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Diary: Our Real Lives And Deaths Across The Globe

Dying IRL

Real Lives [official site] is an educational simulation that has been around for years. It randomly puts you into the shoes (or lack of shoes) of people from around the world, then tasks you with making the best life you possibly can. You may start as a fisherman’s daughter in Sri Lanka, or an orphan in Brazil. But your life is only ever halfway under your control.

We decided to each start a life in this rough simulation and see how we do. What follows are the stories of five people from around the globe. Some suffer horribly (warning: in 4 out of 5 of our “lives”, rape was a problem at some point) while others find relative prosperity. But who will have the best Real Life? Read on to find out.

You can navigate this article via arrows above or below the header image, links at the end of each page, or by using the arrow keys on your very own computer.

Adam – Adel Bani-Sadr, Afghanistan

I’ve spent a lot of time with Real Lives. The first time I played the game, I’d been looking for an alternative to The Sims, a life simulator with a little more of life in it and a little less of consumerist fantasy. I love many things about The Sims but it is a cartoon.

Real Lives is not a cartoon, it’s an education. It may be limited in what it can teach but through use of demographic, economic and medical statistics, it does a fairly good job of planting the player in a situation and showing how some aspects of life can be defined from the moment of birth. Its post-mortems are often a study in forms of predeterminism, the end written in the beginning.

I was born as Adel Bani-Sadr, in a village near Jalalabad in Afghanistan’s Eastern region. My parents were seventeen and eighteen when I was born, and I was their first child, though I’d eventually have six siblings. I lived longer than all but one of those siblings, dying aged 76 from an infection, but if I achieved anything in that long life, it was hard to see, picking through the details of all the jobs I lost, and the relationships that collapsed.

It is possible to guide your Real Life to an extent, by choosing how to spend free time, making the occasional binary choice and deciding how to handle cash-flow and employment, but in some lives, few decisions will arise even across seventy years. My job opportunities were limited to basic textile, farming or handicraft work, and I even spent a few year as a beggar when no employers would take me on after eighteen months of military service.

In Adel’s final years, he worked as a practitioner of traditional medicine, which a cursory reading of articles on the subject suggests might involve anything from herbalism to bonesetting. He started practicing medicine late in life, at the age of 60, and continued until the day he died because it was the only way he could afford to pay for a place to live and food to eat. What meagre savings he had were spent keeping the family afloat (he had one son) when his wife retired due to physical infirmity, at 52 years of age (she was two years Adel’s junior).

Real Lives measures various stats for the person you’re playing as. Adel’s most remarkable was an intelligence score of 98, at a young age, which made him one of the smartest people on Earth. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t go to school or perhaps it’s because of other limited opportunities later in life, but even though he read and studied in his spare time throughout the decades that he lived, that intelligence never provided a way out of the village of his birth, or out of poverty.

Poverty is relative of course. Real Lives has a chart that shows your income relative to the average in the country that you live in and to the global average. Despite never being able to afford more than a single-room dwelling and a barely adequate diet, Adel earned above the national average, even though his income was a tiny fraction of the global average. He worked for all but the first twelve years of his life – hard, menial labour for the most part – and never owned a radio, television, telephone or car, but he was wealthier than the majority of his neighbours.

The most awful moment came when an opportunity arose to work as an activist for women’s rights. I chose to follow that opportunity.

To advance time and confirm decisions in Real Lives, you click a button to age a year. As soon as I did that, I received a message: “Your sister has been raped”. I don’t think that crime was a consequence of my choice, more a case of suggestive and unhappy circumstance, but it felt like an act of revenge. It made me angry and guilty.

Adel never suffered directly for his activism – he served six months in jail for involving himself with a dodgy investment toward the end of his life but was otherwise left alone by the authorities – and what happened in that gap between one year and the next was the worst moment of his life.

His sister died when she was nineteen years old. Adel was twenty one.

Next, Pip is reborn in Uganda

Pip – Yetunde Busia, Uganda

My character is born a girl in a village in Uganda’s Kampala District near the city of Kampala. My/her name is Yetunde Busia. I’m/she’s an only child.

I look up Kampala and find a picture of the Uganda National Mosque commissioned by Colonel Gaddafi. (My character is born a Roman Catholic but the game also tells me about the demographics of the country in terms of religion. By the time I finish I’ve forgotten the stats the game offered on this front, though.)

