Real Lives

I’ve always felt like video games were, in some sense, responsible for my starry-eyed idealism as a youngster. Now, this might have been nothing more than the same experience that virtually all teenagers have of feeling invincible. But I remember half-consciously thinking that if I bombed a certain test in high school, I could always just load my game and try again. A few seconds later my brain clicked in to remind me that there was no saved game — I would only get one shot at the test.

That’s the thing about video games: they make you feel like anything’s possible. If a game catches my interest, I almost always play to win. Even if I’m lousy at the game, I can almost always do it with enough time, patience, and reloading. And this is without even mentioning the realms of possibility that the typical science fiction and fantasy settings evoke.

Given my white, suburban, male upbringing, that might not have been an inappropriate message for me to be raised with. After all, for a kid like me in the land of the free, the sky (and my own abilities) really could have been the limit. If I had applied myself as a child, today I might be a doctor, an astronaut, or the youngest middle-manager ever of my local cracker factory. Or at least that’s what they tell me.

I think the main thing that I took from Real Lives is exactly the message I needed as a child: in the real world, not everything is possible for everyone. Granted, I had figured this out on my own a while back, but it’s a lesson worth keeping in mind.

When I first started up Real Lives, I was an Indonesian girl by the name of Marina born to a family that already had two other children. We all lived in a one-room dwelling, and the best job my mother could find was as a “scavenger of used goods.” I thought everything was going pretty well for me as a teenager, besides some malnourishment as a child. I had a minor romance, avoided drugs and alcohol, and I spent a lot of time studying. Then I graduated from secondary school. I failed the exams for college. I failed the exams for trade school. My romance became more serious and my parents kicked me out as a result.

I thought I must have done something wrong. Luckily, Real Lives comes equipped with that invincibility tool I’ve grown so fond of — the ability to reload an earlier state. So I tried again. Things went a little differently, but not a whole lot better. After four or five tries like this, I realized that no matter what choices I made, there wasn’t much of a chance for this poor Indonesian girl to make it into college.

So I gave up. I watched my brother and sister get hooked on drugs and eventually die as a result. My forbidden love and I scratched out a living. I tried (with moderate success) to raise my own kids with better chances than I was born with. Famine came, I watched my husband get drafted into a war, and I tried to make the best of what I had. Is this starting to sound more like real life than a game? Because that’s what Real Lives tries to do: simulate real lives around the world.

In case you think this is simply a bleeding heart exercise to pity the poor, in Real Lives even the more fortunate people in the world are bound by their circumstances. Should you be lucky enough to be born to decent economic circumstances in an industrialized country, you still have to face that little discussed factor in how our lives turn out that we call luck. You might make just the right choices and come from just the right background; nevertheless, you have to face factors beyond your control. You might not be smart enough, your dream job just might not be hiring, or maybe you watch your savings disappear as the stock market takes a dive. In any case, it’s worth remembering that even for the most fortunate of us, there might be possibilities beyond our reach.

As a piece of educational software, Real Lives has a lot more to offer than just this one lesson, of course. It’s packed with plenty of facts about the lives of people in each country, and there are links for users to follow to get more information if they want it. I’ve led about nine lives so far, and even though this software is designed for children I’ve learned a good deal about each place I lived, including the United States.

Because Real Lives is billed and marketed as educational software, so you won’t find all the bells and whistles you’d expect from the newest entertainment titles. The interface is simple, as are the graphics. You don’t get the level of detail you might be expecting after playing The Sims. What you get instead is a much broader experience. From Australia to Uzbekistan, you can try walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.