtual clinical trials for electronic drugs.
The Modern Day Indiana Jones is shrewd, and can go the distance in a pitch meeting. Apparently Zynga has a “bible” of game concepts that will grab inhumane amounts of money, which they will pump into games of increasing complexity. Like Nintendo with the DS, Zynga is inviting a new audience. They are “teaching” a game-ignorant demographic how to play games, by starting with flat-as-a-board exercises (Farmville) in possibly-endless repetition of the most minute game actions (collecting things, numbers going up). Their games grow increasingly labyrinthine (Frontierville, Cityville), introducing game-genre tropes which are “monetized” effectively. Eventually, they have a game that plays something like a real game — Adventure World — and the micro-transactions are waning. Zynga may yet prove to be a not-evil enterprise. However, if we can calculate a man’s height from his footprint in the sand, we can predict that Zynga has already done evil by perpetuating flimsy game models which are mere sugar-coating for a bitter pill of “Show Us The Money”. The modern videogame development is a mathematician’s paradise, where getting the customers addicted is as easy now as downloading pirated music in 1997. As the weapons in the war on the customer’s credit card get sharper (The Sims Social), how can we not say that we might be headed for a crash? When will Fox News step in and proclaim these videogames as monstrously addictive twisted electro-creatures?
An ex-drug-dealer (now a video game industry powerbrain) once told me that he doesn’t understand why people buy heroin. The heroin peddler isn’t even doing heroin. Like him or not, when you hear Cliff Bleszinski talk about Gears of War, he sounds — in a good way — like a weed dealer. He sounds like he endorses what he is selling. When you’re in a room with social games guys, the “I never touch the stuff” attitude is so thick you’ll need a box cutter to breathe properly.
Is it possible to sell a social game the way a weed dealer sells weed? I say, at the end of the day, any game we play which inspires us to talk about it is a “social” game. Like it or not, even alone, we represent a “part of society”. Everything we do is “social”. Just as speaking of “monetization” indicates that you are putting up the illusion of “free” and devising ways the player will pay anyway, calling an activity a “social” activity is a shining clue that all you’re really trying to do is make money with it. You’d figure that would scare away your audience.
One of my favorite stories from the 1,001 Nights is of the fisherman who finds a corked bottle in his fishing net. Maybe that’s not entirely clear — there are literally a hundred variations on this story within the Nights. The one I’m talking about is where the man uncorks the bottle and the genie threatens to kill him.
The genie was trapped in that bottle for 1,800 years. For the first hundred years, he swore he would grant a wish to whoever freed him. For the next hundred, he swore to God he would grant two wishes. A hundred years later, he was praying to God every day, promising he would grant three wishes. A hundred years later — and for fifteen-hundred long years — every day he cursed God through his teeth and promised he would kill whoever freed him.
The lowly fisherman, with a sudden spark of shrewdness, convinces the genie that it would be proper to not kill an innocent man without answering a simple question. The genie obliges: the question is this: how did the genie fit in the bottle? The answer is that he can bend space and time readily; the fisherman asks for a demonstration. The genie returns to the bottle. The fisherman corks it.
Now the genie begs and pleads. He offers ten wishes, a hundred wishes. The fisherman says he does not trust the genie. The fisherman promises he will throw the bottle back into the water. Then he will erect a fence around the lake. He will warn all fishermen about the genie. He will put up signs saying not to trust the genie in the bottle at the bottom of this lake.
The genie begs and pleads. He prays to God. The fisherman does not listen. He urges the fisherman to tell the whole story. He says that he should let other fisherman judge for themselves whether they should believe that the genie is purely evil. The genie implores the fisherman to tell others how he begged, and of the wondrous offers he made, because only now has he truly repented. The fisherman sees this final wheedle as another sinister plot — as the most perverse type of subversion. He tells the genie he will in fact tell the whole story, including the part about his own suspicion that these final words of the genie are just yet another sinister plot. He casts the bottle back into the lake and does exactly as he said he would do.
We never find out what happens to the bottle. We don’t have to: it’s an idea buried in the collective subconscious, that somewhere there is a magical evil that, possessive of whimsy, depending on its mood may in an act of defiant kindness elect to give one person great power.
The 1,001 Arabian Nights are a kind of Russian stacking doll — stories inside stories inside stories outside of other stories, all surrounded by one big story — and so are their themes. Finally, The 1,001 Arabian Nights are surrounded by the real world — the world which has created the story of a girl telling stories about people telling stories. The genie in the bottle at the bottom of the lake is, in fact, a metaphor for the person (maybe us) who would find that bottle and, heeding the warnings, knowing the legend, set the genie free. What wishes will they make? Will they wish for world peace, or for endless wealth with which to buy influence with which to assemble an army with which to smite their enemies?
People are dying as we play Farmville and update Twitter — and not just in Africa or Cambodia. They are dying everywhere, and they don’t feel very good at all about it. The world is the size of a phone booth, thanks to technology. One man’s cancer cure is another man’s Sims Social airtight engagement wheel.
Here’s the ending of this piece:
The other day, a friend sat across from me at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Oakland, California. He said there’s this girl he likes. He met her on the internet. They’re Facebook friends and they follow each other on Twitter. They’ve hung out twice or thrice a week for a month.