Just after I’m born into this game my mother, Efua starts work as a subsistence farmer. It’s self-sufficiency farming so you grow what you and your family need to survive. There seems to be a bit of money attached to the job when I look at one of the other tabs so I assume there’s a small surplus which we can sell off.

By the time I’m two there have been two major earthquakes, killing a total of 22 people and affecting thousands more. My family aren’t directly affected. After the second earthquake we enter a time of peace in Uganda. I think the in-game stats pointed out that more than half of the years of the twentieth century involved conflict for Uganda.

The next few years seem to pass without incident, although looking at the family tab I note that both my parents are unhealthy and their resistance (presumably to disease) is low. Aged six I have schistosomiasis. It’s an infection caused by a parasitic worm. You don’t necessarily show symptoms at first but the NHS website tells me “the parasite can remain in the body for many years and cause damage to organs such as the bladder, kidneys and liver.” The page adds that the infection can be easily treated with a short course of medicine so I should go see my GP.

The game tells me that I have no access to safe water, public sanitation or medical care so the infection stays. I notice my parents also have schistosomiasis after reading the drop down section of information for both of them.

Aged 8 I start school which seems to prompt a choice in my leisure activities. I go with art, music, sports, religious activities and play/socialising. School lasts for a couple of years and then I get removed. Aged 11 my father dies from an opportunistic infection so I get a job as a subsistence farmer, assuming I need to make up some income shortfall. This means less time for activities so I cut out music and swap play for reading/studying in case some level of education will help with job prospects.

Aged 13 my mother dies. It’s the same cause of death as my father – an opportunistic infection.

At 14 I’m given the choice of whether to start smoking or not. I decline. At 15 the game asks whether I want to start making charitable donations which will benefit my conscience. This feels weirdly intrusive. So far the game has felt neutral, just presenting facts and offering a few choices. This charitable donations thing feels more heavy-handed, like there’s a right thing to do in that moment. I decline because I’m a teenage orphan working as a subsistence farmer. “Decided not to give money to charity.” reads the in-game activity log. I click “okay” to move the game along.

“You have been raped,” says the game.

I blink.

Even though I know that this project doesn’t shy away from horrible things happening to the characters because horrible things happen in the world and the statistics accompanying crimes can be absolutely horrific and it’s important they get represented in a project like this, it still takes me by surprise.

The life event is accompanied by a short bit of text explaining what rape is, that it can happen to men and women, that it’s about power not sex and so on. My options at this point are to click a button to show less information and a button marked “okay” with a tick. I can’t decide whether this is a genius move on the part of the creators or an oversight with unintended consequences. Regardless, I do not want to click “okay” on this piece of information. It’s not okay. To be honest, none of it has really been okay, but I guess I was more able to distance myself from the other bits. Reading about schistosomiasis was depressing, particularly given how easily the NHS site says it can be treated, but with that event in Yetunde’s life I felt something more along the lines of that impotent “That’s wrong and I feel powerless to help beyond charitable donations in my actual life”. Reading about being orphaned produced a pang of empathy, but in-game I responded by trying to work with the systems and fill the economic gap that left.

Reading “You have been raped” was different and I’m still struggling to put my finger on exactly why. I think part of it is how rape and the threat of rape is something that is still relevant and problematic in the UK as well as in Uganda. Obviously the statistics vary and the scale and all manner of other contextualising factors, so I’m not claiming equivalency, but I want to note that it’s not like first world countries have solved this. It doesn’t feel alien in the same way that other horrific events can. I just double-checked Rape Crisis’s stats page and they claim 1 in 5 women aged 16-59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. Approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence. Only 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report it to the police. We definitely do not have an answer to this just by dint of better access to healthcare or legal systems.

