It was the Swimming Pool Love Killing that first got my attention.

We were driving home one day, my daughters and I, when they started to talk about a computer game they'd been playing at a friend's house. It was something I was vaguely aware that they'd been doing, but the thing sounded benign enough. They got to create little people called Sims, build them houses to live in and then set them in motion, like digitized dolls.

But today one of their Sims had died. And it was no accident.

They had sent her out back, put her in the pool and then deliberately removed the ladder. This works every time, they explained. A ladderless Sim will swim around cheerfully, building up body skill points, until she runs out of energy and drowns.

"Why did you do it?" I asked.

Well, this Sim was part of a love triangle, they told me. "And she was just going to make the other two people unhappy."

Have I mentioned that my daughters are 10 and 12?

I decided to find out more about this game.

Asking around, I found out that half the kids we knew were playing it. A call to NPDTechworld, which tracks such things, confirmed that The Sims was a Genuine Cultural Phenomenon: It's been the nation's hottest-selling PC game for two years running. The next step was to plunk down $39.99 at Office Depot and load the thing onto the IBM clone at home.

A couple of days later, the girls got back from school to find me glued to the screen. I'd created a Sim couple called Jane and John Monday and I was desperately trying to make them happy.

Sims have eight needs that are crucial to their well-being. These are recorded on little horizontal bars, or "sliders," that turn from green to red if the needs are not fulfilled. The sliders are labeled "bladder," "hunger," "hygiene," "energy," "comfort," "fun," "social" and "room." Most needs are self-explanatory: If your Sims are low on energy, for example, they should go straight to bed, and if their hygiene is in the red, a shower is advisable. "Room" is a bit more subtle. It reflects how well a Sim likes the environment you've placed him in.

I was having a hard time getting John and Jane's room scores into the green. I figured it was because they couldn't afford nice art for their walls, but my children diagnosed the real problem at a glance. It seems I'd made a slight mistake in constructing the Mondays' lovely ranch-style home.

"You have no floor," they told me.

Well, d'uh.

"The floor thing is probably your answer."

'I'm Going to Have to Buy Her Something'

There comes a point, if you're a parent with some pretensions to helping shape your family's value system, where you realize that fighting popular culture is a finger-in-the-dike proposition. There's a raging ocean of it outside your door, pumped out by the Great American Entertainment Machine, and it floods the malls, washes over the schools and seeps through modems and fiber-optic cables straight into your living room. Love it or hate it, it's out there, and sooner or later, your kids will have to learn to navigate it on their own.

It's a natural part of growing up, is one way to look at this. But it forces kids to grow up too soon, is another. In either case, it represents a scary transition for parents, part of the ever-present tension between the impulse to shelter and the need to let go.

And for me, right now, this transition is symbolized by my girls' fascination with The Sims.

I should say right away that, despite my somewhat lurid first encounter with the game, it really is benign by comparison with much of what the Entertainment Machine pumps out. Yes, your Sims can drown or burn up in a kitchen fire or die of neglect, but they can't harm other Sims -- the most violent move in their repertoire is a jealous slap. Compared with the average shoot-'em-up computer game, the prime-time lineup on network television or the Hollywood pulp reviewed regularly in the Style section, Sims look like conscientious objectors to our national obsession with graphic gore.

As I've immersed myself in the game, in fact, I've had to acknowledge the overall ingenuity of it, as well as its quirky humor and its creative open-endedness. (You never really "win" playing The Sims, though you can achieve a variety of self-

selected goals.) I've spent some quality time with its principal designer, Will Wright, who turns out to violate more game-

designer stereotypes than he confirms. Most intriguingly, I've discovered that The Sims has broken the gender mold: It appeals to males and females in relatively equal numbers. In the testosterone-driven universe of digital gaming, this is a stunning development.

But I've also kept stumbling over the basic "Buy me! Be happy!" premise of the game. To meet your Sims' needs efficiently, it turns out, the main thing you have to do is get them more and better stuff; these surprisingly lifelike creatures are permitted no higher aspirations. And it's been startling to learn that after you load your first Sims "expansion pack," your Sim couples can romp noisily in bed. The game has a teen rating, which means it's supposed to be inappropriate for the under-13 crowd. Yet most of the parents I've talked to don't even know that computer games have a rating system.

First things first, though. Before I started playing culture critic, I had to get Jane and John into better moods.

Back when I first created the Mondays, I was awarded 20,000 "simoleons" with which to build and furnish a house. Construction costs ate up most of this, but with what little remained, I bought them a few basics. A double bed (hey, it was less expensive than two singles). The cheapest bathroom essentials: a shower, a sink and a toilet. A refrigerator, a stove and a Recycled Couch ("Break the cycle of consumption and waste," the tongue-in-cheek product description read). When I was done, I was down to my last 20 simoleons, and John and Jane were badly in need of jobs.

