According to the entry rules of Double Shot at Love’s upcoming season, if a contestant lights himself on fire and dies, it’s his own fault—sorry!
Double Shot was once an unsavory MTV dating show starring the twin sisters Rikki and Vikki (Season One) and then Jersey Shore’s Vinny Gaudagnino and Pauly D (Season Two). The drama of the show was fueled by 20 contestants competing for the attention of one or the other of the two stars—sometimes swapping! Also alcohol. This spring, contestants in the unofficial third season will try to win the hearts of a pair of sisters named Bambi and Evani, who, as it happens, are simulations.
The sisters and their suitors are all characters in The Sims 4, the latest iteration of the iconic life-simulation game. Their dating show exists only in the Sims universe. You can only “watch” it by turning on push notifications for a Tumblr run by the show’s creator. It’s not exactly reality television, but it should feature some of the same chaos and kissing and fighting that make that sort of thing worth watching. It might also be the only new dating show you can watch this summer, given that most major reality shows have already suspended production because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Shae, the Simmer who invented the virtual version of Double Shot, is a 30-year-old teacher from Arkansas. (She asked that I use only her first name out of concern for her privacy.) After Shae created Bambi and Evani, other Sims users sent her contestants to try out for the show. Shae has 30 virtual men to choose from so far, and she plans to whittle the list down to 12 or 16—more would probably crash the game, even with the modification she downloaded to get out of The Sims’s limit of eight virtual people per house. Entries are open until the end of the month, and Shae will post her first episode in the first week of May.
As she prepares to host Double Shot, Shae is also finishing up a Sims game of The Bachelor in which one contestant really did light herself on fire and die. “I expect some things like that to happen” in the new show, she told me. “With so many Sims in one house there will probably be quite a few fights. Lots of crying. Sims cry a lot.”
A game with the possibility of accidental death is more absurd, for sure, than your average dating show on ordinary television, but that absurdity is welcome. In a world without happy hour with friends, or a night at the club, or 90 minutes of prime-time screaming and kissing, passing the time requires some creativity. Shae’s project is one of many strategies people are trying out to re-create the things they miss most about their regular lives. It’s also a sign of how weird internet culture is flourishing as normalcy dissolves. Everything is weird now. When there’s nothing else to do, why not spend the summer watching animations court each other?
When the real world is bananas, you escape into a fantasy. People have been using The Sims to do exactly that for two decades. The game gives players the open-ended task of maintaining a career and creating a family and watching their characters carry on with their lives, responding to basic human feelings like hunger and loneliness and saving up for their dream houses. Sims can die—the current version of the game is the first to include ghosts—but the point of the game is to enjoy a life in which you control every input.
As of this January, 20 million people were playing The Sims 4, which came out six years ago. Patreon hosts a robust economy of custom content that can be added to the game, and the Sims community on Tumblr has long been one of the site’s largest and wildest.
Tumblr, the premier home of alt-twee internet culture, is the best place to be during a pandemic. The people there already live in an imaginary world, but right now they’re pulling out all the stops. Tumblr’s data team has reported huge spikes of interest in mermaids and pirates and cottages in the woods. “Oceancore,” a tag for people who wish to live by the sea like the heroine of a 19th-century novel, had a 1,000 percent jump in likes during the last week of March.
Sims content on Tumblr more than doubled from mid-February to mid-March, largely due to a series of new creative prompts and challenges. The Quarantine Challenge, for example, requires participants to set up a new Sims game and play with only one Sim, who must wash their hands and work from home and find pen pals to sustain their social life. They are not allowed to leave the house, but they have to learn three skills. They may videochat with their friends.
Just because The Sims is literally a game does not mean it is a joke. Each of the sisters in Shae’s version of Double Shot has a complicated backstory and carefully calibrated personality. Bambi is 24 years old and a musician who “flirts like hell” and “doesn’t let anyone tell her what to do.” Evani is 26 years old and a journalist who loves facts and the truth and playing hard to get.
Anyone who wants to submit a Sim to compete for one of their hearts has to send Shae a file of their character, which she can then put into her game and manipulate as she sees fit. Once the virtual men are in the game, they’ll react to whatever she throws at them based on their preset skills and character traits. The Sims will participate in challenges and group dates, just like in other reality-TV shows, and they’ll be eliminated week by week. (Time passes roughly normally in the game, although it speeds up if everyone is sleeping.) The romance should develop organically between the preset characters, and so should the infighting. “I want to bring some Sims into the game that will clash and bash heads, because that causes drama and drama is fun to watch in reality TV,” Shae told me.
Shae will make “episodes” by observing what happens in the game and then writing it up with her own commentary. She’ll also use a game modification that lets a user pose their Sims and take a still picture. Then she’ll edit them in Photoshop to suit her aesthetic and post the results to Tumblr.
“I mentioned to everybody beforehand, any posed shots will just be an amplification of what happened in the house,” she said. “I’m not posting any Sims that are hugging and kissing if they’re not actually doing it in-game.” (On that note, her blog also warns that the show will include “adult content.” As in: “There will be some language, there will be some drinking, there might be some sexy times.”) Much like a typical reality show, this one will have a producer curating the shots and steering the action—nothing is entirely real, but nor is it entirely fake.
Bambi and Evani have an impressively diverse roster of matches to choose from so far, including a cop named Miles who is a self-described great cook and “sympathy puker”; a marketing manager named Lincoln who loves eggs Benedict and freckles; and a single father named Cameron whose character description says he “had a scholarship to play e-sports at Foxbury Institute [an in-game Sims university], but gave it all up to become a chef.”
Erin Guest, a 41-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, entered an art-gallery curator named George. Lexi Stine, a 22-year-old from Pennsylvania, hoped to give her contestant an edge by suggesting that he might have already seen Bambi from afar at a musical performance. “I think my Sim”—a music producer named Zander—“has a really good chance, since he thinks it’s ‘destiny’ for him to be with her,” she told me. Janel Johnson, a 24-year-old from Maryland, made a barista named Morgan to enter into the game. She’s trying not to get her hopes up about Morgan’s chances so she doesn’t feel too disappointed if he gets kicked off. “In the end all I want is for the bachelorettes to find a happy ending,” she said.
It’s all very romantic, of course. People have been created out of thin air to fall in love with each other for no reason, except entertaining those of us who can’t really go around kissing strangers at the moment. “I’ve always been a big romantic,” Shae said. “I love reading romance novels. I love romance movies.” She’s been playing The Sims since it was first released 20 years ago. “Doing a love challenge like this brings something new to the game that I didn’t know I could do before,” she said
Though The Sims is a game designed to be played in solitude, having a showrunner like Shae makes it into a shared project for too-solitary times. Strangers on the internet are trusting that she’ll use their characters to come up with something enjoyable to watch, and they’ll stick around to talk about it as it unfurls. They’re invested in how it turns out not just because they are competitive, but because, in a moment of near-total romantic standstill in the real world, the kind of voyeurism promised by dating shows becomes even more compelling. Nobody is going on dates or indulging in reckless behavior right now—not even the people who normally get paid to do so on national television. In a twist, The Sims is now a way to playact not just an alternate life, but any life at all.