Another part – related to the previous point – is that rape is a kind of spectre that hangs over a lot of basic interactions. I’m only going to speak from my own experience growing up as a girl in a relatively safe area, but it’s stuff like how you dress being equated to your level of “easiness” and “asking-for-itness”, that you’re taught to travel on the lower deck of buses at night within sight of the driver, that you know you cross over the road and then cross back again to check whether someone is following you, that you know how to spread your housekeys out so they poke through your fist between the fingers when you walk from the bus stop to your front door Just In Case, that you have developed systems with friends so that if they’re not with you for a bit on a night out you know they’re safe, that you learn about the grey area that really isn’t a grey area of guys who “push their luck” or cajole or persuade, that at some time or another you realised how strong a male friend was in comparison to you while mucking about and realised how easily you could be pinned and held down by someone else, that no means no but that there are all manner of other situations where things feel really shitty and weren’t what you wanted but who can you tell, that friends will open up about experiences years later that they hid at the time because… so many reasons. In some ways, that notification flashing up felt like the drop of that omnipresent other shoe.

Eventually, I click “okay”.

Five years pass. The game prompts me again to give money to charity and that it will benefit my conscience. Financially I don’t think giving to charity makes sense for this character but I’m also starting to chafe at the game. I don’t even want to give money at this point because of how pushy it seems to be, how the implication is that this is the right cause of action for your conscience, plus only a few clicks on from Yetunde’s rape, I feel peculiarly resentful of what I perceive as the outside world making demands on her and telling her what to do to ease her conscience.

The other thing is that my activities list always includes “religious activities” and to me that doesn’t mean just going to church, it means actively helping people and being part of that community so from my point of view it’s not like Yetunde is not doing good. I guess this is where my own interpretation of an activity and the game’s are at odds.

I cycle through a few different jobs, earning less and less as my physical capacity diminishes, and altering my budgets to subsist on less and less. When I’m 24 a famine hits, although I’m not directly affected.

Aged 25 I die the same way as my parents – from an opportunistic infection.

My obituary reads:

“Ms. Busia was born in 1985 to Kwesi and Efua Busia. She completed 2 years of schooling. She was a lover of art. She loved to read and spent many hours engrossed in books. Sadly, she never volunteered in the community. She was a deeply religious person.”

“Sadly, she never volunteered in the community” is a phrase which really rankles. Sadly? From whose point of view? And why does religious activity seem to preclude being a positive force in the community? “YOU DIDN’T KNOW YETUNDE,” I think at the screen. “SCREW THIS JUDGEY OBITUARY.”

“Donations in memory of the deceased may be made to Right Sharing of World Resources, a program of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) supporting grassroots projects for economic development and offering educational materials for the study of the lives of the poor, the lives of the rich, and the spiritual meaning of both.”

The second half of the obituary actually acknowledging a religious organisation’s attempt to do good or effect economic development/change feels pretty ironic. RIP Yetunde Busia.

Meanwhile, Alec’s health is in decline in Nigeria

Alec – Aminu Dosou, Nigeria

I spent my last 15 years praying for death. No job, no prospects, health in freefall, so many family members dead: I just wanted the struggle to end. How could it be that I lived to 90, after so many diseases, so much poverty, several spells in prison, so little hope? A long life can be a cruelty.

Of course, what Real Lives doesn’t do much of is reveal the state of mind of the human one directs the life of. Perhaps Aminu Dosou of Asaba, Nigeria was happy, despite his battle for an income and ‘prospects’. He married early, stayed married until his wife died just a year before him, had three children and two grandchildren, lived near his wider family, and was able to spend most of his adult life engaged in political activism despite the government repeatedly punishing him for it.

Me, Alec Meer, looking on, felt that he had to live in a bigger house, have a career, even escape to another country where there was no war, more medicine, more things. Viewing another man’s life through a Western lens, convinced that I knew better.

I’m not a very happy person of late, for reasons I won’t bore you with, so who I am to be deciding whether or not Aminu should be happy? He’s faced far, far worse than I am ever likely to, and he still made it 90 with a family. Maybe he had greater perspective than I do about what matters, maybe he took more succour from those around him, maybe was grateful for food on his table rather than demanding holidays and smartphones.

But God, Aminu’s life. Born in poverty in a time of war, a childhood blighted by hookworm, only a year in school, arrested at 18 for daring to disagree with the government, his criminal record leaving him unable to find anything better than labourer’s work from thereon in, never living anywhere bigger than a one-bed apartment, even when there were five people living in house, never attaining a diet beyond ‘minimal’…

Too late, I realised that what little money I/he could save should be put towards investments, and I started to accumulate a small amount. Lofty goals such as emigration or a proper house were unattainable, but I made it my aim to save up enough for a little patch of land. Something to pass to my kids, something that might have value and meaning.

