Disclaimer: Names in this post have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent. There is no game called Squaresville. My niece is not named Jennette. I neither want to defame the game, nor get my niece’s account banned.
Like many questionable uses of my time, I first played Squaresville to avoid paperwork. My family had gathered to sign legal documents. As the adults in the room fussed over who needed to witness what, where, in which order, I chatted to my 9 year old niece, Jennette.
Jennette told me about the mobile games she’d been playing with friends. I had dreamed about playing Minecraft with her ever since my wife broke my heart by “not getting it”. Jennette quickly broke my heart again by telling me Minecraft was “a boy’s game” and she wasn’t interested in it either.
Rather than make the case that Minecraft is, in fact, excellent regardless of player gender, I decided to meet Jennette where she was and installed Squaresville on my phone. I dazzled her with the flippancy with which I paid a dollar for access. She sped me through tutorials to get to the main game.
Squaresville is a clone of The Sims: at its core you build, furnish and live in a home in a 3D town. It’s not so much a game as a doll’s house. It differs from The Sims in a few key ways. Rather than play with crazy simulated people who speak gibberish, you play alongside crazy internet people who speak gibberish. I was soon to discover a more unsettling difference lurking within.
Jennette unceremoniously sold off my starter home and we built a basic house together using the proceeds. I opted for a small square room, bunk beds, a cheap shower and no roof. We picked some funky patterns for the upholstery together. I occasionally ducked back into the real world to sign where I was told. I topped off my home with some spooky trees for the garden.
Home ticked off, Jennette walked me into town and showed me the stores and businesses. This is where you get jobs. Jobs earn Squallars: in-game currency. Squallars buy more stuff for your home. You can also pay real-world money for Squallars, if you’ve got cash to burn. Jennette proudly proclaimed that she had reached level 28 out of a possible 50 serving fast food. This meant she earned more Squallars per order she served.
At this point the adults in the real world were satisfied that all was in order with the paperwork, so we parted ways. Later that evening, curious, I logged back on to Squaresville and tried out a job.
In The Sims, you send your characters out to work in the morning and fast forward to the evening, when they return home with a paycheck. In contrast, Squaresville jobs are minigames: you yourself have to manually perform set tasks and get paid in Squallars for each task completed.
I tried out the mechanic job. An endless queue of customers awaited me, each with a motorcycle. I changed tyres by tapping on tyres, then a motorcycle. I gave new paint jobs by tapping on a paint can, then a motorcycle. I changed oil by tapping on oil, then, you guessed it, a motorcycle.
The monotony started to grate on me. The job was a chore and I quickly realised why. It’s in Squaresville’s business interests to bore you: if you’re bored you’re more likely to spend your real money on Squallars. Or rather, beg your parents to buy Squallars for you.
I was raised by frugal parents. The kind who would rather spend a half hour looking for a free parking space than spend money paying for a car park. I would not give in, opportunity cost of time be damned.
Time to do some research. I searched online for a Squaresville wiki and perused details of the different jobs on offer. Ever the optimiser, I worked out from half-completed tables of Squallars-per-task that pizza delivery was the fastest earner. A quick career change later and I stood outside a pizza shop in uniform.
I picked up a pizza. I got on my moped, and ferried it across town to a waiting customer. I slowly puttered back to the pizza shop. Rinse, repeat. Navigating 3D space was a pleasant change from tapping on one thing then another in a stuffy garage. The scenery changed, taking me to different yet samey neighbourhoods. At one point I even crashed into a river and had to swim ashore.
The whole thing had a zen-like quality. For a while I felt a blissful contentedness, reinforced with the smugness of beating the system. I messaged Jennette over in-game chat and imparted my uncley wisdom, telling her that fast food service was for chumps and that pizza delivery was where the real money was at. Naturally she ignored the advice of her elders, especially given the time she’d already invested in her fast food career and the fact that she could comfortably do it while watching TV.
For a few days, all was sunny in Squaresville. I visited Jennette’s house for a tour, cooing over in-game chat as I would if I were visiting a friend’s real-world house for the first time. One evening during a crazy period at work, I finished my real-world job at 10pm and zoned out by delivering virtual pizzas, chuckling at the absurdity of decompressing from an actual job by doing an imaginary one. I spent my Squallars on a kitchen and computer for my home to fulfil my avatar’s needs for food and fun.
A creeping unease started to grow at all the time Jennette was spending serving virtual fast food. I myself tried out fast food service and found it to be just as menial and monotonous as my former mechanic role. Tap. Tap. Tap. My life, and the lives of countless anonymous children, were slowly wasting away like water leaking from a faucet.
A spark of an idea started to form: could I skip the dullness and create a way of earning money automatically? Normally, ideas like this smoulder out, and I’m sure I would have forgotten this one quickly too. But I soon made a discovery that so enraged me that it fanned this small spark into a roaring flame.
To be continued…