"I don't think people realize how much tactical and strategic forethought goes into their daily lives," Wright once told an interviewer, and his game hammers home this point. On its most basic level, it's a fiendishly realistic time-management exercise. Once your Sims find work, you've got to worry about getting them out the door on time. They've got to be in a good mood to get promoted, which means that you've got to keep those eight needs met or they'll stay poor. They must also develop certain skill areas before they can advance up their chosen career ladder -- they get logic points for playing chess, for example, and body points for exercising -- and all these things take precious time.

What's more, all upwardly mobile Sims need friendship networks. This means establishing and maintaining relationships with other Sims from the neighborhood, which is yet another time suck and which conflicts with their efforts to swim their daily laps, get eight hours of sleep, have a healthy amount of fun, or -- well, you get the picture. When I described to my wife the stresses of trying to oversee this daily juggling act, she smiled.

"Oh, you get to be a mother," she said.

I was lousy at it.

I played for five hours that first day, and the lack of floors was the least of my problems. John and Jane both needed sleep, but they refused to share the bed (it turned out they needed a better relationship first). They promptly ate up all the food they could afford, then kept opening and closing the refrigerator while the soundtrack emitted pathetic noises. I got John a job on the night shift, then forgot to get him any sleep before he had to work. After I'd made him late two days in a row, he got fired.

Flies buzzed around the trash can.

The stove kept bursting into flames.

The sink broke and overflowed.

This was the last straw for Jane. Too tired to clean up the mess, she just stood there in the kitchen and sobbed. Her existential despair upset me far more than it should have, given that she was nothing but a bunch of animated pixels. "She's too depressed! I'm going to have to buy her something!" I thought.

So I got her a computer to play on. Why not?

I was guessing the designer might have programmed in a bias toward the machine.

'Games Are Really All About Freedom'

"One of the fundamental things about game design," Will Wright is saying, "is that you're actually programming two processors. There's the processor in the computer in front of you and there's the processor in the player's head."

It's one of those perfect February-in-California days and Wright is standing in a Stanford University classroom doing a guest-speaker number for a course called "History of Computer Game Design: Technology, Culture, Business." A slender 42-year-old with dark hair and a wispy beard, he's wearing a blue shirt and black pants that match his blue-and-black Nintendo GameCube tote bag, but I'm guessing this is entirely coincidental. He doesn't seem the type to waste brain cells on color coordination.

In traditional game design, Wright continues, there's been far too much emphasis on the processor in the computer. A game may have "this great engine, great graphics and all of that," but if its designers "didn't think through the psychology of it" -- if they didn't consider, in other words, how the human brain will process the gameplay -- it won't be very good.

So much for a pro-machine bias. But then, Wright has a well-earned reputation as an outside-the-box kind of guy.

For more than a decade now, ever since he had his first big hit with SimCity, he's been a name-brand cel-ebrity in the computer gaming world. SimCity players don't blow away heavily armed aliens or traverse exotic landscapes in search of lost treasure. Instead, they make a series of basic urban-planning decisions and see how those decisions play out in the cityscape that results. The game proved once and for all that successful digital entertainment could be intellectually provocative, and its designer became a magnet for the kind of popular culture analysts who see gaming as a vanguard commercial/artistic phenomenon comparable to the cinema of a century ago.

"Will is one of the true innovators in the area of game design," says Henry Jenkins, perhaps the best-known aca-demic authority on the subject, who directs a graduate program in comparative media studies at MIT. "He's someone who sees a game environment as resources we use to create our own stories."

"Where else today do you see someone wrestling with evolutionary theory, genetic algorithms, consumer psychology, home decorating and game theory -- and putting all those disciplines together to create the most popular title in one of the most lucrative entertainment fields in the world?" asks Steven Johnson, a veteran chronicler of the digital revolution whose recent book, Emergence, prominently features Wright and his software. "It's a pretty amazing confluence."

Wright is one of those people with whom formal education did not agree; he attended three colleges for a total of five years without graduating from any of them. But "I tend to read a lot," he says, and he's not kidding. The natural flow of his conversation produces references to economic theory, anthropology, astrobiology, semiotics, the history of architecture, the mapping of social networks and the underlying principles behind comic-book art. All of which makes his expertise somewhat unclassifiable, a fact reflected in the self-mocking titles he assigns himself on his ever-changing business cards: Metaphorical Cartographer, Memetic Warrior, Reverse Social Engineer.

The idea for SimCity grew out of a helicopter attack game he did early in his career, the long-forgotten Raid on Bungeling Bay. "I found out that I had a lot more fun building the islands than I did flying around in the helicopter," he told gaming journalist Geoff Keighley, who charted the entrepreneurial

ups and downs of Wright's Walnut Creek-based company, Maxis Software, a year or so before The Sims was released (www/gamespot.com/features/maxis). Soon Wright started telling people he was going to do a city-planning game. They'd roll their eyes and say, "Oh good, Will, you go do that."