I did not make it. Costs mounted, I could not find better work, a bank account was wiped out due to some financial malfeasance, and I had to keep plugging away at manual labour until almost 80. When I could work no longer, it was disaster.

Desperately, I tried to found a bakery with what I had left, but I did not have enough funds to make it work, scraping only the tiniest profit while leaving money I urgently needed locked inside a failing business. I closed shop to get what I could back. My few savings disappeared rapidly, and I prayed for death, prayed that I would expire before my last money did. Homeless at near-90, and my family with me: this was so nearly my fate.

Then death came, finally, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Perhaps I should not have done. Perhaps Aminu was happy. His wife lived almost as long as he did; they had a life together. Children, grandchildren, a life spent standing up for what mattered. Though dealt a bad hand economically, Aminu had every reason to be proud.

If I was going to do it all again? I would not make political activism one of Aminu’s interests. Without those years in jail, and the subsequent blacklisting from gainful employment, perhaps he could have escaped poverty. Would he have been happier? I cannot say.

Next stop, Bangladesh, where Brendan has a decision to make

Brendan – Qadir Mushtaq Mohammad, Bangladesh

Qadir Mushtaq Mohammad is serving diners in a restaurant in Chittagong, Bangladesh, when he suddenly hears about the abuses of his government. At 56 years old, he knows how this will pan out. The government is “pursuing a systematic campaign of intimidation of people working to improve human rights” I am told by an in-game prompt. “What will you do?” The sim doesn’t really flesh out the finer details of how you got this information. But I like to think it is an old friend of Qadir’s from his home province of Barisal, a man he knew years ago, before he left for the big city, who is visiting him to ask for help. “Come back to the struggle, friend,” he says. “Remember the good old days?”

Qadir very likely does remember. At 17 he was arrested for engaging in all the wrong political movements. He was tortured, asked to give up names of others in his movement, and later released when he refused. He developed obsessive compulsive disorder – something that would be with him for life. While the game doesn’t explain how this came about, it’s easy to imagine it was caused by the stress following his torture. Despite this, he continued protesting against the government and for a few years it seemed like things would be better. In his early twenties he met a girl, Zakia, and soon proposed. But the year they were due to be married, he was again arrested, charged and imprisoned. He spent two years inside. Halfway through the second year, a message flashed up.

“Your fiancée Zakia has been raped.”

Pip’s already touched on how severe this particular message feels when you get it, much more than the alerts about hookworm and cataracts. The fact that life thereafter simply continues and no more is said about traumas like this – traumas you’d expect to be pivotal in a person’s life – is both a flaw and a strength of Real Lives. Events don’t cause chain reactions in the way they might do in Crusader Kings II. It’s much more blunt than that. Qadir was put in prison, his fiancée was raped, he was released from prison and they got married the next year. If you want to know how they got through all this horror, the conversations they must have had, the tears, then you have to fill in the blank spaces with your own imagination. Which works better for some than others.

After his release, Qadir was blacklisted for almost any job he applied for, thanks to his felony conviction. Eventually, he got a job as a stonecutter and watched his parents – a miner and a seamstress – grow old and quit their jobs. He spent his free time reading, socialising or praying. He stopped going to protests.

When he was 34 years old, Zakia got pregnant. I went into the “actions” menu and immediately got him to start working overtime. Our first daughter was born late. A glitch in the game meant the pregnancy was delayed, but only by four years. We called her “Meena”, which means “fish”.

The next year we had a second daughter, as if she had also been hiding in there. We called her “Sita” which means “furrow”.

The stonecutters had been good employers. They gave Qadir a raise almost every year, probably in recognition of his four consecutive years of overtime. But in that time he also learned of corruption and criminality within the company. He had the chance to alert the authorities about the scandal, whatever it was (again, you have to fill in the blanks – embezzlement, bribery, perhaps the whole enterprise was just a front for a criminal gang). But Qadir stayed quiet. He put his head down and kept on cutting stone. Later, he was given the option to get involved with whatever the shady business was. Everyone else in the company seemed to be doing it, and getting money from it too. But Qadir, devout and conscientious, stayed out of it, while also saying nothing about it to anyone.

