Diary: Our Real Lives And Deaths Across The Globe

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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.

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  1. Captain Narol says:

    I have the feeling this educational game has quite an agenda…

    • KDR_11k says:

      An agenda or just visualizing statistics that don’t gel with more idealistic political leanings?

    • Solidstate89 says:

      Games have never delivered messages before…

      Truth hurts sometimes I guess.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      Everything is political. Even not taking a position on many issues is political, since you’re ignoring that there’s an issue. Even basic facts and science are disputed when they don’t conform to people’s ideas.
      If you feel something specific is objectionable, feel free to point it out, though.

      • Distec says:

        This “everything is political” mantra is such a conversational and intellectual dead-end.

        • Grizzly says:

          To the contrary: This mantra opens up lots of intellectual discussions which would otherwise be off-limits. By asserting that every game (and indeed everything) is political means it’s open for political discussions.

    • Geewhizbatman says:

      The agenda seems to me to be to allow students practice in making important decisions that require critical thought in a low-risk setting but with enough simulation to generate a sense of empathy.

      Which, ya know, is what most “World Studies” classes are based around but is difficult in abstract and when the many variables are spread across several formats of varying amounts of jargon. Financially secure, white, cis-male of 1st world country doesn’t sound a particularly important use of that system but I’m sure you could mod in your own if you feel that viewpoint isn’t represented heavily enough.

    • geerad says:

      Every game has an agenda.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Oh, honey…

    • Captain Narol says:

      I didn’t meant it was a bad agenda, just that it wasn’t making much efforts to keep it to sub-text level…

      • April March says:

        Sorry, what’s the agenda? It seems to choose all of its issues out of statistics. If 8% of the world’s people are born in China you have an 8% chance of being born in China. If 20% of people in your situation lose their jobs you have a 20% chance of losing your job. If 7% of people in your situation are raped you have a 7% chance of being raped.

        I’m not saying the game doesn’t have an agenda – it clearly does. But I don’t see how it could be more low-key than saying “this event happens to 30% of people in your character’s situation. Here is some more information about this event”.

        To be clear, I’m not arguing, I’m genuinely surprised at your opinion, which seems common. How would you change it to make it more subtextual?

        • Captain Narol says:

          It’s not about the events, which indeed seems handled in a quite statistical way, but rather the way the game ask you on a regular basis if you want to donate to charities and if you want to get into activism.

          If you visit the game website, you’ll find stuff like this :

          “Educational Simulations contributes 10% of its profits quarterly to worthy charitable organizations working to improve the lives of people in disadvantaged countries.

          Where 10% Goes
          Ten percent of profits from Real Lives is given to charities each year. We currently support the following charities:
          Right Sharing of World Resources ”

          And this motto :

          “Educational Simulations is dedicated to enhancing understanding and compassion in an increasingly global society.”

          So clearly encouraging people to donate to charities is part of the game agenda.

          It’s a noble idea that I support (even if I believe that activism is a better way to fix society than just donating), but that’s not done in the most subtile way, to say the least…

  2. kwyjibo says:

    Pro-tip – Smuggle your way into Europe.

    • kwyjibo says:

      Yue Chinese is another name for Cantonese. It is the dominant branch of spoken Chinese in Guangzhou/Shenzhen/Hong Kong. You are not going to face discrimination in that area if you speak only Cantonese. But the chances of you not learning Mandarin are zero.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        You are not going to face discrimination in that area if you speak only Cantonese

        Not that I live there or have ever been anywhere near there, but… whether or not that’s the case right now, I wouldn’t count on it staying that way, and it’s certainly a very real concern for more than a few Hong Kong residents (go look up the controversy surrounding the film Ten Years, for one thing).

    • kwyjibo says:

      Pro-tip #2 – Once in Europe, do not then apply to a job at Byron.

  3. RaunakS says:

    I have a couple Real Lives saves left over, from Venezuela and Pakistan. I never could complete their lives, stuck in some unspeakable tragedy that had no happy ending. AIDS in those countries rarely do.

    But christ, Qadir and his Bangladeshi life hits so hard as to be almost unreadable. I have deep, deep ties to that country. My mother’s family fled from Dhaka in ’47, escaping death, loss of all material belonging and train-station rapes. My father’s family escaped from Barisal, making their way ahead of the Pakistani army’s pogroms and making it to Calcutta. All blood I had across the border are gone. Murdered because they were hindu, dysentery due to cyclones and famines, disasters unknown. My life, shallow as it is, is so much more privileged than anything someone like Qadir or my parents had seen.