You would think SimCity's runaway success would have bought him some creative leeway -- and it did, up to a point. But though he has been working on The Sims off and on since 1993, Wright's new brainchild got the eye-roll treatment for years. "The Sims was not heralded during the development as the messiah, oh-my-god-this-is-the-second-coming," says Maxis senior producer Tim LeTourneau. "It was like, shoot this thing dead, it's never going to get done, who's going to want to play this? Who wants to tell people to go to the bathroom?"

It probably didn't help that Wright's original inspiration came from a dense, contrarian, 1,171-page tome on architectural theory. Part of the life's work of a Berkeley architect named Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language is a passionate argument against what Wright calls "top-down" design, with its modernist emphasis on abstract aesthetics and form. Modern architecture, Wright explains, has abandoned "the real purpose of environmental design," which "should be about how do you build something where people will feel more comfortable interacting."

With Alexander on the brain, Wright conceived of a game in which the player would first design and build a house, then invite digital people to come and live in it. Initially, the people were to be little more than an animated scoring system: They'd walk around and "let you know whether your house was good or not." But as the design got farther along, the human figures got more and more interesting, and "we developed this simulation system that ended up being much more robust than I was expecting."

Even then, few of Wright's colleagues grasped its potential.

Part of the problem, he tells the Stanford students, was that the metaphor he used to describe the game -- a computerized dollhouse -- was a dangerous one in a universe where the potential buyers were overwhelmingly male. Maxis never used the word in the focus groups it conducted, but as soon as guys saw it, "they all thought: 'Oh, it looks like a dollhouse to me. I wouldn't touch it in a million years.' " Wright himself stopped using the term "until after it had sold about a million copies -- at which point I was kind of comfortable going out in public and talking about dollhouses."

A million was just the beginning. According to Maxis and its parent company, Electronic Arts, The Sims has sold 6.3 million copies worldwide since it hit the stores in February 2000, making it the best-selling PC game of all time. The first three Sims expansion packs -- Livin' Large, House Party and Hot Date -- have sold over 6 million more. Expansion packs are add-ons that let players plug additional objects and actions into the original game; the latest, Vacation, has just been released.

Wright speaks for almost an hour, clicking through slides and concepts at warp speed. He explains that Sim faces were left deliberately abstract -- like those of Duplo or Playskool figurines -- so that players could project their own images onto the characters. He talks about the intense fan communities that have grown up around the game, and how they've helped boost its sales and influenced its ongoing design. He previews his next big project: an online version of The Sims that's due out later this year. If there's a common theme, it's the need to

make maximum use of that second processor, the one in the player's head. Instead of creating a rigid set of rules, he says, the

designer's role should be to provide "as big a sandbox as possible" and get out of the way.

"Games are really all about freedom," he says. "It's all about letting players go wherever they want, at any time."

'She Can Get Married to Some Guy Later On'

It's a Saturday afternoon in the basement of Anna Krist's house in Bethesda. Anna and her friend Talia Prussin, each of whom will turn 11 soon, are hunched over Anna's father's Dell computer, going where they want to go. Right now they're creating a new Sim, for whom they have big plans.

"What should her name be? Kelly?"

"That's hideous."

"Alison? Amy? Angie!"

"Okay, Angie . . . "

"Can she have a sister?"

"It's better if she's just one person. She can get married to some guy later on. It'll be cool. Okay?"

Anna is just back from a basketball game -- a tough, 19-18 loss in which she scored six points. She likes The Sims, she tells me, because "you can make them do whatever you want. And that's kind of fun because you don't get to boss people around in the real world."

Time to get Angie a house.

"Can I move in and get all the stuff and then you take the photo shoots?"

"No, I want me to decorate."

"All right."

"Yay! . . . We'll get her a silver refrigerator."

"Get her a white one."

"Okay, never mind about that. We'll get her a white one. Happy?"

Negotiating is part of the fun here -- I recognize the pattern from years of observing my girls hash out story lines for their dolls or Playmobil people. But the pace seems more frantic with The Sims. And the universe

of possible narratives, while vast by computer-game standards, is still limited to what can be reproduced

on-screen.

Today's narrative is: Angie changes clothes. Angie gets her picture taken and changes clothes again. ("See, Anna and I are very obsessed with cool stuff.") Angie does this a bunch more times, then meets a cute guy named Nick Moviestar, with whom she's destined to fall in love.

"Can I do the matchmaking?"

"Sure. But can I do the initial friendship?"

"When flirt comes up, I get to do it . . ."

"Fine."

The climax is highly predictable -- a kissing session, a marriage proposal, an instant wedding -- though the romance is not without its ups and downs. The first time Nick pops the question, Angie tells him, by means of a dialogue box, that she could never make a decision like that on an empty stomach.

