When life gets unmanageable, I play The Sims.
This was true when I was a 14-year-old playing Sims 2 to procrastinate geometry homework, and it’s true now, in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, when social distancing has forced all of us to recalibrate our lifestyles in order to flatten the curve of infection spread.
Nostalgia, that ever-present force in 2010s pop culture, is reaching a peak right now. Celebrities are collectively doing too much on social media at the moment, but it’s clear they’re reverting to things that feel comfortable. Joe Jonas is digging through old Jonas Brothers records on Instagram Live; Ashley Tisdale and the cast of High School Musical are recreating “We’re All in This Together” on TikTok. Meanwhile, I’m watching Death Cab for Cutie leader Ben Gibbard play acoustic versions of the songs I loved in high school, live on YouTube at 7 p.m. ET every day. I’m also playing Sims 4 on my quickly-overheating laptop.
In this time of isolation, The Sims provides both a creative outlet and a social one. More importantly, the game offers a sense of control and consistency, even when the real world is ultimately uncontrollable and inconsistent.
Just this past month, The Sims franchise turned 20 years old. I’m 26, so the game has existed nearly my whole life, even when my family’s Dell computer was too slow to load Sims 2 and I’d have to go do something else for half an hour while the main menu loaded. Over the years, the way I play The Sims has evolved: sometimes I want to make the perfect apartment, sometimes I want an elaborate fashionable family with extremely detailed cats and dogs. Sometimes, I just want to gaze at the gallery of user-created likenesses of the members of BTS.
The joy of The Sims is that everyone plays differently. You have builders who make elaborate homes like the multi-level architectural masterpiece from Parasite. You have custom content creators who design Sims versions of outfits worn by Kylie Jenner. My friend Nikita has been playing the same family for generations, following the paths of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren as they grow up and move through the neighborhoods of San Myshuno, Windenburg, and Newcrest. I, personally, prefer the delight of creating something new each time – I’ve sent dozens of haphazard families out into the world to act of their own free will.
These days, however, I’m finding comfort in the repetition of fulfilling needs and aspirations in The Sims’ gameplay. (Sims 4 is also, conveniently, $4.99 right now, thanks to EA’s nicely-timed spring sale.) On Twitter, people are discussing how to be productive during self-quarantine, comparing this moment to Shakespeare probably penning King Lear during the Plague. The inevitable backlash to that is, of course, capitalist productivity is a scam — and you should do whatever you can to survive the mental health challenges of isolation while keeping yourself and other people safe from contagion. I believe those last points; there shouldn’t be pressure to go finish your novel or read great literature or do a frankly absurd amount of at-home workout videos. But in The Sims, there’s something soothing about pretending to do those things.
In Sims 4, I can sit my sim at the computer for dozens of in-game hours (yay cheats!) while she masters the writing skill and goes on to produce masterworks that actually pay her a living wage. She can then go party all night long at the Bluffs until she’s found a crew of friends and romantic partners to wile away the hours before she goes on to master gardening or gourmet cooking. Money is no object — there’s “motherlode” for that — but neither is time, or personality, or even natural talent. She can be a celebrity vlogger thanks to the “Get Famous” expansion, or she can open a restaurant in “Dine Out.” Anyone can be anything in The Sims, and you can, more or less, make anyone love you with enough time and positive mood boosters. During some sessions, I’ll avoid cheats entirely and find pleasure in constantly satisfying needs. Watching those little bars for hunger, sleep, and social needs fill up over time is a meditative experience, the small joy of cause and effect. Things happen because you make them happen, and there are direct pathways to survival and getting what you want.
The social connection and career success in The Sims isn’t “real,” but it provides a very real pathway to coping with the surreality of life in face-to-face social isolation, and even in times when we aren’t dealing with a global disease outbreak. On days when I can’t see my friends, or days when I just don’t want to, I can play along in some simulacrum of life. It’s not avoidance, necessarily, or at least, it’s an avoidance that’s useful to me.
And look, I’m not saying that that idea in itself isn’t a capitalist trap, but The Sims is relaxing, and it removes the pressure of forcing myself to meet expectations that are either unrealistic or just not going to happen for me right now. The lives I build in Sims 4 are infinitely more glamorous, successful, and well-decorated than my own, but it doesn’t spark the same aspirational jealousy that, say, scrolling through Instagram does.
Instead, it’s a way of living and creating when creating things and living with existential anxiety feels impossible. It’s also just extremely fun.
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