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There’s a mirror above my bedroom dresser, and I stop to look at myself in it. My eyes are only about half open. The crease between my brows appears to have deepened since just yesterday. I look tired and somehow older, like three years have passed since I went to bed last night. As I stand there my eyes begin to drift out of focus, the image in front of me blurring, as if there were something to see beyond the mirror, something more real than this.

Eventually I realize I have to do something. A whole day is stretched in front of me, almost eight hours before Gloria will walk through the door and ask how my day went. I have to figure out how I’m going to tell her I was fired without her freaking out. I have to start looking for another job.

Or do I?

I walk into the hallway and reactivate the security alarm and shut all the window blinds in the house. Just because I found an iron instead of an intruder in the closet doesn’t mean they aren’t watching.

Then I sit in front of the computer and Google the Ant Farm game. The blue orb appears again, and when I click it a new page appears, a form asking for personal information. I type Thomas in the FIRST NAME field and Phillips in the LAST NAME field. I enter my email address (, pick a password, and then enter my true AGE, SEX, CITY, and STATE. The final field is optional, which is MYSPACE/FACEBOOK/PERSONAL URL. I key in: I have a blog, too, aptly titled “Insanity Is in the Mind of the Beholder,” but I don’t see anywhere to add that. Finally I click SUBMIT, and a window pops up displaying the name of the file, antfarm.exe, along with a message asking if I want to save the file or open it.

I click “open.”

The ant farm file is so large that even with my lightning-fast broadband connection the estimated download time is thirty-one minutes. While I wait I think of the work I should be doing right now, compiling search engine statistics and building charts with them. I have this feeling, this guilty feeling, that I’ve made a huge mistake. Because after all, I’m at home on a workday downloading a computer game that is supposed to help me understand what is wrong with the world. Intellectually I realize how misguided my actions are, but somehow knowing that is not enough. Knowing that doesn’t mute the voices in my head, it doesn’t erase the pictures I keep seeing.

Like a bridge and a man in a Stetson hat. Like the concrete walls of a supermax prison cell. I wonder how I’m ever going to get out of this prison, this black iron prison. Dick said the truth was in numbers. Does he hear the numbers, too? Like three and one and four and one and five…

It’s hot in this house. I feel itchy. I’m absolutely convinced someone is watching me, and now I’m beginning to wonder if maybe everyone is watching me.

I mean everyone.

Including you.

From the hallway I hear a sound. A creaking baseboard. Fear pours into my arms, strokes my neck, like a bad dream, and I slowly swivel the chair around, certain someone will be standing there. Certain that you will be there.

But no one is there.

I stare at the doorway, waiting for the intruder to show his face, until finally the computer chimes. I turn back around and realize the file has finished downloading. A splash screen appears with that same photo of the Mayan temple and the crawling ants. At the bottom of this image is some text that says: Install Ant Farm 2.0.

This process takes another several minutes, during which I force myself not to get up and search the house for intruders again.

Finally the game loads. The first thing to appear is an Earth-like planet against a backdrop of space and stars, and in front of that, this message appears:

Thank you for downloading Ant Farm 2.0, the sim that makes YOU a god. While there are many simulation games on the market today, Ant Farm 2.0 is the only one that puts the power of belief systems at your fingertips!

By giving you the ability to set hundreds of parameters, Ant Farm 2.0 constructs a system of rules that your self-aware race will try their best to live by.

Okay, let’s get started.

Below all this text is a link that says CREATE YOUR WORLD, which I click. The five categories that appear are: BELIEF SYSTEMS, BIOLOGY, ECOLOGY, COSMOLOGY, and CULTURE.

When I click BELIEF SYSTEMS, I am presented with a page full of parameters, such as:

Does your belief system possess a set of values the ants should live by?

Are the values expressed in a clear manner, or are they embedded in stories and scripture that can be interpreted in a variety of ways?

That question sounds like something a typical atheist would say, just like the next one:

Do any of the values conflict with each other?


Do the stories in your value manual match reality as described by scientific study?

Does the value manual portray you as (choose all that apply): Benevolent? Vindictive? Petty? All-knowing? All-powerful? Jealous? Loving?

Would you like to create an afterlife for the ants?

Is participation in the afterlife dependent upon the ants’ behavior?

Or in BIOLOGY, the sim asks me:

How do the ants reproduce? Asexually or Sexually?

On a scale of 1 – 10, how much do the ants enjoy the reproductive act?

Is the reproductive act (choose all that apply): Vilified? Celebrated? Acceptable under only certain circumstances? Done in view of other ants?

Do the ants derive genetic benefit from reproducing with a variety of different ants?

Does society approve of or frown upon taking a variety of different partners for the reproductive act?