Talia and Anna like to experiment, and they let me in on a few things. When Sims take their clothes off in the bathroom, for example, the game protects their privacy with a cute blurring effect, but this is easy enough to get around: You just tell your Sim to take a shower, then lift up the stall and move it across the room. (The thrill is mild, because Sims are anatomically vague.) It can be fun to torture a Sim by having him drink cup after cup of espresso, then making sure he doesn't get to the bathroom in time. Talia says she's never actually killed anyone in the game, but Anna has done the drowning thing once, at the urging of a cousin: "She just said, 'Why don't we try killing somebody? I just want to know what it's like.' "

The girls also show me the money cheat they use. In order to play the kind of open-ended game they prefer -- in which they don't worry about getting their Sims jobs or meeting their needs, but focus instead on decorating their houses and orchestrating their relationships -- you need a way to counterfeit funds. The Maxis design team has helpfully provided this, though it doesn't show up in the instruction manual. Just hit a few keys, type the word "Rosebud," and presto: instant cash. (Cheats have become standard fare in computer games; players get them through word of mouth or off the Internet.) Another cheat lets you turn a Sim's need sliders instantly green.

"My dad says that defies the point," Anna tells me with a laugh. "But so what?"

As it happens, I know about the money cheat already. But I'm with Anna's dad. My Sims, by golly, are going to work for everything they get, and never mind if that means I can't afford the awesome, fun-generating SSRI Virtual Reality Set.

Back in my virtual neighborhood, the Mondays have righted themselves after their disastrous start. John's gotten a new job, and both he and Jane have been promoted several times. They've made friends -- mostly with other Sims I created especially for that purpose -- and they've added a number of useful household items: a food processor, an exercise machine, a more comfortable couch. Their stove no longer catches fire (cooking skill turns out to be the secret here) and I'm managing their time more efficiently in a variety of ways. They're in such good shape that I think they're ready for the Next Big Thing.

So I let them have a baby. Name her Joy.

Big mistake.

Baby Joy cries constantly, of course. I put her bassinet in the bedroom with John and Jane, but this means she wakes both of them up and nobody gets any sleep. Someone has to stay home with her or a social worker will come and take her away. I choose John, so he loses his job again. By the end of three Sim days, everybody's dragging and in a foul mood. But at last all the hard work is rewarded: Joy metamorphoses into a full-fledged kid, cute and cheerful and able to help clean up around the house.

Except -- why are there two of her?

Later, I'll learn that I've stumbled onto a rare bug in the software. For now, however, all I know is that Joy has an evil clone I can't control. She's driving me crazy, and I can't think what to do. But wait -- what if I have the real kid go swimming? The clone will follow her into the pool, and then real Joy can get out and I can quickly remove the ladder and . . .

And they'll both die, is what actually happens.

I feel terrible. My children are horrified. A small gravestone appears by the side of the pool.

Maybe it's coincidence, maybe it's not. But the next thing I know, I've temporarily abandoned the Mondays. I've loaded the first two Sims expansion packs -- Livin' Large and House Party -- and rather than mess up John and Jane's straight-and-narrow lives, I've decided to create a whole new family to try the new stuff out on.

Cheat code here we come.

I do two girls and a guy this time. Name them the Whatevers -- Wanda, Kay and O.K. Build them a two-story house (nicely designed, if I do say so) and fill it with the snazziest, most expensive furniture from the old game plus a colorful Bounce My Booty dance floor ("Computer-controlled lights respond to the beat!"), a disco-spewing Turntablitz DJ Booth to go with it and a handy 15,000-simoleon robot named Servo who can cook, clean, garden and fix broken hot tubs ("Your lack of respect for the dignity of work gives Servo a reason to live!"). Not to mention a garish red Vibromatic Heart Bed, its headboard shaped like a Hallmark valentine, that promises Sim couples the chance to move well beyond hugging and kissing.

I'm not going to say how long I spend testing the Vibromatic's "play in bed" function on various combinations of Whatevers. We culture critics have a tough job, but by God, somebody's got to do it. Yet I will say -- in all seriousness, as the father of a Sims-loving 10-year-old -- that I am taken aback by the evocative zest with which my Sims get blurry naked, disappear beneath the purple silk sheets and bounce back and forth, laughing and exchanging sexy growls.

"Oh, he's got one of those beds," the 12-year-old says to her sister when they catch a glimpse of the (empty) Vibromatic one day. I assume this to mean they know all about it, but find that I'm not prepared to have this particular conversation on the spur of the moment, so I change the subject. Later, I report my discovery to my wife, assuming she'll share my parental angst.

She doesn't.

She likes the playfulness, she says, as well as the fact that Sims need a strong relationship before they'll sleep together. And she particularly likes the fact that the context for the sex is completely egalitarian. Unlike so much of what the Entertainment Machine spews out, it's not about teen girls tarting themselves up to compete for boys.

'A Gender Neutral Space May Open Up'

Not having much of a history with computer games myself, I don't at first take in the full significance of this equal-opportunity message. Henry Jenkins fills me in. "There's nothing out there," he tells me, "that does what The Sims does in terms of creating a common playspace for boys and girls."

