Love without the loss; happiness without the disappointment; sex without the impending fear of doom; even for the most successful among us, it's impossible to lead a life free of all the pitfalls one experiences when journeying to their eventual demise.
For many, social simulation games offer the opportunity to take a break from the stress of real life in order to experience a virtual reality, where their decisions are mostly inconsequential and where they aren't burdened with responsibility. But despite its ascension in popularity, I still find living vicariously through the life of a virtual player-character an odd experience.
Take The Sims, for example. The most recognisable and popular social simulation game in the world, The Sims allows the player to create a wacky cast of characters before sending them off into a world of almost infinitely customisable fun and adventure. However, you would be hard-pressed to find a gamer who uses the customisation tools set before them to create a fictional universe, as the majority of The Sims players create versions of themselves, friends and family, before subconsciously granting them lives far more impressive than the ones they are living in reality.
Just try it. Just try creating a character in The Sims who doesn't share a name and aesthetic similarities with you. It's almost impossible, isn't it? Because although social simulations such as The Sims grant players the freedom to create virtual life, the life they end up creating is typically similar to their own, only better. But why is this?
The answer is simple: narcissism. As Westerners we spend the majority of our waking lives "chasing the dream," spurred on by the thought that we can achieve anything if we try hard enough and that only the sky is our limit. We watch reality TV shows that depict unspectacular people enjoying spectacular lifestyles and we convince ourselves that, hey, if these guys can be rich despite possessing no discernible talent and zero life skills, then so can we!
But as time goes by we slowly begin to realise that our mothers were lying to us when they said that we could be anything we wanted to be, and that we aren't special and that MTV isn't going to give us a lucrative TV deal by virtue of us simply existing. So this is where games like YoVille come in. Unlike The Sims, YoVille does not require you to manage your created characters – you do not need to concern yourself with their emotional state, nor do you need to monitor their bowel movements – the only 'goal' is to earn/buy a lot of virtual money so that you can buy shit. Lots and lots of shit. Shit to put in a virtual room that other users will hopefully stumble across and be impressed by. YoVille has 1.5 million monthly users, many of whom fall within the 26-35 age category.
Even more popular than YoVille is Habbo, which boasts 10 million monthly users and again has no real goal other than to impress people. You befriend other users. You buy furniture with real money. You trade that furniture for other furniture. You then invite those users to your room in order for them to come and look at it. It's like a neverending housewarming party, only without the physical interaction.
Admittedly, it's not like the rest of us aren't guilty of using video games as a means of becoming something we're not. EA Sports' 'Game Face' feature allows us to upload photographs of ourselves and play for our favourite teams, whilst multiple fighting games give us the option to turn ourselves into a muscular brawler. However, the key difference between transforming ourselves into a professional footballer and a citizen of YoVille is that one allows us to virtually excel at a profession which we do not, whilst the other simply allows us to buy a nice coffee table in the hopes that faceless people over the internet will think more of us for doing so.
But isn't that what life is all about anyway? The continued pursuit of upgrading your home, your clothes and your salary in order to feel valued by other people? And if you can't do any of those things, then why not do it online, where your superficial urges can't lead to you being kicked out by your landlord for not being able to pay the rent? Where you don't have to worry about achieving that promotion in order to afford that new car, nor are you forced to wear the same clothes two Friday evening's in a row because you can't afford that other outfit you want. Where you can just buy without having to earn your money; buy without having to work; buy without having to worry about bills; buy without worrying about being able to afford to feed your children; buy without worrying about paying for your wedding; buy without the risk; buy without the reward. Buy! Buy! Buy! Buy! Buy!
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