The Family In The Computer Next Door

Okay. So. I'm going out to lunch and this friend of mine, Lena, starts talking about this new family in her neighborhood. They're called the Nubis or something like that. An African name, I think to myself. The father really isn't getting along with the kids the way he should, and she's thinking about bringing in Mr. Spock.

"Oh you mean Doctor Spock, the child psychologist? You're going to give them his books?" Lena's never seemed like a fan of Dr. Spock, but people keep surprising me...

"No, Mr. Spock. You know, pointy ear guy."

I look at her for a moment, just in case she hasn't heard what her own mouth seems to be saying. When she just looks back at me, I decide to talk her through it.

"You want to bring Mr. Spock into the Nubi household."

"Yeah, I think it'll be fun," says Lena, her head bobbing.

"How is that... possible?"

"It's just a game!"

And so it is. Apparently, I'm one of the last people on Earth not to know about The Sims, a computer game which allows you to design your own family, make your own household for them, and assign them personality traits. But the characters are very complex wind-up toys: whatever you decide for them at first, eventually you'll play a less and less active role as the personalities take on a life of their own. (Your first family's name is usually the "Newbies," not the "Nubis.")

Some people call this "playing God." I think it's a little bit more like "playing Mom." Sure, the characters you create can be all different ages, but when we bring up our children, we hope we bring them up well enough to raise children of their own. In a real way, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are "our children" too.

And we do our best to decide our children's personalities, but one of the necessary parts-- and the hardest parts-- of parenthood is letting go of our kids, knowing when not to decide things in their lives. It's the only way they can make us proud, the only way they can become people.

Lena's a lot less philosophical.

"You get to select heads and bodies," she goes on, "and pick how much they're going to get of five personality traits... nice, outgoing, neat, playful, active... and six skills... cooking, mechanical, charisma, body, logic, and creativity..."

My head is swimming already.

"So can they all be neat AND creative? Wouldn't the creative ones have to be messy just to be different?"

The "heads and bodies" thing seems to be a lot less like parenting, a lot more like Victor von Frankenstein than June Cleaver. But then I think about the braces and eye surgery my parents paid for. And then I think about the fascinating and frightening things we're doing with genetics today. No matter whether or not you believe it's right to decide these things for our kids, the choices are still there.

"So where does Mr. Spock come in?"

"Fans. People who play this game a lot can add their own people designs to it and share 'em around. You can even put Mr. Spock's head on Richard Nixon's body!"

By now, we're in definite Frankenstein territory. I try to steer us back.

"But the really important thing," I say, "is that you're building a family that has a long and happy life."

"Actually, a lot of people like to see the system break down. It's kind of a power thing. Think electronic dollhouse, Wally."

Okay. I give up. Maybe this game appeals to our inner child, the one that wants to build a sand castle and then kick it down again, but I can't see how it brings anything to us as parents...

But then I think one more time. How many times have I imagined coming home to a burning house, or losing my own family, or having an ugly fight with them? They're all things I'd never want to see happen in real life, but imagining them can help me remember to turn off the gas, have courage when somebody gets really sick, and say "I'm sorry" when I should. If I could practice for those worst-case scenarios in something that was "just a game..."

Lena is a mother, and a very good one at that. She says The Sims relaxes her, but it may also prepare her. By watching families get built up, and even broken down, in this computed reality, she might be better prepared to handle the real one.

It's nice to think a game is teaching that, especially when most computer games seem to teach us little more than how to navigate corridors and shoot things for fun.