Together with an MIT colleague, Justine Cassell, Jenkins is the editor of a widely cited volume of essays on women and computer games. Titled From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, it was published in 1998, before he and Cassell knew anything about what Will Wright and Maxis had up their sleeve. Yet their introductory essay reads like an explicit brief for the creation of The Sims.

To simplify a complicated argument: Over most of the short history of digital gaming, a cadre of mostly male designers has developed products "based on their own tastes and cultural assumptions." The result: lots of games that serve up large helpings of violent action with mostly male characters doing the acting. If women show up at all, it's usually as victims or rewards. This hairy-chested environment becomes a genuine social problem -- not just another sexist annoyance -- if you believe, as many do, that boys' lust for gaming gives them a crucial early advantage in computer literacy.

What to do? In reaction to the dominant guy culture, a small but highly visible "girl games" movement developed, tailoring its products toward what its proponents believed were specifically female interests: an emphasis on relationships, for example, and more character-driven plots. But for reasons that remain in dispute, this separatist approach didn't produce any hits -- unless you count Barbie Fashion Designer, which was huge.

Cassell and Jenkins clearly sympathize with the girl-games idealists. "Female game designers," they write, "consistently complain that their ideas were rejected because they did not conform to their company's often implicit assumptions about what made for a 'good game' or a 'fun' product." Yet the authors' own hopes lie with games that target neither boys nor girls. "With time," they conclude, "a gender neutral space may open up in the middle, a space that allows multiple definitions of both girlhood and boyhood, and multiple types of interaction with computer games of all sorts."

Two years later, The Sims was planted firmly in that neutral space, raking in plaudits and profits. To see just how this happened, it helps to talk to Roxy Wolosenko.

Wolosenko was one of two women co-designers -- the other was Claire Curtin -- who Wright says were critical to the success of the game. She recently left Maxis to spend more time with her children, though she expects to be lured back sooner or later. As the senior designer on the expansion pack Hot Date, she helped crash it out in time for Christmas; months later, talking in her kitchen over a cup of tea, she still looks tired.

She and Curtin were drafted to work on the original Sims some 21/2 years before its release, she says. Wright's design was fairly far along, but the women sensed trouble right away.

"The people weren't doing anything," Wolosenko explains. "They were just kind of walking around." She knew this was likely to irritate players, because "as soon as you do something with people, the expectation is that they're going to act like people." Just rating the house and its furnishings wouldn't be enough. "So we started working on that."

They came up with lists of simple interactions Sims could have with each other -- talking, joking, hugging, playing and so on -- but it was "the kind of thing where you scratch the surface of something and the more you scratch the more you realize that you have to get deeper." This was easier said than done. "It's really, really challenging to get emotion across," Wolosenko says. Sims speak only lyrical gibberish, though an occasional dialogue box lets you in on their thoughts. "They don't even have hands and they don't have facial gestures. They can't do anything except what a mime would do that you could see from the back of an auditorium." Undeterred, the designers hired an actual mime to help them make the creatures feel more human. "The more we saw that that was really the lifeblood of it, the more we felt committed to it."

They also really wanted Sims to have kids.

Players were going to want to re-create their own families in the game, they argued, and besides, it simply felt "unnatural" not to have them. In hindsight this point seems obvious. But at the time, Wright was resisting a host of ideas, worthy or not, that he felt would make the gameplay too complicated. And even after the women talked him into it -- "I mean, he has a child, too" -- the Sims team had to survive a management push to make the game more like a Hollywood sitcom, featuring pre-scripted story lines and characters who were exclusively young adults.

Wolosenko's explanation makes it easier to understand some things that seem annoying about The Sims. The scarcity of possible parent-kid interactions, for example, was largely a result of the kids being added late in the design process; to make up for this, more have been inserted in the new Vacation expansion pack. The lack of variation in Sim ages -- there are no elderly Sims, though some men have more hair than others, and no Sim kids ever make it into their teens -- is similarly explained.

What most surprises me, however, is what Wolosenko tells me about her ambitions for Hot Date.

I haven't loaded this myself yet, but I know a few things about it. One is that it finally gets Sims out of the house: They can now hop a cab into town and hang out at the mall. The other is that it gives off more sexual vibes than its predecessors. The title alone scares many parents away, according to my irritated pre-teen inform-ants, and the bright red box, with its silhouettes of couples in action and its promises of pickup romance, just makes matters worse. There's cuddling in restaurant booths, necking on picnic blankets. "We pushed the envelope," Wolosenko acknowledges. "It's much steamier."

Yet the most important change, she maintains, was adding depth to Sims' social relations. For instance, in the original, "you can't have a lovers' spat, because you only have one measure of your relationship," and if it's high enough, negative interactions won't come up as options. With Hot Date, Sims can fight with anybody if they're in bad enough moods, because Wolosenko's team split the relationship measurement in two: "daily" and "lifetime." Which also means that Sims can no longer sweep strangers off their feet and be married five minutes later. They have to build a more solid foundation first.

