HOLTSVILLE, N.Y. -- Bill Fox spends his days tending his suburban home and two young sons and his evenings micromanaging the lives of virtual people in a computer-animated suburban neighborhood.
When his wife is away at her office job, says Fox, 36, he's "Mr. Mom." But at night, when he sits down in front of his personal computer and boots up "The Sims," Fox is God to families of tiny simulated humans in a half-dozen houses.
"It's hard to run them," he says. "If you let them go on their own, they'll constantly make mistakes. Sort of like a kid. And if you over-control them, it's not as much fun. So there's a real middle ground there."
He is, acknowledges Fox, hooked on "The Sims." "It's amazing, it's fun, it's addictive."
And it's a global phenomenon. Sims addicts of all ages play the "people simulator" obsessively in 14 languages. Released in February, it's this year's most popular computer entertainment (selling 2 million CD-ROMs, at $50 retail, for a $100 million gross so far). Some 100,000 individuals visit www.thesims.com daily to swap families, download new objects for Sim homes, and link to the most creative of the Web's 200 Sims fan sites.
Unlike a conventional game, there is no correct way to play or win. You have to manage your money and your relationships. You've got to constantly call your friends. Because if you neglect them, they drop out of your life. And you need friends to advance in your career and to be happy.
The characters and their homes can be completely customized to fit the whims of each user. So though they may be united in their love of the game, what players do with "The Sims" is a unique reflection of their own values or fantasies.
Like Fox, Raul Da Silva lives on Long Island and is a fervid member of the Sims community. But Da Silva and Fox are worlds apart, which is evident in their radically different ways of playing the game.
Da Silva, 18, is single, lives with his parents, and commutes to Five Towns College in Dix Hills, where he's a freshman.
He found and downloaded Sims that look like him and his girlfriend and built a mansion for them to live in. He totally identifies with his Sim, whom he refers to, in describing his virtual life, as I and me.
"When I began playing," he recalls, "I just moved into one of the houses, and I started working, getting money and fixing the house. Which was so hard. It's like real life. It took forever to build yourself up until you get a lot of money."
Da Silva knows that process all too well. His e-mail name, Burgaflippinman, alludes to the two years he worked at Burger King during high school. And he spent this summer working at an electronics retailer to earn college money.
"So that's why I went online and found the cheat code, which gives you all the money you want. And I designed our dream house. We picked the floor tiles and walls we wanted. We put in a fountain and a pool table and a lot of cool stuff. Now, we just sit around or go for a swim in the pool."
Besides living in online luxury with a girlfriend, Da Silva plays out another variation of his youthful fantasies in a second house in the virtual neighborhood. He and his best buddy -- via Sim lookalikes -- share a bachelor pad with six Sim women. Their innocuous relationship is PG-rated because there's no explicit sex in "The Sims." "That's the game's one flaw," laughs Da Silva.
Twice Da Silva's age and entrenched in full-time domesticity as a househusband, Fox isn't interested in seeing a digital facsimile of himself acting out daydreams in a virtual house. For him, "The Sims" provides a kind of theatrical experience for which he constructs scenarios.
Using a virtual camera that's part of the game, he takes a series of still pictures of his Sim actors, writes a paragraph or two to go with each photo, and posts his comic strip-like story on www.thesims.com. "My friends and I enjoy reading each other's stories," he explains.
Will Wright, creator of "The Sims" and its earlier incarnation, the city-planning-centric "SimCity," says those creative possibilities are precisely the game's appeal. "We wanted it to be as open-ended as possible. So players can come in and choose their own goals to pursue. In some sense, it becomes a funny distorted mirror with every person reading their own values, judgments and goals into it."
For Professor Henry Jenkins, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's interactive media studies program, " 'The Sims' is a technological breakthrough that expands our perception of what a computer game can be. It does so by focusing closely on issues of character and human interaction."
Unlike "SimCity," "which gave you a very high-level abstract view of the problems involved in running a city but never got you into the lives of people," he says, "('The Sims') pushes the boundaries of what constitutes a game by dealing with individual characters, their homes and their interactions with each other."
While females constitute only 28 percent of "The Sims" community, they are avid players.
Ameedah Pollard, 32, of New York, an assistant counselor at a college, has created eight families and plays three or four times a week. "Which is a lot, considering I have two children," she says. "I play at night, after the youngest one goes to bed. I'll play for an hour or two, if I don't get carried away. On the weekend, I'll play longer, just let it run sometimes, to see what the Sims will do when I'm not guiding them."
Oyanka Collazo, 26, of New York, who works as a billing clerk in an office, lives with her mother and sister, Okyro, 16. "My sister and I both play 'The Sims,' separately, for hours on end," says Collazo.
She named her first family Collazo and "gave two guys in the house the names of the kids I hope to have some day, Enzo and Vito. The second family I created was a combination of me and my best friend. I combined our last names and, with the Face-Lift program, I made a Sim that kind of looks like me and one that looks like my friend."
Enzo's first job, as a cop, was a bust. "On a day he was supposed to go to work, all he wanted to do was to swim," says Collazo. "Even though I was giving him the order to go to work, he wouldn't get out of the pool. The second Sim day, the same thing happened. This time, he just refused. He shook his head and explained, in Sim-talk, that he was depressed. So, I said, all right, don't go. But when you miss two days of Sim work, the boss calls on the phone and says you're fired."
She let Enzo swim some more and watch some TV until his little green mood bar indicated he was happy again. And then she found him a job that suited him -- being a criminal.
Josetta Caudill, 37, who is single, works for Xerox and lives in New York with some friends, describes herself as "a late-night person and a computer geek. I play 'The Sims' at least four times a week, sometimes more, for a minimum of two hours. It's the kind of game that once you get into it you no longer notice time passing. Suddenly, it's 5 o'clock in the morning."
She started playing 'The Sims' with a female who lived alone and was named after her. "Then I started searching around for a husband. But I was trying to match myself up with people who didn't mesh with my personality. Even if you proposed to them to get married, they would never do it.
"I finally set up my house with nothing but me and a bunch of guys in it, each with a different astrological sign, figuring one of them was bound to marry me eventually. I tried for diversity. I made a couple of them white, a couple of them Hispanic-looking, and a couple of them black."
One of the Sim housemates did end up marrying her Sim. But then Caudill ran into trouble when she downloaded the White House from thesims.com and placed it on a nearby lot. Living in the house was the agent family. One worked for the CIA, another for the FBI, and a third for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"The INS agent was going to send my husband back to Mexico," she says. "So I killed him. I invited him to dive into our pool. And while he was swimming around, I removed the ladder so he couldn't get out. He ultimately drowned. Good riddance."
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