Once, technology promised us liberation from the daily grind with washing machines and TV dinners, from labour with word processors, robots and telecommunications. But now, in new ranges of toys and video games, it is just this drudgery that is being mimicked and simulated as the perfect form of technology-assisted leisure.
The latest in this tedium-as-entertainment genre is The Sims - the everyday story of animated folk, in which the player gains control of "a set of suburban family characters acting out their dramas", which, we are promised, include all the elements of an Elizabethan tragedy: "Romance. Jealousy. Destruction. Intrigue."
The game begins with the player creating a set of protagonists - who are defined by characteristics such as neatness, niceness and playfulness - and placing them in their home. The player then nurtures their needs, feeding them, making them do the cleaning, sending them to bed and even switching off the lights. The test is whether this suburban family can be kept within their happy, prosperous equilibrium, or whether they descend into squalor, solitude and poverty.
The spiritual ancestor of The Sims is Tamagotchi, the egg-shaped, hand-held device that sold tens of millions worldwide in 1997. It created a population of users desperate to satisfy their toy baby by feeding it, sending it to the toilet and putting it to sleep, using a set of rudimentary buttons and a basic display. More recently, Sony created an upmarket competitor in its autonomous and intelligent doglike robot, AIBO, which sold out last Christmas. This silver machine, costing $2,500, can play with a ball and show six "emotions"; according to its website, it threatens to "add a richness to people's lives that only a good companion can bring".
The real fairy godmother of The Sims is none other than that 11-inch goddess, Barbie. Launched in 1959, she promulgated the model suburban living that is now emulated by The Sims. But while Barbie has spent four decades freeing herself from the constraints of domestic homeliness - this year, she is proudly running against Gore and Bush in the presidential election with a web-based manifesto - The Sims harkens to her former times.
The extraordinary innovation of this game is not the intro- duction of a new and fanciful world, or of characters with astounding characteristics, but how it elevates the ordinary and the mundane (even the washing-up) to the level of "drama". It boasts the same concept as docusoaps - that even the most banal is compelling; just as Big Brother insists on showing its inmates in the toilets, so The Sims demands that the player direct the animated characters toward the lavatory.
In the game I played, I created a perfect family - two adults and a child. At first, it seemed that they were getting on with their life, wandering around their house at my command, managing to prepare and eat food, cleaning up, enjoying the company of a couple of strangers who appeared at the door and, as night came, going to sleep. After a couple of hours of playing, and three simulated months of the pitiful life of my family, things started to go wrong. First, the child was taken away from her parents for failing to make it to school. Then, the man lost his job and his friends, and began fighting the missus, who promptly left the house. The bloke was left alone with leftovers festering on the living-room floor, as tiny, graphically rendered flies buzzed over the top of them.
While "reality television" delivers at least the dirty voyeuristic thrill of watching real people make real choices, some of which are enjoyably foolhardy, The Sims can only offer up a set of automatons marching to the metronomic clock of the computer.
The game was created by the team that created the bestselling Sim City, in which the player is the mayor who controls the planning, taxation and infrastructure functions of a city - putting up taxes makes the citizens leave, and failing to build enough police stations makes the crime rate go up. While the simulation of the behaviour of a metropolitan populous appears more credible - except in the new edition, where it's possible to reunite Berlin - the reduction of human desires to a set of simplistic algorithms seems laughable in The Sims. Perhaps I miss the point, because those who love the theatre of the ordinary stories of the Jerry Springer Show will feel similarly about the drama of The Sims. In both cases, the characters are cartoons, and The Sims families have no more ambition than the chat-show trailer-trash. As the publicity says: "The Sims are creatures of moods, of urges, of soaring desires - even if those desires are for pizza."