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Strangely Sim-ilar: What playing The Sims teaches us about ourselves

Since its debut in 2000, the life-simulation video game “The Sims” has held a captivating charm for a quirky not-so-few, inviting players to spend hours building the worlds of their wildest dreams from behind their computer screen. Upon login, players are greeted with the invitation to create a life completely of their choosing for their little pixelated characters, called “Sims.”

After choosing a virtual neighborhood, players can design houses, choose carpet colors, and endow customized characters with personality traits to their hearts’ content. Once installed in the game, each Sim begins a life trajectory that the creator can tweak and alter based on day-to-day decision making, enabling players to experience life through the eyes and actions of their Sims. 

The Sims’ slogan is “play with life,” and this slogan is an apt selection given the number of life activities that Sims can engage in. A Sim can get married, start a career and family, form a punk band and even commit murder (if you add the right mod to the game)!

While the premise of The Sims is simple and lighthearted (save for the optional murder), the game relies on extensive coding that powers a complex, automated story progression and an open world that features everything from customizable lighting and textures to bespoke vocal pitches.

The creators of the game itself had fun bringing life into their art. The powerhouse coders at Maxis, the American video game developer behind The Sims, even included real-life pop songs, re-recorded in “Simlish” (the Sims’ language) for Sims to listen to. Pop stars themselves recorded their songs in Simlish for the game. Katy Perry hit the studio to craft a Simlish version of “Last Friday Night” and Lily Allen offered her talent to make “Smile” a Simlish hit.

Though the game may be bedazzled with pop-star cameos, it has humble roots close to our college home. The Sims, which became an international hit, was born in Oakland just miles away from Mills College. Its creator, Will Wright, was inspired to create a “virtual dollhouse” game after losing his own home in the Oakland firestorm of 1991.

The circumstances of The Sims’ creation show how art and life can respond to one another, and reveal a deep-seated need to understand ourselves, our lives, and our relationships. Saira Muller, a writer for Wired, confessed that The Sims made her realize that “I’m ready for a partner and kids — and if you’re a little more mindful while playing, you just might realize something about yourself, too.” The Sims reveals more about the human psyche’s nature than merely a shared love of video games.

Our quest to recreate reality and craft an alternate universe of our own design persists through social media, which is used by 72% of U.S. adults, according to the Pew Research Center in 2021. TikToks, Instagram stories, and tweets allow participants to craft a fleeting version of themselves that can be as proximate to, or far afield from, reality as they choose. The popularity of some social media “influencers,” such as Instagram models selling diet tea, as devisers of invented identities speaks to this desire.

This begs the question: why are we so obsessed with abandoning our own lives for the digital realm? Even the billionaire founder of Facebook, who could seemingly never want for anything, yields to the all-too-human desire to escape this world for another. Alongside his team, Mark Zuckerberg announced this year that Facebook would become “Meta,” a grand-yet-vague harbinger of the “Metaverse,” a world that will supposedly extend our own into the digital cosmos of virtual reality.

The Sims has generally received more positive acclaim than Meta, but after all, being “meta” is what The Sims is all about. Some have compared the game to “playing God,” providing players the opportunity to control a world of their own making. It may be easy to assign cynical interpretations to this kind of escapism, but in some ways, the escapism may actually be positive.

The American Psychological Association defines escapism as “the tendency to escape from the real world to the safety and comfort of a fantasy world.” Though escapism can have negative connotations, research shows that escapism produces both positive and negative psychological effects.

What if this escapism functioned as a way for players to explore their truest selves, and cultivate a safe space for their expression? Players of The Sims have, knowingly or not, participated in making history. After an extensive debate between The Sims developers in 2000, The Sims ultimately became the first major video game to feature same-sex relationships.

Patrick J. Barret III, one of the game’s programmers, fought to include same-sex relationships in the game. He wanted The Sims to be a place where players could be themselves.

“At the time, it wasn’t considered ‘normal’ to be gay or lesbian,” Barret said in an interview with The New Yorker. “Some even saw it as dangerous. But in The Sims it was normal and safe to be a gay person.”

About his process of developing the game script that allowed gay relationships, Barret humorously noted, “If you created a household with two same-sex Sims, they would always become gay just from the fact they were around each other the most. That’s when I came up with the system that determined a Sim’s sexuality through user-directed actions.”

Humans are imaginative creatures and can arguably create in reality because we create in our minds first. In addition to making Sims that reflect their styles, personalities and sexualities, players can let their imaginations run loose with interior design and city planning. The Sims is a living testament to the human trait of creativity.

As we navigate an ongoing pandemic in a world where war is unfolding across the globe, games such as The Sims ask us to think about how we can construct and reconstruct reality in the wake of such devastation and change. Sometimes, useful revelations can come from adverse circumstances. The pandemic taught people to use cars less, allowing flora and fauna to flourish. In certain ways, people increasingly care more about each other’s well-being than they did pre-pandemic. To show solidarity with those suffering in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian flags can be seen hanging from houses and buildings in many real-world neighborhoods in the U.S. and around the world. Though The Sims does not include warfare, for some, the game means the possibility of creating the utopia that they can imagine.