    I wish they had never made this a game. It cheapens their virtual lives somewhat, reading start textual descriptions of real tragedy. Like playing a game about a Nanking survivor. Just. It’s feels wrong to read.

    I don’t know if any of that made any sense.

    • X_kot says:

      I completely agree with you that a simulation based on reported statistics will never convey the true misery that countless people, such as your family, must endure due to poverty, oppressive governments, and disease. However, games such as Real Lives or Third-World Farmer give people who are culturally or economically isolated from that reality an opportunity to at least see the disparity, if not build empathy. It’s a small step and nowhere near enough to reverse systemic woes, but every bit helps.

      • RaunakS says:

        I agree with you. I know, intellectually, that Real Lives is a very important game: one that should be essential viewing for armchair Western foreign policy experts. For all the reasons you stated and more.

        I still dislike it.

  4. Chiron says:

    This has been going for a while, its very very brutal and quite an eye opener in places.

  5. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    I’ve never played it, but I love the idea.

    Making it for-pay and limiting it to Windows really narrows the potential impact, though. It seems like something that could have a lot more political punch with just a little investment to make it web or mobile-based, and then offered as free-to-play. Maybe a sympathetic NGO could sponsor the work?

    • lglethal says:

      Whilst I agree with you that this would be better if it was free to play, limiting it to Windows doesn’t hurt the audience at all.

      I’m assuming the program is too big or requires too much computing power to be particularly good on android, however, that would be a bonus if they could get it working on that.

      But complaining that Windows only for computers is a limitation doesn’t really take into account the vast majority of users ARE on Windows. The results of the latest Steam survey say 95+% of Steam users are Windows users. OK not everyone uses Steam but I’d say its pretty representative as to what out there.

      • Sin Vega says:

        That the audience of a programme made to distribute PC games is mostly comprised of PC users doesn’t really say anything.

        • lglethal says:

          I’ve yet to find a better indicator of potential PC user breakdown figures. Perhaps if Amazon released details…?

          Other figures I’ve looked at tend to have much higher Linux values (up to 40%). however, when you look at the nitty gritty details many of those are measuring server outputs, Firewall responses, or proxies through which people contact the internet and don’t actually represent the users machine.

          Apple tends to float between 2-10% depending on where you read, but considering that Apple PC’s (imacs or whatever) are generally limited to first world audiences and the superrich in the developing world, I tend to believe it would be at the lower end of that spectrum.

          If you have a link to a better, more robust source then Steam, I would love to look at it…

  6. Canadave says:

    For what it’s worth, the idea that someone could move to Toronto speaking only Mandarin and subsequently never learn English isn’t terribly implausible. The majority of immigrants do learns some, but it’s not unheard of for some, especially older immigrants, to just stay within their own community.

    • cockpisspartridge says:

      I stayed next to China town for 6 months once and can confirm that it is possible to live there, only venturing out as far as the horseshoe and living on dim sum. Good times.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Especially true if you’re a more traditional ‘housewife’ of an immigrant family. I had Pakistani neighbours growing up, and the mother didn’t speak a whiff of English. It can be a control thing, and rarely a choice.

  7. RabbitIslandHermit says:

    This was great, kudos. I find life simulations fascinating, it’s such a huge ambition and I’ve never seen a game that I thought really managed it well (though I’ve enjoyed playing most of them). Alter Ego might come closest, honestly, though it’s sort of the converse of Real Lives in that you live a very picket fence American life. It’s also glorified interactive fiction, but nothing wrong with that.

  8. Michael Fogg says:

    A Catholic priest told me this when I was little: imagine the world is a village where one hundred people live. Now picture, that 50 of these people are Asian, 30 African, 20 Caucasian. 60 people know how to read and write. 40 people have running water in their houses… etc etc. The seven-year old me just shrugged at all this. Pretty much like I shrugged today at this game’s attempts to raise awareness about world issues.

    • Monggerel says:

      So what you meant by that comment is that you have, since childhood, wilfully refused and continue to refuse to grow as a person, even against your own better nature? (for you seem to realize the arbitrary cruelty of your choices)

      A man after my own heart, truly.

      • shde2e says:

        To be fair, I dont think most 7-year olds can really comprehend the full scope and underlying implications of that. And even most adults have trouble sympathising with large masses of strangers across the planet.