"We ended up with 70 interactions as opposed to 20 or 30 or whatever the original one was," Wolosenko says with some pride. To cite just one more upgrade: Sims can now ask each other what their interests are, and if they like someone who's interested in something they're not, they can read up on it and become more compatible.

Hot Date sold faster than any previous expansion pack. And for the first time, around Christmas, registrations for the original Sims hit, and then exceeded, the 50 percent female mark.

Less than two years before, in the month when The Sims was first released, the registrations -- through which players are encouraged to report purchase information to Maxis -- were running 85 percent male. This was hardly surprising, because hard-core gamers, who are almost all guys, are the people most likely to try a new product. What happened then, people at Maxis believe, is that the gamers' sisters, wives and girlfriends started playing and spread the word. The evidence for this is anecdotal but overwhelming, Wright says, and the percentage of female registrants has climbed steadily ever since.

Was this breakthrough aided by the fact that The Sims, from the beginning, had far more input from women than most computer games? This seems beyond dispute: Women made up about 40 percent of the overall development team.

Was Wright's willingness to adjust his vision a factor? Without a doubt. "I have to give him a huge amount of credit, because what he's done through this whole process is really realize that it is about the social thing," Wolosenko says. "He loves the fact that it's so different, and he's proud, as we all are, that it's played by so many women."

But did The Sims end up breaking the gender barrier because it set out to, as the girl-games advocates had so self-consciously done? Everyone I talk to at Maxis gives the same answer on this one: No way.

"The reason why this is so appealing to women is because we didn't try to make it appealing to women," Wolosenko says firmly, summing up. "It was just about life. And women as well as men are experts on life."

'They'll Be as Nuanced as a Henry James Character'

Back in my Sims neighborhood, the Mondays' lives are looking pretty good. I find myself ignoring the Whatevers -- the bed thing has gotten old, and the game as a whole seems pointless when you can buy stuff anytime you want. Instead, I spend hours getting John and Jane ahead.

I've figured out the baby thing: The trick is to have the grown-ups take turns staying home. There are two Monday children now, Joey and Jeannie, cute little tykes who do well in school, clean up after themselves, chase each other around the yard and almost make me forget about poor Joy. I've learned to meet the needs of four Sims at once without undue strain. The children actually help with the family's social life, because they've got time to yak with neighbors while their parents are busy working on job-related skills.

Buying stuff helps, too.

I love having a piano, because playing it is a better way for my Sims to get their creativity points than standing in front of a crummy easel all day. At my daughters' repeated urging, I've finally shelled out for the virtual reality set, and, just as they said, it maxes out a Sim's fun almost instantly. I'm a total convert to another timesaver, the 3,200-simoleon Hydrothera Bathtub: a quick soak improves hygiene and comfort levels simultaneously.

Meanwhile, I'm still exploring the wider universe of the game.

I pick up the March issue of Wired magazine and find a Steven Johnson article about how the increased emphasis on artificial intelligence in products like The Sims -- AI, in this case, being the portion of the computing horsepower devoted to making the humanoids behave in a more human-like fashion -- is revolutionizing computer games. Johnson argues that this trend will continue, with more and more AI PhDs lured into the game industry because it's "a better career path than creating smart software for more traditional clients like the Department of Defense." He also refers casually to game designers as "artists." When I e-mail him to suggest that, fascinating as they may be, Sims are emotionally rather primitive compared with the representations of humanity we're accustomed to finding in other art forms, he cautions me to "remember what their ancestors looked like 15 years ago -- the ghosts of PacMan" and notes that "if the virtual creatures in our games keep advancing at the same rate, they'll be as nuanced as a Henry James character in another 15 years (or five, given the exponential growth of the hardware)."

Sims as Henry James characters! All I can think is: yikes!

Curious about the way boys play, I spend an afternoon hanging out with a couple of 12-year-old Sims fans named Dylan and Peter. Dylan spends 45 minutes building a house that's far more elegant and efficient than any of mine. Both boys particularly enjoy the construction phase; Peter tells me he's based one design on a real house his family is building. Like all the girls I've talked with, they also base Sims on real people at times. Dylan has made a family that mirrors his own. Peter recently modeled a Sim on a girl he has a crush on at school. He moved her next door to his own character, he says, but so far, they're just friends.

In creating this particular friend, Peter notes, he wasn't satisfied with the off-the-rack choices for female faces, so he used the "Sims face tool" to make one himself. This reminds me of all I've learned about the ways players can personalize their Sims.

Customization was always part of the Maxis game plan. Early on, looking to get serious gamers like Peter involved, Wright and his colleagues released via the Sims Web site (www.thesims.ea.com/us) a set of design tools that allowed the reasonably computer-savvy to create their own household objects and "skins" -- heads and outfits you can superimpose on a Sim to make him or her look like anything you want, from a Roman centurion to Britney Spears.