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out this game was designed by people who don’t believe in God, or at least not the way Christians believe in Him. I imagine the developers sitting in the living room of someone’s nasty San Francisco apartment, drinking and smoking pot, laughing at stupid, bovine middle Americans who go to church every Sunday. But to their credit, the game includes hundreds of parameters, and all of them are configurable. Which means I have the option to disagree with the opinions of the developers. We all imagine God in our own way, and it seems the point of the game is to investigate how our personal beliefs might fare when applied to the human race.

Or rather to self-aware ants.

After fifteen minutes or so I set my last parameter and receive this message:

Great! The hard part is over. Now you get to sit back, relax, and watch the ants try to make sense of the world you’ve created for them.

Because of the complex interpretive nature of Ant Farm 2.0, and because of the enormous resources required to compute their behavior, there is no graphical display of the ants in their environment. Instead, you will observe your world from the cockpit chart. The cockpit chart is a collection of graphs and figures that provides a wealth of qualitative and quantitative information about your ants, such as how their needs are being met in categories such as biology, safety, love, esteem, life meaning, aestheticism, and transcendence.

You may view aggregate scores for these categories, or you may drill down to the feelings of individual ants. And finally, because this is a rule-based game, once you begin a simulation you cannot change the rules. The point of this game is to simulate reality according to your initial setup, so altering the rules to suit your needs is not possible.

Are you ready to watch your world unfold? If so, then GO!

GO! is a link. I click it. The message disappears and the Earth-like planet returns. It grows larger on the screen, as if a camera is zooming in on it, and then another message pops up. This one says:

In Ant Farm 2.0, each ant represents a unique self-aware intelligence. The game will begin with a small number of ants that will attempt to secure basic life needs such as food and shelter in the context of the rules and values determined by you. The ants will multiply over time, and if your rules are successful, the world population will grow.

Based on your computer’s processor and memory configuration, we recommend you run the game at a maximum speed of 5,000X real time and a maximum world population of 250,000 ants. You may alter these settings in the configuration menu, but doing so could strain your system resources, and other processes may run slowly or fail altogether. WE STRONGLY RECOMMEND YOU RUN THE GAME WITH THE SUGGESTED SETTINGS.

Below this is a link that says CONTINUE. I click that and the message disappears, the camera zooms in further, onto an unrecognizable landmass, zooming closer and closer, resolving regions and then actual topographical features, and finally all the way to the ground, a bare, brown field of dirt.

Music begins to play as the camera pans across the ground. The opening chords are a mixture of strings and horns, discordant and almost ethereal. On the screen, a few weeds and scattered rocks appear, and finally, in the middle of all this emptiness, I see two ants standing on their hind legs, upright like humans, looking at each other. They turn and face the camera, looking more like cartoon ants than real ones. Facial features are drawn on them. Humanlike facial features. I wonder if one of them is going to say something, but then the image freezes and fades into the background, and on top of it appears the cockpit chart.

My world population begins at two. Rises to three. Then five. Nine, twenty-one. Counting gradually up. My ants’ Contentment rating hovers in the upper 90s (max is 100), and Life Meaning is 100. Transcendence, whatever the hell that is, also near 100. Safety occupies a region between 80 and 90. And so on. Did I win the game already? Because these are some happy ants.

The soundtrack music builds as the numbers change. Guitars join the strings and horns, and then a drumbeat march begins. Upward, upward the music rises, as if hope were written into the very code of the game. I notice a block of song information at the bottom left corner of the screen, like in a music video. The band is Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The song is “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.”

While the game runs, I think about Dick, how he fell into that trance today while I was talking to him. I think again about the likelihood that I would talk to him on this particular day, or that he happened to know about Ant Farm. It’s not very probable, is it? If my life were a film or a novel, you’d probably be calling bullshit by now. But I’m telling you, when I walked into that cafeteria today and saw Dick, the urge to sit down and talk to him was overwhelming. To be honest I didn’t feel like I even had a choice in the matter.

I focus on the game again and notice my numbers have begun to drop. Safety falls first, into the 80s, then the 70s. Life Meaning drops even farther, into the 50s. The music changes, becoming spooky and insistent and somehow desperate, violins stretching out the same few notes of suspense. Something is wrong, and not only do I not know what it is, I have no idea how to fix it.

Am I supposed to believe this is what God did? That our world is as pointless to Him as these ants are to me?

Clearly that’s what Dick believes…if he believes anything. But I feel very differently. Don’t I?

The music grows steadily spookier, violins screeching. The band is the same but the song is now called “Gathering Storm.” The drums return, marching much faster now, and I get the feeling something is going to happen. The numbers on the screen flip quickly, population growing, indicators dropping.

I wait.

Just as the song reaches its maximum intensity, a box appears on the screen. Black text on a translucent white background.

A title in the top left corner of the box says:

Prayer from Brett Paulson Ant

Sex: Male

Age 24

And below that, in the middle of the box, I read the first sentence.

Please help me.

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