Fix your life in a few short hours. And forget about showering

The next-door neighbour's wife is taking a shower in my bathroom. Her husband, until now the only friend I'd made since I moved to this neighbourhood, is slowly dying outside in a small, doorless outhouse I built around him when he went out to look at my swimming pool. I'm busy planning my next move on his wife when I realise I haven't been to the loo all day. Welcome to the world of The Sims, the biggest selling PC game ever, and as close to real life as a CD-ROM has ever got.

The next-door neighbour's wife is taking a shower in my bathroom. Her husband, until now the only friend I'd made since I moved to this neighbourhood, is slowly dying outside in a small, doorless outhouse I built around him when he went out to look at my swimming pool. I'm busy planning my next move on his wife when I realise I haven't been to the loo all day. Welcome to the world of The Sims, the biggest selling PC game ever, and as close to real life as a CD-ROM has ever got.

The Sims was a revolution in two ways. It dispensed with the usual megalomania of people-management games. And it broke beyond the confines of the stereotypical PC gamer to reach an audience who'd rather play interactive EastEnders than interactive Star Wars.

The premise is simple: take control of a person or family, find them a job, find them a lover, and tell them when to wash up. Most importantly, make them money so they can buy nice things: the outdoor swimming pool and, most disturbingly, their own PC, on which they'll sit for hours playing a game that looks distressingly like The Sims itself. Once Sims addiction has you, you'll spend more time feeding your digital avatars than you will your own grumbling stomach. Taking a shower yourself is not even an option.

The normality is what makes it so addictive: you can achieve in an hour what you've been striving to do for maybe a decade. We laugh at simple things that might just happen to us, like forgetting to go to the toilet, or getting slapped for flirting too much with a neighbour. You'll find most Sims owners have had at least one family named after their own. They've directed their own lives in the course they've always wanted to, and taken great delight in puppeteering their peers into embarrassing situations. The Sims is soap opera, The Sims is Big Brother, and it's done for PC games what a million rocket launchers, warriors and wizards could never do.

Alec Meer is a writer on PC Format magazine

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