The availability of these tools has led to a thriving Web-based culture of "content-providers" for whom The Sims is less a rule-bound game than a showcase for their digital creativity. At sites with names like SimFreaks, The Sims Resource, 7 Deadly Sims and Mall of the Sims -- there were some 600 Sims-related Web destinations at last count -- players can download the content-providers' wares: countless thousands of skins, custom objects or even complete Sim houses. When I drive an hour or so down the freeway from Maxis to visit Heather Castillo, a 31-year-old former Web designer and mother of three who runs SimFreaks out of her home in San Jose, she shows me, among other marvelous things, a lovingly crafted collection of everything you'd need if you wanted your Sims to live like Buddhist monks.

Wright calls all this activity "the metagame," and to a large degree, it's a result of his intentionally open-ended design. But it has also taken The Sims in directions he never imagined. To his surprise, for instance, some players immediately began to create illustrated narratives using screenshots from the game. Some 30,000 of these are now posted on the official Sims site alone -- most mundane, but some extraordinary. Wright likes "Death Falls in Love," in which the Grim Reaper cleans up his act to impress the object of his affection; when it doesn't work out, he goes back to being Death. My own favorite is one I stumble across when I plug the words "Sims" and "psychology" into a search engine one day. It's the story of Dr. Evil and his sidekick, Nurse Ratchett, whose sadistic mental health care scam is broken up by a crusading reporter named Julianne, and you can find it at www.ect.org/sims -- as part of an informational site about electro-convulsive therapy.

And yet . . .

While I'm fascinated by the way people have adapted the game to fit their own interests, I'm not inclined that way myself. I have no desire to dress my Sims as Caesar and Cleopatra or George, John, Paul and Ringo, or to create illustrated Sim novellas about life at The Washington Post. I'd rather -- dare I say it? -- curl up with a thick book by Henry James.

What's more, I'm starting to lose patience with the moral and psychological limitations of my Sims.

The Mondays have topped out on their career ladders by now. They get no psychic rewards from this, just more cash. They've got 50,000 simoleons saved up and they're burning a digital hole in my pocket. True, I've taken some satisfaction from all the striving and saving my Sims have done, just as I did 30 years ago when I started banking real paychecks for the first time. But what's left now for John and Jane to aspire to? They've already got everything they need.

On the Internet, I run across a syllabus for a course called "Products and Preferences: The Evolutionary Psychology of Consumer Behavior." University of New Mexico psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who teaches the course, has his students play The Sims as part of a unit on computer games. When I call Miller, he tells me the game is "a fascinating rationalization for consumerist capitalism." When Sims buy things, he explains, they're never just indulging in conspicuous consumption, because each object in the game is programmed to actually fulfill one or more needs. This is emphatically not the case in the real world, because there -- as every marketer knows -- much of our spending is motivated by social anxiety. Thus the very rationality of The Sims makes it "kind of a corrupting game," because "you really do end up thinking everything has a functional value in making you as an individual happier."

This makes perfect sense to me. At least until I send the Mondays, whose needs have been fully met, on a wild, irrational spending spree that is motivated -- as far as I can tell -- only by the desire to get them the same cool stuff their high-

living, cheat-code neighbors already have.

I add a second floor to their perfectly satisfactory house. I fill it up with a dance floor, a DJ booth, an electric guitar, Servo the robot and much, much more. Pretty soon I feel like a drunk waking up after a five-day binge, and John and Jane are completely broke -- though they do get some cash back when I sell off Servo, who turns out to be a lousy cook.

A little later, having been tipped off at Maxis that I can do so, I sell Joy's poolside gravestone.

It nets me four simoleons.

Instantly, I'm overcome by remorse.

'They Should Just Be at the Edge of Driving Their Parents Insane'

I've been playing this game for weeks now, and what have I learned? I'm still not sure, except that it's dangerously addictive. More than once, I've cranked it up after the girls have gone to bed and played till 3 a.m. After one such night it hits me that if personal computers had been around 40 years ago, when I was 12, I might have turned into a hard-core gamer instead of the obsessive Tolkien reader I actually was. It's a sobering thought.

Then I load Hot Date and think: Well, maybe not.

The effects of Wolosenko's more complex interactions are immediately obvious. Ask your Sims to have a simple conversation, for example, and up pops a list of possible topics: "travel," "the '60s," "style," "Hollywood" and, of course, "technology." The steaminess upgrade is evident as well. Your Sims can kiss in a variety of styles now, and they can "play" in the clothing-store changing booths, though the visuals seem tamer in this venue. But all this is overshadowed, for me, by the fact that the spend-spend-spend message comes through way louder than ever before. God forbid you should end up downtown without a cheat code: If you're not trying to score with a good-looking townie -- which can take money too, of course -- there's not much to do but shop. When

I turn my younger daughter loose on

the game, the first thing she does is buy three new outfits. "See, it's not so much about dating," she tells me, looking to counter some of the concerns I've expressed -- and she's right.

It's about borrowing your parents' credit card and going to the mall.

Okay, okay -- I know it's only a game. But why aren't there any higher goals for these people? Sims are so lifelike, in so many ways, that the more I've played, the more this question has bugged me.

