When Jennifer Kersten was passed over for a job after a grueling interview, she went home and played The Sims on her computer.
She created characters based on the people who rejected her, then killed them off, over and over, by drowning them in a swimming pool without ladders and starving them in a room with no food.
"I'm quite normal and professional," said Kersten, a 35-year-old Web site producer in Milton, Wis. "Until I get home and get into the game."
When it comes to The Sims, the most popular computer game of all time, Kersten's not lying; she's the norm.
The Sims and its various expansion packs - Livin' Large, House Party, Hot Date, Vacation and the new Unleashed - have sold 17 million units combined. In November, fans will be able to subscribe to The Sims Online and play with other gamers. Talk about a parallel universe.
Along with profits that would make Britney Spears jealous, what makes The Sims such a cultural phenomenon are the psychology and sociology. In a sense, a Sims participant gets to play God. You create the characters. You pick their personality, their jobs, their clothes, their houses. You must feed your Sims, try to make them happy, make them use the bathroom and help them deal with romance and the workplace.
Yet the designers programmed a degree of "free will" into the game that makes the characters unpredictable - and utterly compelling to millions who find playing The Sims is a lifestyle diversion that competes with television and other activities.
So, where did The Sims come from? After the success of his Sim City game, Will Wright and his team at Maxis in Walnut Creek, Calif., set to work on a scaled-down title based on homes instead of skyscrapers, neighborhoods instead of cities. To make it interesting, he created Sims (short for "simulated people") to populate those neighborhoods. He soon realized that the people were a lot more fun than the buildings - and The Sims was born.
Kathryn Oliver of Crystal Lake, Ill., uses The Sims as "a distraction when I'm restless." For her, the free-will aspect of the characters took some getting used to.
"They don't always do what you want them to do," she said. "You can tell them what to do and sometimes they'll change their minds." And she occasionally finds the social interaction between Sims characters a source of frustration.
"The relationship stuff is kind of an annoyance," she said. "You try to get them to make friends, and if they don't talk about the right things, there's a minus sign that appears above their heads. And if they don't talk to the other characters enough, they're not their friends anymore."
Oliver is drawn more to the opportunity to advance the careers of her characters and to design houses and build neighborhoods. But many Sims fans get stoked by the game's social aspects, often putting Sims versions of themselves, their families and friends into the game.
"I think creating people in The Sims in some ways is similar to how writers create characters in novels," said John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., who has written extensively about cyberspace. "Some re-create people they know because they need a model of some kind for a Sims character, and so they fall back on the models from real life that they are familiar with."
In some cases, Suler said, people use The Sims to vent. (Put that nasty boss in a locked room with exploding fireworks.) Others use The Sims to sort out their feelings toward someone. In all cases, the psychological aspect makes The Sims a big draw.
"Everyone gets the opportunity to create characters that reflect who we are, what we hope and dream, what we fear. It's a very empowering experience," he said.
Wright and Maxis have encouraged fans to be creative. Besides the user-friendly official site (http://thesims.ea .com), hundreds of individual Web pages are devoted to the game. Many offer homemade heads, "skins" (bodies), homes, walls, carpeting and so on that can be downloaded into your own game.
"I would only give us part of the credit," Wright said. "The fans are really responsible. The fans are, in some sense, co-developing the game."
"The Sims design team hit on something by allowing players to swap Family Albums - Sims characters, including personalities - and even skins with each other," said T.L. Taylor, a professor of communication at North Carolina State University and Internet sociology specialist. "The Sims actually creates a community of 'people labs.' "
The Sims also is the first computer game to attract as many women as men, which astonishes an industry that relies on gory, gun-toting games or Tolkienesque, male-dominated fantasy worlds.
"Essentially what you've got is a dollhouse with animated characters. Women like to decorate, and, hey, you can decorate without spending a lot of money," said Heather Castillo of San Francisco, founder of the subscription-based Sim Freaks Web site (www.simfreaks .com), which gets 30,000 visitors daily.
And don't forget the relationship aspect of The Sims, added Sarah Cutrone, 21, of Long Island, N.Y.
"I think that this game appeals more to women because it is a lot about social interaction and less about shooting and action," she said. "Plus, we get to dress our Simmies up in pretty clothes!"
A Sims romance upset Georgia Porter, 39, of Rocky Point, N.C. When her Sims husband wandered off to a Sims woman in another neighborhood, Porter's anger burned off-line as well. So her beleaguered, real-life husband brought home flowers to apologize for what his Sims counterpart had done.
"I can't count the number of times my real-life husband has gotten into trouble for things his Sims self did," Porter joked. "He doesn't quite understand."
Sims creator Wright has heard many similar stories. Some women, he said, put Sims versions of their boyfriends in the game and watch how the real-life boyfriend reacts when told what his Sims character was up to - such as cheating on her with the next-door neighbor. The women then analyze the boyfriends' reactions to help assess their real-life relationship.
Taylor said that's going a little too far.
"I think people can use these games in interesting ways if they are reflective about how the simulations have been explicitly designed with particular worldviews," she said. "But, if they simply see a game like The Sims as providing authentic insight into human behaviors and social situations, I worry."
Yet for some, The Sims can be downright therapeutic.
"One thing I used it for was to help me with the sadness I felt when my dad died," said Lori Clyke, 39, a Toronto photographer. "I can pretend he is still alive and working and doing the things he did before. I even dress him in cheesy golf clothes. "I know it isn't real, but sometimes it takes the edge off."
Patrick Kampert writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.