That was around the time his daughters were born. Qadir and Zakia began to consider a new life. I called my girlfriend in my Real Real Life and asked her where the Bangladeshi couple should emigrate (she’s got schooling in this stuff). She said “the UK?” exactly like that, with a question mark at the end. I looked into this and discovered I couldn’t afford it.

“Australia?” I asked.

“No, that’s a terrible idea. You’ll end up on Nauru.

I looked into Canada, Germany, France. All of them were far too expensive, costing millions of takas. Even the “fall-back options” of Turkey and China were still too costly. I had the option of trying illegal immigration to all of these prospective countries but with a 1-year-old and a newborn in tow, I was not about to risk it. We packed our bags and moved to the coast of our home country, to the city of Chittagong. I left the corrupt stonecutters and the prison behind me and started working the only job I could find – in a restaurant.

Qadir is 56 years old now. Zakia died of breast cancer when the girls were little. They are teenagers now, with jobs and romances of their own. Every time they start seeing a boy I tell them I approve even though I kind of don’t. A big part of me wishes they would date doctors, instead of labourers. And that’s a weird stereotypical prejudice that I never knew I had. But I also remember that Qadir’s own parents disapproved of Zakia when we were young. They almost disowned him over it, but they let it go in the end. Rest in peace, mum and dad. Now, I always click “approve” when Meena or Sita bring a new boyfriend home, if only to avoid unpleasantness. Anyway, I married a new lady myself. She brings 10,000 takas to the household every month. She’s nice.

So, I’m 56 years old and in he waltzes. This imaginary old friend from my rebellious youth (ie. the prompt window), asking me to come back to the struggle for freedom and human rights. “What will you do?” he asks, offering four possible choices.

I know what Qadir would do. He remembers the “good old days”. He remembers them very well.

I click on “Just focus on my own life and hope things will improve.”

Qadir died five years later from diabetes. He left 400,000 takas in mutual funds and savings accounts for his children.

Finally, will Graham make a better life for himself if he leaves his native China?

Graham – Chien Bai, China

His name is Chien Bai. He is a boy born in a village in China’s Guangdong Province, not far from the city of Guangzhou.

I’ve never played Real Lives, but I’m familiar enough with it to know how it’s meant to go: you are born somewhere horrible; you work long and hard to try to pull yourself out of it; bad luck powered by statistical reality kills you in some cruel, unavoidable way, thus creating pathos and eliciting a feeling of empathy. This, it seems, is the game’s great power.

I hope to resist it. I don’t want to feel sad today. Chien Bai shall be He/His/Him but not I/me.

It starts well, I think. Guangzhou is China’s third largest city, Wikipedia tells me, while the game informs me that we have medical care and ample food at home. Bai’s father is a farm worker, his mother performs “domestic chores”, and he has an older brother who is five years old. The family’s income is higher than much of the rest of the country, but my worry is that they don’t have safe water or public sanitation. These often lead to infections and that aforementioned statistical reality.

Year one: Mum gets a job as a part-time laborer and Brother starts school. I hope Bai is self-sufficient enough as a one year-old to be able to look after himself while mum is at work.

Year two: Mum found a new job. She is now simply a “laborer”, therefore now full-time at work. We have a television, so I imagine two-year-old Bai spends a lot of time watching the Chinese equivalent of Cbeebies.

Year three: Diao, Bai’s brother, has been removed from school, the family’s strong income has allowed them to move to a more comfortable dwelling, and Bai has just become self-aware enough to realise that he does not belong “to the dominant ethnic group in China” and therefore “could suffer from some discrimination” as a result. I click the “Learn more” button and discover that it’s because, while most of the country speaks Mandarin as a first language, Dai and his family speak Yue Chinese. Damn Yue.

Year four: I notice that Diao is now performing “domestic chores” and realise that he is looking after Bai while both their parents work full-time. This is terrible for two reasons: one, the obvious reasons; two, because it increases the chance of pathos, should eg. the brother die horribly due to the futility of existence.

On the plus side, I also notice that the more comfortable dwelling afforded by both parents working has safe water while the last home did not.

