Have you ever been a Muslim activist in Uzbekistan? How about a waiter in Bangladesh? Arrested for seditious activities by a corrupt government? Starved to death? I’m guessing the answer to most, if not all, of those questions is “no.” Now’s your chance!
Real Lives is “serious” game that’s also quite casual. Using real-world statistics, a random individual is created and you “live” out their life, with major events and opportunities also generated randomly according to the likelihood of their happening in a real person’s life, in your circumstances. Calling it a game is a bit of a stretch, since you interact with your person’s life only in the most abstract ways (setting a household budget, for example, or choosing which activities your character pursues in his/her leisure time), and like real life, the game is only over when you die. Sometimes, the game is dreadfully short.
There is no jumping from platform to platform, no in-depth management of daily life, no monsters to slay. The gameplay consists of making a few important choices (Do you apply for college? Do you move out of your parents’ house?), and a lot of clicking. Specifically, clicking a button that says “Age a Year,” which causes a year to pass for your character and determines what (if any) significant events happen to your character over that period of time.
The nature of the game makes it casual by default. If you tried to play it for a few hours, it would most likely get ridiculously boring. But if you’re already bored and just looking for some way to pass the time, it is a unique and utterly non-taxing way to do so while learning a bit about life in other countries.
The first time through, I was a male first-born in a family in India; my father was a construction worker, and my mother was unemployed at the time of my birth, though she later got a job as a salesperson. I went to trade school but failed my exams in the second year and had to drop out, whereupon I proceeded to get married, move out of my house, try to have children (I eventually had a daughter, but she died at the age of four), and be as fiscally irresponsible as possible. Unfortunately, I had a rather large sum of money left to me by an uncle when I was in my teens, and since I had invested it well in stocks and land, I ended up being unable to bankrupt myself. I refused to quit smoking (it prompted me every year) and eventually died of a smoking-related heart-attack.
Was it fun? Oddly, yes. Each event, from failing to graduate to failing to impregnate, was accompanied by statistics that told me how many people the same thing happened to in the country of my birth, and compared me to the rest of the national or global population. In years where nothing particularly interesting happens (quite common), random facts about your region, your nation, your religion, or your economic status pop up, with the opportunity to pursue more in-depth coverage of each item. Discovering that malaria affects 1 in every 1600-and-some-odd people in Uzbekistan on my second play through was interesting. Boy, I must have been really lucky to get malaria!
My second play-through was also interesting in that I decided to try to be a terrorist, since I was a Muslim in an ex-Soviet state that doesn’t have the greatest human-rights record anyway. I have no idea if I was successful–the game never came out and said, “You are offered the opportunity to become involved with a large terrorist organization–do you accept?” and I suspect it was not coded to allow for such a possibility anyway. The game is, after all, conceived as a learning tool for students as much as it is conceived as a game (the free demo even comes with lesson plans!), and parents would certainly object.
So I did the next best thing and chose to use my leisure time reading, performing religious duties, and being an activist. My hard work paid off–I was arrested (I refused to confess) twice, and the last time, I was executed. All in a day’s work in the Real Lives of an Uzbeki musician, apparently. With notice of my execution came a list of the human-rights violations in Uzbekistan as reported by Amnesty International’s 2006 Annual Report. Intriguing!
Real Lives is a solid solitaire-replacement. With so little in the free version under your control as far as your initial circumstances go (in the paid version, you can pick your country of origin among other items, which would probably result in a much more predictable game), the replayability is near-infinite, and the interesting quirks of life, with all its tragedies and windfalls, make for “just one more turn” gaming at its most addictive, if the life you are living is an interesting one. It is not likely you will bond with the characters, unless you get one that hits particularly close to home, but that is not what the game is about. Instead, it is likely that you will learn a bit, painlessly, and maybe come away with a little more sympathy for the plight of others the world over.
And you just might die of malaria in the process!