This compelling simulation is the brainchild of Bob Runyan who, late one night, reflected on the shortcomings of the popular board game “Life” and concluded that it could be a better game if we didn’t all start the same. Real Lives is Bob’s version of the game of Life—on a much broader scale. By offering kids the opportunity to “live” other people’s lives through a software simulation, “we try to help kids to understand and feel empathy for people in other parts of the world,” says Runyan.
Real Lives 2004 starts by automatically generating a life based on current population and birth rate statistics (you have a 1 out of 5.3 chance of being born in India). Once born, players face realistic events and problems that typically occur in the country of your birth. Kids face decisions and witness the consequences of those decisions as they age and “live” the simulated life.
Behind the simulation is a robust data engine that uses statistics from over 100 sources, including the United Nations, the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, encyclopedias, and other fact books. Billions of possible characters can be born in over 190 countries. The software uses statistics to present accurate cultural, political, and economic systems. Statistics also drive the presentation of personal attributes, health issues, family issues, schooling, jobs, natural disasters, wars, and more. Lives proceed on a yearly basis and, as players make decisions in each of those years, the data engine adjusts possible outcomes for that particular life.
Our teen-testers were able to experience many different lives in just a few hours. One was a boy named Wei, born into a poor family in Zhangzhou, China. He did not attend college or vocational school. As a mail clerk, our teen-tester faced decisions about gambling, alcohol, and drinking. Wei survived famine and earthquakes, but contracted hepatitis. He found romance, but had no children; and he died at the age of 84 from cancer.
In another simulated life, our testers were surprised to discover that their girl character, who was born in India, was not sent to school, while her brother was. Other lives experienced malaria in Ghana, and incarceration for political activism in Argentina.
Real Lives 2004 has many features that allow teens to explore the simulation in more depth. An “undo” option permits players to go back, rethink a decision, and then see how the change impacts their simulated lives. By using this “undo” button, Wei ended up dying at age 55 while trying to rescue a friend, instead of living to age 84. The “Character Designer” allows teens to override the auto-birth feature (which randomly places the player somewhere on earth) so that they can control where they are born, their gender, and some of their characters’ potential, including intelligence, athletic prowess, music and art talents, appearance, and more.
A simulated life can be experienced in as short as 30 minutes or as long as a couple of hours. The players’ interactions will depend on how much information they read before making their life decisions, and how lucky they are in life. The gameplay is mostly text-based, and players move forward in their lives by hitting the “Age a Year” button. There are Internet links throughout the game for more information.
Real Lives 2004 is rated “Teen” because, where statistically appropriate, it deals with things like sexually-transmitted diseases and brutal crimes including rape. Those aspects can be eliminated in the “Configure Issues” controls.
This software creates a powerful learning opportunity for teens to experience other cultures. By allowing them to live another’s life, the software makes learning personal and therefore readily absorbed. The players develop empathy because they become the person they are playing. While photos and graphics would make this simulation more intriguing, it is nonetheless fascinating to play.
Real Lives 2004 has a 14-day free download, so families can walk a lifetime in someone else’s shoes many times over before deciding to buy the software. This software is captivating for teens to explore alone, and would be an exciting catalyst for group discussion in a classroom or youth program.
All tech products are judged on a five star scale by looking at the following factors: fun, education, ease of use, value, and technical.