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By Jacqui Weir-O'Brien

I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about the state of the world, as well of the state of mind of those of us who inhabit it. I emerged from adolescence in the mid nighties - a time when so many film makers were questioning how real ‘reality’ truly was. So I’ve seen Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor and, of course, The Matrix. No big deal - millions of people have watched the same films. However, for me the idea wasn’t new: and I don’t mean in an intellectual way, as in I’d studied the theories before. I mean that I felt myself ‘fall out’ of the system when I was at nursery school. i distinctly remember thinking, in quite a panicked fashion, “I’m hot here!” The panic unfortunately led me to snap back into ‘reality’, and I’ve been pretty much stuck here ever since - I get the occasional hint but nothing as intense as that day sitting on the floor in the story corner. I tried to explain the experience to my mother, but all she did (as per usual) was get very angry and admonish me for ‘daydreaming’ at school. Bear in mind that this was a nursery - definitely more sand-pit than science, but hey…

Anyway, fast forward about 40 years and I’m having a conversation with my sister about the sheer lunacy of fracking, asking why we have to rely on people like Elon Musk to do the R&D that governments should be doing. My little sister, astute as ever, reminded me of the time when I played Sim City:Build It on my phone. BuildIt is a classic skinner box game - the more residents you have the more money the town makes - more money means more residents; but more residents mean more services. And to get the services, you need money to build. So far, so whatever. The problems occur when the person playing the game refuses to make in-app purchases. Without those purchases everything the player does is at the mercy of the game developers, who imposes time restrictions. That might not seem like a big deal, but those time restrictions are literally the difference between residents going about their business and having to abandon their burning house. My sister reminded me that because I made no in-app purchases when I played (for the grand total of two days) half the town was on fire, and a helluva lot of people had sewage issues. Then she dropped the bombshell - what if we’re existing inside a similar system being run by a ‘cheapskate’ like myself?

I decided to re-download the game to see if it was possible to create a relatively stable city, again without spending money, by just playing a smarter game. I learned what could be sold at the marketplace, how best to use the tiny amount of credit that the game comes with, and even watched thirty second adverts for in-app rewards. But there was still no way to create a world that I would actually like to live in. I tried to keep the energy green, but it just didn’t pump out enough to stop the simulated people from abandoning buildings - so I stuck a coal fired power plant in there, just to keep the lights on. People moved back in, but they hated living so close to the dirty power plant: and unhappy Sims mean fewer taxes collected. As the town grew, the needs grew. Their immediate requirements had to take priority; for example, there was no logic in building a park or a school when I needed to stop toilets from backing up and house from burning down. We see most politicians as greedy, detached and psychopathic - but what if that’s the only way they can be in this particular universe? There will always be decent people out there trying to make a change (I would move to Canada just to have Trudeau as my head of state!) but maybe they can only get so far in a system where the gamer isn’t willing to make those in-app purchases.

That might sound like the most defeatist screed ever, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The system is porous. When I played the actual Sims game, I always made sure I kept it contained. I was using the game merely as a ‘birth to death’ experiment, so I didn’t play online as I didn’t want to find myself with a Sims schedule: however, someone from outside of my system got invited to an event that one of my creations was going to. How did I know? The name. All of the other Sims encountered in the game have proper forenames and surnames - this guy clearly had a username. I can’t remember what it was but it was something along the lines of 00_Mikey_00… That means that in a connected system there really isn’t that much space between a version of the game where everything’s on fire and a version that we would consider utopian.

The really creepy thing about the Sims is that, whether by chance or by design, they possess a certain amount of free will, and seem to understand when what they’re being ordered to do doesn’t fit with their internal narrative. I have two very clear examples from my own playing of the full version of this.

The first was when the married couple I had created (both now deceased) invited one of the neighbours over, while they were at that neighbour’s house. What I didn’t realise when I set the command was that the action would be immediate. The young man closed his notebook, got up and left. The people that had invited him over were still in his house. Because I hadn’t created that Sim, I couldn’t ‘send’ him home - all I could do was get my couple back to their abode and hope to sort the mess out from there.

When ‘my’ couple returned they found the young man standing outside their house, yelling and screaming at no-one. As soon as they opened the door, the young man ran in, sat at the kitchen table and carried on doing whatever he was previously doing in the notebook. I had to programme the command ‘ask him to leave’ five times before he eventually got up and returned to his own home. From a god’s eye view that’s just someone not playing the game properly; but from a Sim’s eye view, a young man felt compelled to run over to his neighbour’s house, experienced mental torment when he couldn’t get inside, and then refused to leave until his mind was settled.

The second incident involved the couple’s son, once he’d grown up. I had programmed him to be musical, so once he reached a certain level of artistry on the guitar, the ability to play for tips was unlocked. So, one afternoon, I sent him off to the local beach to earn some money. Having some stuff to do around the house, I left the game running unattended for about 30 minutes.

When I returned to the game, the first thing I noticed was that the guitar music had ceased. I zoomed in on the area where I’d left him, and he was missing. I clicked on the ‘find my Sim’ button and the camera panned out into the sea. He had gone swimming… No commands, no prompts - he just ‘decided’ to go swimming. Obviously, this doesn’t prove that we’re in a simulation, but it’s so interesting that so many different spiritual paths (the ones that are not based on a hierarchy) believe that this is not the world we’re supposed to be living in. Whether it’s the Gnostics or the Buddhists, that idea that the flesh makes us ‘heavy’ is prevalent.

Taken from a conversation on Facebook messenger, April, 2016

Jacqui Weir-O'Brien, London