Year eight: I get the opportunity to choose five leisure activities for Bai. “Play and Soclializing” and “Television Viewing” are already ticked, and I leave them that way while adding “Reading/Study”, in the hopes of advancing Bai to a better life, “Physical Training” in the hopes of him remaining healthy (the less likely to make me empathetic), and “Music” in the hopes of becoming cultured.

This, of course, is a risk. Bai is no longer a set of stats, but a set of stats which might gradually improve. It’s perilously close to Bai having hopes, and those are a sure-fire way to end up dead in a ditch and feeling sad about it.

Year twelve: Bai’s brother Diao is now 17 and moves out of the house, while Bai meets a girl he like named Thien Ding. I am asked whether I would like Bai to pursue the relationship. I hesitate. Knowing Real Lives, it seems likely to lead to the destruction of us both.

I click yes. “She doesn’t feel the same about you, unfortunately.” Oh, right, great. Dai takes a hit to his happiness, and I realise I should know better.

Year fourteen: Dai meets another girl he is attracted to but I decide not to pursue it.

Year fifteen: Bai is told to get a job. On Bai’s behalf, I initially refuse, move him to the nearby Guangzhou – that aforementioned thrid-biggest-city-in-China – and start applying for jobs there. Metal work? Rejected. Handicraft worker? Rejected. Food processing worker? Rejected. Textile worker? Rejected. I work down the list until, eventually, I get a job as a street vendor. Bai will earn about 512 yuan a month.

Year seventeen: Daio begins a relationship with Guo Zhen. The game tells me she is smart, artistic, and musical. I imagine Bai is jealous, but I am not: the next in-game message informs me that “Infanticide and abortion of female babies is common in rural China.” Nothing good can come of romance.

Year eighteen: Bai has been working overtime as a street vendor and I decide to invest his earnings. Though China is a far wealthier, healthier and safer country than many you can end up in Real Lives, it still seems wise to move somewhere with better medical care and more clean water. Also it ought to be interesting. Emigrating means money. I put 2000 yuan in a “medium-risk” stock, a further 2000 in a “high-risk” stock, and 10,000 yuan in, uh, a bank account. This leaves Bai with 9,318 yuan presumably stuffed at the back of my sock drawer. I also increase Bai’s charitable donation to a “Respectable” amount of 68 yuan per month.

Then I am drafted for mandatory military service; Diao gets married to Guo Zhen; I refuse to let Bai pursue another relationship; Bai decides not to drink alcohol with friends. I scoot through the years of my military service, earning more money (though I no longer appear to have a job).

Year twenty: I put 15,000 yuan in a medium-risk stock, 5000 in a mutual fund, and 5000 in a risky mutual fund. I feel like Bai is probably investing an odd amount for a twenty year-old street vendor currently fulfilling his military service, but oh well.

Bai’s military service comes to an end and I put him forward for a new job as a restaurant service worker. He gets it and it pays more than twice what his old job did.

Year twenty-four: Bai meets a woman named Zhou Ah Lam. She is intelligent, artistic, musical… I decide to let Bai pursue a relationship with her. She feels the same way! Strangely, I am happy for Bai.

Nothing good can come of this.

Year twenty-five: Bai’s dad dies of a peptic ulcer. He was 61. I wonder, idly, whether Bai has seen his dad in the ten years since he moved out. I click OK on the message informing me of the death.

“You have been raped.” Oh. I click OK on that message, too.

“You have received a 5% pay raise.”

Oh. OK.

When back at the stats screen, I check Bai’s stats. His health is now at around 60 (it was at 100) and his happiness is at 50 after previously being above 80.

This is the moment I had been hoping to avoid; the moment I expected to feel empathy.

But it doesn’t happen.

The game’s representation of both the death of Bai’s father and his rape is so paper-thin that the whole experience shrinks. Bai is just numbers on a stats screen, beset by a random number generator. This is the opposite of what the game is aiming to inspire.

It’s even worse when in the next year, Bai’s stats recover so quickly. Feeling flippant, I make bolder decisions. In the years that follow, I propose to and marry Ah Lam. I expose mistreatment of prisoners by police, becoming involved in politics, and lose my job as a result. I apply for and win a job as a foreman which pays four times as much as my old job. My mother dies of tuberculosis, aged 59 years-old.