      • invitro says:

        “wilfully refused and continue to refuse to grow as a person” — If someone can grow as a person by hearing someone say that half the population is Asian, that person is starting from a really, really low level. Below age 7, probably.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      “A Catholic priest told me this when I was little…”

      Of all the places I thought that was going, apathy wasn’t one of them.

      • Jediben says:

        Indeed. I had suspicions the rape to story ratio was about to increase.

  9. Ericusson says:

    Alec, wish you well buddy, take care.

  10. CaptainDju says:

    “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.”

    Yep, that’s pretty much parenting in a nutshell…

  11. wfw-rps says:

    is it possible to play on as your children?

    • Sin Vega says:

      That would rather defeat the point, as it’d become a game about winning, not a simulation of a single life.

  12. Umberto Bongo says:

    Broteam’s video of this is comedy gold:

    • natebud says:

      I am really glad someone put this video up. Just because a movie or video game is talking about a serious issue doesn’t mean it’s necessarily deserving of praise. After all the issue may be tackled really poorly. This game seems too manipulative and overly reliant on shock value. The way it goes about describing people’s lives around the world makes it seem like everyone outside of Europe and North America is living in a constant state of misery where nothing good can ever happen. It is certainly possible that people are living lives like the ones mentioned, but this game whiffs too much of random number generation to feel sincere. For a good game about the difficult lives of people in other nations, try papers, please. Even though it’s set in a fictional country, the game borrows a lot from USSR history. That bit where the guard comes to you early on and asks you to detain more people so he gets paid more is actually based on fact. Much of the secret police force in the USSR from the 20s to 60s were actually paid per person arrested so police would often arrest perfectly innocent people for no reason, torture them, ask them to name non existent conspirators and send them to the gulags anyway, then repeat with the people the last guy condemned. Perhaps this game would be better if it were more focused on one particular place rather than try claim it’s painting an accurate picture of the state of the entire world.

    • April March says:

      That’s a silly video, and it shows how strange I think that people are calling this game heavy-handed. You get as much as you put in. You worry about your statistical-dude, you get shellshocked. You put nothing in, like Graham, you get an Excel spreadsheet. You enter trying to mock, you laugh at Ethiopian parasites and then set the entire Canadian wildlands on fire.

      • natebud says:

        But its funny because its taking itself so seriously, just like The Room

  13. C0llic says:

    I’m all for education and games that make you think, but this seems altogether far too heavy handed. Isn’t one of the golden rules of educational games that you shouldn’t realise you’re learning something ? (that’s doubly true if also you’re being preached to).

    • Umberto Bongo says:

      This. It’s so relentlessly miserable and not even hiding the fact that it’s kinda manipulative that it often slips into self parody. This also makes it funny as hell.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      I don’t really need a game to remind I’m privileged to live in peace with clean water and regular income so I can eat greek roast on sundays.
      Maybe it’s “educational” to folks whose parents didn’t tell them I suppose.
      If watching the evening news won’t spark more global empathy like say the syrian war coverage, low-res random generated fictive lives won’t either.

      • Ericusson says:

        I kinda doubt just having your parents tell you how lucky you are really gives you the full extent of reality kicking the shit of the lives of most people on the planet though.
        (Illustrated little bit here for example > link to theatlantic.com)

  14. S0lidman says:

    This game is not so correct for simulation

  15. invitro says:

    “white, cis-male of 1st world country” — hee hee.

  16. invitro says:

    RPS readers seem to be united in believing that knowing the facts about the world that (I suppose) are presented in this game is a good thing to do. I’m curious how many of you know these facts already, and keep up with how they change. I’m a fan of the CIA World Factbook (I think that’s what it’s called), and it’s UK, almost-identical counterpart, The Statesman’s Yearbook (something like that). Big, big books, tons of facts, not an extremely large amount of political commentary given that the subject matter of the books is to a large extent world politics. Highly recommended, and there are websites if you don’t like books. (If there are better books with this information, I’d love to know about them.)

  17. frogulox says:

    I am australian, and generallu happy and proud enough to be so.
    Not Proud, with a capital ‘P’ because those national pride goons are the same in every country and the only people they sit well with are other like minded goons.

    Anyway, the mention of nauru struck me as an embarrassment and gave me a sads.

    • Premium User Badge

      Buzko says:

      @frogulox – sounds like an eminently reasonable reaction to me. I also like Australia, but it’s useful to remember that we can do better.

      I’m still not over the fact that we re-elected Pauline Hanson, and gave her party three more Senators.