He reminds me that he is not the “type of person” to “actually like” someone. He has never wanted a “girlfriend”. He asks me my opinion as a metaphorically-knife-wielding game-mathematician.
“What should I do?”
“Just text her right now. Ask, ‘Hey, do you want to be my girlfriend?’”
He groans. “I already know she does.”
“Make a move, then.”
“The opportunity never presents itself.”
He tells me that they hang out at shows, or with People She Knows or People He Knows, at bars. He says that, half the time, he thinks he knows what she’s thinking, and that half the time, he thinks he doesn’t know what she’s thinking.
“We have little psychic duels,” he says. “We see how long we can go without texting each other. We’ll text each other back and forth for like an hour–”
“–yeah, I noticed,” I say.
“Yeah, we’ll just keep texting back and forth. And it’s like — a duel to see who doesn’t get the last word. The last word means we’re more interested in actively pursuing the conversation, which means we like the other person more, which means we’re losing. I was thinking about it, and I was thinking about that thing you were talking about — that game you were working on — and I think maybe it’s the same thing.”
“It’s similar,” I say.
I thought about the girl who had recently sent me a message on OKCupid.com. Yes, I have an OKCupid.com profile. These days, that’s at least as normal as being on Facebook or Twitter. Okay — maybe not. Maybe it’s about as normal as playing “Words With Friends”. Some girl messaged me. She said I seemed hilarious. She said she really liked my sense of humor. I wasn’t attracted to her in the least. She asked if I had a blog, and I showed her my blog. She asked if I had a Facebook, and I showed her my Facebook.
On Facebook, I happen to be listed as “In a domestic partnership” with a wonderful lady who lives in Australia — about as far around the world as you can get before you’re on your way back. This girl friended me on Facebook and immediately sent me a message. “You didn’t say on your OKCupid profile that you live with your girlfriend.” I said, “That’s a joke.” She said, “Then change it.” I said, “No; it’s funny.” She said, “I’m not sure I want to talk with you if you’re not willing to change it.” I said, “First of all, graphically, thou art a beast. Second of all, how you gonna go making demands on someone you just e-met thirty seconds ago.”
Back in the present, I let out a “Hmm”.
“So you and this girl are both mentally tough people who know what you want, more or less, and you each respect the other enough to not want the other to respect you less than you respect them.”
“It’s ‘mind games’, eh?” I say. “Most girls’ profiles on OKCupid.com say to ‘message me if’ ‘you don’t play games’. Sometimes, I want to message, asking ‘do you mean mind games, or videogames?’ Because I think I hate both equally, and play both about as often, though always by accident.”
“Huh. And the other thing — once The Last Word has happened, and there’s Radio Silence for a while, usually it’s the person who didn’t get the last word’s responsibility to text next, usually giving an excuse — though never leaning on the excuse. ‘I just had to drive all the way to–’ wherever.”
“Who most often gets the last word?”
“Usually it’s her. Sometimes it’s me.”
“So it’s usually you who reboots the conversation?”
“No — no, actually. Usually it’s her.”
I thought it over. I finished my vegetables — every last one of them (completion bonus). I gulped some water.
“The next time she texts after a conversation has lapsed with her getting the last word,” I say, “text her back immediately — if you see the text as it arrives.”
“That’s usually what I do.”
“Well, here’s what I mean: no matter what time of day or night it is, text her back immediately with ‘Do you want to hang out right now?’”
My friend is silent for thirty seconds.
“Huh,” he finally says. He is silent again. “Huh.”
He’s silent for a minute.
“Huh. Man. You’re, like . . . fuckin’ . . . Sherlock Holmes, over here.”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes I am.” Yes I am Sherlock Holmes.
To put it most bluntly — and this is only a theory — videogames killed videogames. As is often the case with this kind of senseless cold-blooded murder, the finger on the trigger belonged to a videogame-psychosis born of the worst qualities of game design. They are the qualities most ready to be studied: that players like (maybe-)you or me can’t progress to the next dungeon in The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past unless we’re going in with 999 rupees; if we don’t have 999 rupees, we are going to go to the nearest cluster of bushes and hack them down until we do. When a psychiatrist looks at videogames, he’s not going to appreciate the fineness of the sprite art; he’s going to find the elements that get stuck in the brain. We’re all Stockholm-syndromed, halfway in love with videogames; we grew up learning that videogames were awesome, and the makers of the most awesome of all games grew old constantly trying to “recapture” the “roots” of their former glory. The thing is one thing can affect a million people a billion different ways. You can’t trace glory back to one root. So through sequels and remakes and demakes and remakuels demakuels and reboots and rebooquels, time and again, the makers of games presume that each element of a thing is some different someone’s favorite part of that thing. The hardcore gamers, in their fondest appreciation, have left clues littered here and everywhere, pointing even the most uninitiated toward the universal facets of electronic games that most directly touch our brains — that here are things whose chief criticism is that they are “repetitive” and “anti-social” gives the clever people the idea to remedy one thing while amplifying the other. Some clever people picked up the trail . . . and a few years later, here we are, each of us a different kleptomaniac in a different candy shop. God help us; Shigeru Miyamoto help us all.
And check out the epilogue, by clicking “next chapter”, below! I promise you it’s all images. You won’t have to think anymore: it’ll be just like having fun!