The good news, I guess, is that it bugs people at Maxis, too.

When Will Wright designed the Sims' need sliders, he based them, very loosely, on psychologist Abraham Maslow's "pyramid of needs." If Sims' base-level needs weren't met -- if they were hungry, or exhausted, or had to go to the bathroom -- it wouldn't matter how swell their love life was. Their moods would still bottom out. Only when they'd eaten, slept and used the john could they work on a higher-level need like "social."

But Maslow's highest-level needs, which he called "self-esteem" and "self-

actualization" -- think doing good for others, loving your work, reaching your full potential -- never made it into the game. Wright says that at one point Sims did have "an aspirational need, where they would get satisfaction from work," but he nixed it; he thought the extra complexity would drive potential players away.

Is this gap going to be filled in the updated version of the basic game, Sims 2.0, which is in development and has not yet been scheduled for release? Wright can't say for sure yet, but he thinks it's highly likely. "It would be nice to have your Sims make decisions based on things other than materialism," agrees Roxy Wolosenko. Now that the game is a hit, "our challenge is to move forward and increase the depth of it in so many ways."

So will the next generation of Sims age, or even die natural deaths? Will they lose the option of polygamy (an unfortunate artifact of the original design) and have to wrestle with the complications of divorce? Will there be teenagers in the game? "Teens should automatically put every radio on as loud as it can possibly play," says Wolosenko, who makes it clear that this is her personal opinion, and that she doesn't know what will actually make the cut. "They should slam doors and they should be obnoxious most of the time. And they should just be at the edge of driving their parents insane before they pop into adults."

Wolosenko is more cautious than Wright about predicting that 2.0 Sims will climb Maslow's pyramid. She talks about the struggle for focus and resources that happens with every game. There's always a trade-off, she says, between pushing psychological complexity and "making it look totally kick-ass" -- and it's all too easy to forget that while "cooler, faster, neater" technology may be what people look for in other games, that's not why they buy The Sims. "They don't care. They want the people to be more realistic."

Meanwhile, The Sims Online, which could be launched as early as this fall, will take Sim psychology in a far more complex direction. Because it's an online game, those won't be programmed pixels you're interacting with -- they'll be actual human beings, speaking English (or whatever language they choose) via an in-game instant-messenger system. "The first time we all kissed someone else in the game, it's just the strangest feeling," says Wright's Sims Online co-designer, Chris Trottier, referring to the in-house testing currently in progress. "It's like: That's a real person on the other side."

This will be Wright's first online venture, and he's approaching it with his usual impulse to let the players shape the action as much as possible. It's fascinating to hear him talk about the multiple success paths they'll be able to follow -- popularity will be one key, just as it is in high school -- and about the emergent quasi-governmental structure he and his colleagues are programming into the game. Sims Online software, he hopes, may even be able to track individual styles of play, much as Amazon.com tracks its customers' reading preferences, so that players can be offered options that reflect their interests.

You'll need a credit card to play, though, and I'm thinking my girls are not going to be there anytime soon. Which means I don't have to worry -- yet -- about all the naked Sims who will inevitably be wandering around.

I also plan to stop worrying about that heart-shaped bed. When I asked Wright about it, he gave me a funny look and asked if I'd watched prime-time television recently. I hadn't. He's right. A night of channel-surfing, with an emphasis on the offerings on Fox, made The Sims look like . . . Henry James.

Wright also told a story that suggested his own philosophy of parenthood, which is that the best defense against cultural weirdness is to talk about it. His 15-year-old daughter has a friend, he said, who's "very hip, very creative" but a little on the edgy side. This friend recently introduced her to a series of underground-style comics that Wright found uncomfortably violent and bizarre. "I was put in this position of like, 'God, do I want her reading this stuff or not?' " he recalled. "So we started discussing what I found disturbing about it -- and after a while, you know, she stopped reading them." He thinks it was because the discussions let her understand his point of view.

I think: Who could argue? Isn't better communication with one's children always good?

Yet I have a more visceral, less rational reaction, too. I wish it would all just go away -- the twisted comics, the exploitative television shows and computer games, the real-life dangers of walking city streets, September 11, and everything else out there, whether it's virtual or real, that conspires to end childhoods before their time.

Lately my daughters have taken to playing The Sims without the cheat code. They seem to enjoy the challenge. Between us, we've thrown a couple of parties, and it feels good to watch their characters schmooze with the Mondays and the Whatevers. Sometimes I let myself imagine a kind of running family game, in which all four of us would create Sim households and our people would continually wander in and out of one another's lives.

At other times, I'll find myself gazing at the old wooden dollhouse that sits in our third-floor guest room. It's a family heirloom, built for my wife by her parents in 1956, and the girls used to spend whole days up there, inventing characters and narratives without the help -- or the limitations -- of cleverly programmed manikins on a screen.

But they're moving to a new neighborhood now. And I understand that I've got to let them go.

Bob Thompson is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.