One difficulty is trying to keep everybody happy. They need meaningful work, but also adequate rest, exercise, and to be engaged in some kind of artistic pursuit or hobby. Balance can be difficult to achieve. If, for example, Amanda spends too much time at the easel producing masterpieces in watercolour, her emotional values will soar, but her finances will suffer because she has forgotten to go to work.
Let this go on too long, and consequences multiply. Amanda might get fired. She may become careless about personal hygiene, forgetting to shower and put on clean clothes. There’s no food in the fridge, no one is doing the laundry, and she and Keith have begun to argue about her lack of interest in the family. One day someone arrives at the door from Children’s Services and takes the kids away. Now Amanda is depressed—the very thing she was trying to avoid by doing all that painting! So there needs to be balance.
Her own children lured Sheila into the game. She watched them enjoying themselves, saw how absorbed they were and heard them talking about designing houses and deciding how many kids to have. “Try it,” said Nate. “It’s fun.”
She’d dipped a toe in cautiously. What she’d really wanted was to simply have a turn at playing Nate’s game. But he had said no, his Para family had already become complicated enough with backstory that he had to be at the controls himself. She would have to create her own account. This was a commitment she wasn’t ready for, but eventually her curiosity won out.
She was hooked almost instantly by all the tools available to her, all the possibilities for her Paras. She created a family: Amanda and Keith, both 38, Liam, 11, and Michaela, 9. Then she built them a house, a lovely two-storey suburban home with a pool and three-car garage. The house had a large kitchen, where Amanda and Keith cooked elaborate meals. There was a studio, too, where Amanda set up an easel and began painting. So far, so good.
It is clear to Sheila that Amanda is at the centre of things. She is the story’s main character, if you like. For example, it seems to be up to Amanda to organize the children and see that everyone is where they are supposed to be at the right time. She doesn’t (necessarily) have to do all the work, but she does need to be in charge of it.
Sheila wonders if this is true, or if her own bias has created this reality. “Who is really in charge of this family?” Sheila asks.
Life ticks along for the virtual family. Amanda and Keith are busy at their jobs, but they make time for hobbies, too. Keith is a marketing specialist at a big manufacturing company. He likes to cook, and he also plays tennis and piano and he’s restoring a vintage car in the garage. Amanda is a real estate agent. She has recently taken up painting, and she reads a lot, too. The children might be watching too much TV.
In all, they seem like a stereotypical family. They get up, get ready for work and school, eat meals together, watch TV and read, talk on the phone, argue, and go to bed. Not every day and not always in that order. This is okay for a while, but Sheila wonders if this is all there is.
The fact that she is playing a sophisticated version of house isn’t lost on Sheila. And, just as it was when she was young and played house with her friends, the game can be boring. Everyone seems to do the same things over and over again, and in place of real conflict the players bicker and squabble. It is a bit like a soap opera. Still, the family is strangely compelling, and Sheila slips into their world regularly, after her own children are in bed. Later she recalls that she’s done this for several months, remembering details from the lives of her Paras, but few from her own.
It isn’t long before Sheila notices that much of the family’s energy is devoted to buying things. Having built a big house, her Para family now have the task of filling it. Part of the problem, Sheila realizes, is that she has no talent for architecture or design, and so the house has funny proportions and cavernous rooms that are much too large and out of scale for the furniture. While it was fun to build a living room that’s 30×40 feet, the couch and armchairs look ridiculous huddled in the corner of this mostly empty room.
Conveniently, though, at the bottom of the screen is a BUY button that links to a store where Amanda and Keith can buy anything imaginable for their home. So what if the living room is too big? Just buy more furniture. They go on a bit of a spending spree, purchasing new kitchen appliances (Amanda has always wanted stainless steel), a new TV for the master bedroom, and two sets of patio furniture. When they’ve finished shopping, they throw a party.
One day when Amanda is in the shower—taking extra time, letting the jet of hot water massage the base of her skull—a text bubble appears on the screen next to her head. It says, Emotional -2, Life Satisfaction +1, Money +21. Sheila hasn’t seen this before, and she’s puzzled. Until now she’s been managing her family intuitively, clicking and selecting options she hopes will lead to desirable outcomes.
On the Help menu, she learns that her game people are more like her than she’d realized. A positive mood is important, and so is life satisfaction. Unfortunately, so are job satisfaction and financial security. Suddenly, Sheila finds herself responsible for her Paras’ happiness, success, and general wellbeing.
Soon Sheila is spending more time figuring out how to keep their values at the right levels. They are busy and active, but to maintain their satisfaction levels, they need to earn more money and have more stuff. To earn more money, they need better jobs. Eventually this will make them happy, she learns.
The only way to do this effectively and efficiently is to cheat. Sheila learns about cheats from her kids. Yeah, they tell her, it’s not really any fun without the cheats. There’s an internet site that lists codes for the game—money, friends, mood, needs. It’s easy to tweak these values, improve moods and make time for hobbies in just a few clicks. Now there is time for Keith to play the piano to improve his mood, and there’s money to buy the piano, too. Nothing is too extravagant—they install a teleporter to beam them from one floor of their massive home to the next. Soon a text prompt appears onscreen informing Sheila that her virtual family have been approved to adopt a child.
They have a lot of parties. Life is good. But there’s crime, too. Someone breaks in at night. No one is hurt, but they need to install an expensive alarm system. Back to the cheats for more money!
Now mood and satisfaction values are all over the place. Keith works all the time. He receives special commendations for good work, so those values are up. But he’s never at home, and eventually this affects his mood. The kids’ emotional values suffer too. Amanda spends too much time in her studio. The house is a mess. Forget about adopting that child, the social worker tells her.
Sheila is fed up with her high-maintenance family. For fun, she decides they should throw a pool party. After buying a new barbecue, more patio furniture and pool toys, Amanda sends out invitations. Friends and neighbours arrive on a hot Saturday. They splash and play, floating, chatting, eating, and drinking, all afternoon.
Sheila watches them in the pool, swimming and splashing. She waits until there is just one child left in the pool—a teenage boy—and on a whim, she goes to the game settings and takes away all the pool ladders, wondering what he will do.
At first, he doesn’t notice. Then, with accelerating panic, he swims from one edge of the pool to another, looking for a way out. Sheila had thought her Paras might be this doltish—why doesn’t he just climb out on the side of the pool like any normal teenager would? Before long, others have noticed that the boy is in trouble. They are shouting, gesticulating with flailing arms, calling 911, trying frantically to raise the alarm to the person beyond the screen.
But Sheila doesn’t respond. She looks on as everyone tries to help. Then she sees that the boy in the pool has stopped swimming. His posture droops and his colour is tinged grey.
Sheila didn’t expect this, and as she considers why, she notices a figure approach. It enters from behind the fence—moves right through it, in fact—and party guests clear a path for it. Sheila draws a quick breath. It is the Grim Reaper. The boy’s flaccid body floats up into the air and dissolves, and the figure in black exits the way it arrived.
Sheila is stunned, chastened, can feel her cold heart pounding. She leaves the game for a few days, maybe a few weeks, but returns.