By this point, Bai has enough money to emigrate somewhere. I Google for the best country in the world and the top result suggests Canada. I like the Barenaked Ladies, so what the heck. I’m not sure what will happen to Bai’s marriage if I do this however, and the menus don’t make it clear whether she’ll come along or be left behind.

There is an alternative big life-changing option I could pursue: I could have a kid.

In real life (not the game), I have a six-month-old son.

I decide Bai is going to emigrate.

The next year, Bai’s wife dies of an epileptic seizure. I hadn’t noticed she had epilepsy. Bai’s happiness dips. A bit. Perhaps Bai does not feel, either.

Year 30: The move now simplified, Bai heads to Toronto, Ontario. He gets a job as a foreman which pays about twenty times what he was being paid in China. I check the stats screen to see if he has learned English while I was not looking: nope, though instead of Yue he now only speaks Mandarin.

Bai’s 30s pass without much happening, which is surprising considering that he emigrated to a new country.

Year 41: Bai is alone, his health at a low of 35. He stops working overtime for the first time in 25 years. He takes up physical training. He invests $50,000CAD in land.

Year 46: I have Bai quit his job. I fill his time with leisure activities: music, reading, play, socializing, physical training, volunteering, social and political activities.

Then I start a delivery business and give it starting capital of 10,000. I do not know how this works.

Bai makes a yearly investment of $25,000CAD into his business. Bai makes $33,526 in profit.

The game goes on like this. Some years the business makes $30k, some years $7k. Bai marries twice more, and both wives die a few years later of sudden illnesses, meaning most years pass with Bai not seeming to know anyone.

Year 54: 24 years after moving to Canada, Bai still only speaks Mandarin.

Year 59: Years pass without much happening. Perhaps this is meant as wry comment: be born in the second- or third-world and your life will be filled with misery; be born in the first-world and descend into ennui.

The game tells me that Bai’s brother Diao is too old to continue working as a laborer, as is his wife. I check whether there is a way for Bai to send money to my family back home, but there is not. I look at his investments and see that Bai’s assets are worth nearly half a million Canadian dollars.

Bai’s happiness is at 65; his health is at 58; his wisdom is 64.

Year 60: Diao develops a peptic ulcer. I wish the game offered a way for Bai to visit him.

Year 63: Bai’s brother’s wife Zhen dies from an accident caused by dementia.

Year 64: Bai’s delivery business runs out of money after a bad year. He can afford to invest more of his own funds in it but, given his age, I decide to close it down.

Except I cannot. I do not know why but the option to close it is greyed out and the next year it generates a small profit from no investment. Bai’s outgoings are three times his incomings, but he lives mostly off his savings.

The Toronto flag is pretty cool.

Year 70: Diao becomes diabetic. A burglar breaks into Bai’s house and steals $56,094CAD I had carelessly not told him to put in the bank.

Year 78: Nothing has happened.

Bai enters into a relationship with a woman named Zhang Cai Yun. He is 79 and she is 86.

The next year she becomes too old to continue working as a business service agent, which is weird.

Year 82: Bai’s health is fading, and is now as low as 16 out of 100. He’s 61 happy. I’m quite bored.

Year 83: Diao, five years older than Bai, dies from an opportunistic infection due to his weakened condition. Like Bai, Diao and his also deceased wife never had kids. Bai is now the last surviving member of his family.

Year 85: In lieu of anything else to do, I wonder whether it’s possible to have Bai move back home. I look at the Residence menu and… nope. The only option is to “Move out”. I press this and it tells me that Bai has moved back home – as in, back in with my parents. But Bai is still in Ontario, Canada and not in his parent’s old house in China.

Year 89: Finally, thankfully, death. Bladder cancer. The dialog box tells me that “1 in every 2,033 people” of my age, sex and socio-economic class dies of it. I lived one year longer than my brother.

When Bai’s life went badly, I expected to feel something, but instead it felt like it revealed the experience as a sham. When Bai’s life went well – as it mostly did, mainly as a result of consequence-free overtime and easy investments – it was simply dull.

I guess I do feel sad today.

Real Lives is made by Educational Simulations. You can get it from their website for $29

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Hivemind

The all-seeing eye of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the voice of many-as-one.

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