The Sims Sold Millennials on the Fantasy of a Dream Home. A New Expansion Pack Offers a Dark Twist.

When The Sims debuted in February 2000, the average house price in the U.S. was just over $200,000. I was 8 years old, and I would spend hours at my best friend’s house, taking turns on her PC to design our dream homes.

The Sims felt like a trial run for adulthood, exploring how you’d make use of your future autonomy. Much of this validated the importance of personal space: how to lay out a room, how to choose a sofa that balanced aesthetics and comfort, how to make a house a home.

My friend and I made liberal use of the cheat code granting limitless funds. Rosebud, we’d type whenever the coffers were running low. Rosebudrosebudrosebud. Or else, when we were really strapped: motherlode.

Today the average price of a home is nearly $490,000. The ratio of home price to median household income has jumped from 4.33 to 7.57 (as of November). Everything is more expensive, and wages have failed to keep pace. Roughly half of millennials in the U.S. are still renting, a far larger share than in past generations. Forget cheat codes and vibromatic heart beds, the likes of which I splurged on for my Sims. Adulthood, for me and many people my age, has been defined by moving from rental to rental. My childhood dream of designing a dwelling that reflects me from top to toe has instead, for years, been squeezed into shared living spaces and whittled down by prescriptive leases. I’ve not even been able to hang things on the wall without my landlord’s permission.

When I learned that The Sims had recently released a For Rent expansion pack enabling people to play as tenants or property managers, I felt the kind of commingled hurt, umbrage, and morbid curiosity that you might experience when confronted by a cynical remake of your favorite childhood film.

The official trailer for The Sims 4: For Rent emphasizes the potential of “multiunit life,” promising “ample opportunity … [for] eavesdropping, snooping, or even breaking and entering”—a description that instantly evoked memories of my worst roommates.

Its view of landlords, on the other hand, is benevolent, exhorting players to “be more than a property owner—be a community builder” (with the reassurance that, should your community be late with rent payments, “you can even take their stuff!”).

The original Sims seeded a fantasy of independent adulthood across an entire generation. Why would millennials, unable to own their own places, sully the site of our nostalgia by playing as landlords? Was turning the tables, if only in our imaginations, meant to be somehow cathartic?

EA declined to put forward a game designer for interview but did extend to me For Rent for review—and so, for the first time since I was a child, I returned to the simulated world that had made me so anticipate adulthood.

Inevitably, a lot has changed. The peaceful suburb I remembered from childhood has been replaced by elaborate “worlds” that I can (effortfully, via a loading screen) switch between to grow my property portfolios. The Sims 4 is more immersive and finely drawn, visually, than the original was, but it’s also more involved: It took me a whole afternoon to create my first Sim and set her up in her “hovel.”

It was also not as straightforwardly godlike an act of creation. I might have named Edith Sim and instilled her with ambition, mischief, and a sassy pixie cut, but she selected her job—aspiring comedian—all on her own.

Edith and I both live alone; we both like cooking and working out; we are both mean. Our days even passed the same way. Edith went to work (well, open mic nights), paid bills, scrolled social media, did dishes, and showered. This might have been an exciting vision of independence when I was a child, but now I had my own household to attend to. After getting on top of Edith’s chores, I would close my laptop, dazed, and make a start on my own, picturing a diamond above my head turning from orange to green as I cleaned my kitchen and took out the trash.

Despite her middling success on the stand-up circuit, Edith not only owned her place but rented out another, an abode that might euphemistically have been listed as “minimalist.” For this, Edith received 1 Simoleon a week, from a young adult named Jazz McFierce.

This transaction is the selling point of The Sims 4: For Rent. Edith, on my command, could go to Jazz’s unit, make small talk, perform maintenance and repairs. Or she could go through his mail, eavesdrop at his door, and issue fines for violating the lease.

On her first visit to Jazz, Edith was prompted to “ask about rental conditions.” After she did so, Jazz immediately became angry. When Edith, now tense, tried to backpedal by telling Jazz a funny story and complimenting his appearance, he walked out.

As a lifelong renter, I noticed that my sympathies initially lay with Jazz. But within the game, Edith was my stand-in. What I found most unsettling was how quickly I assumed the mindset of a landlord, despite my politics and my personal experience.

When Jazz reported a faulty oven late on a Tuesday night, I ensured that Edith was quick to respond, strengthening their relationship and sending my unit’s rating up. She made regular, time-consuming trips to carry out maintenance and tried to engender positive relations with Jazz. She even refused the temptation to snoop.

But soon my frustration (as Edith) with Jazz’s requests started to outweigh my commitment to being the Only Good Landlord. Every notification from the rental instantly provoked my impatience. Not the damn tenant again! The slow, clunky transition within the game between Edith’s home and the rental only added to my frustration and my creeping sense of Jazz as a burden. Why did this guy need so much of Edith’s energy?

This property-baron brain—an inclination I’d always deplored and pathologized in my own landlords—was unfamiliar to me, and unnerving. On the Sims subreddit, I found more evidence of it taking root. One user complained about their tenants allowing the unit to overflow with trash and continually protesting the conditions. “My rental is five-star. Everything is perfect, even the maintenance. … Get your filthy ass up and throw out your trash!” they fumed.

Others reported having squatters or never receiving rent. “My tenant is just an expense at [this] point,” wrote one. Merely asking tenants about the unit’s condition could prompt its rating to be downgraded.

Some of these issues reflected bugs, expected of just-released expansion packs (and many of them have now been fixed). But the fraught, even fundamentally oppositional relationship between landlords and tenants seemed very much a feature of For Rent. When I switched perspectives and played as Edith’s tenant Jazz, he seemed continually tense, anxiously waiting for her to call or stop by.

This dynamic is at least “very lifelike,” the review website VideoGamer observed. But that does not make for an entertaining or even engaging game. The most fun to be had, the article concluded, was “by being the worst landlord possible … making near-criminally awful units to sell back to tenants at a much higher cost.”

The review articulated my unease about For Rent and what it represented. Where The Sims’ early expansion packs sought to enlarge its world in delightful or desirable ways—with pets, magic, showbiz careers, and sexy furniture—For Rent operates within the worst confines of the real one, not only normalizing the broken approach to housing but incentivizing (indirectly or otherwise) its most dismal expression.

That wasn’t the developers’ intent. “It was really important for the team to make sure we are treating the ongoing anxiety about the cost of living and property ownership with the respect that it deserves,” said designer Jessica Croft in a December interview, adding that they aimed for For Rent to have “an optimistic lens.”

After all, The Sims was the first “life simulator” game to focus on relatable and attainable goals: not designing a city or running a zoo, but laying the groundwork for a happy, rewarding life.

Creator Will Wright originally had the idea after he lost his home to fire in 1991, focusing his mind on how to rebuild. Drawing from diverse sources such as the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” and the revolutionary “human-centered” architecture of Christopher Alexander, he sought to design a game that—as he put it in a 2003 interview—laid bare everyday ethics.

With For Rent, The Sims has perhaps moved too far toward reflecting brutal reality, forcing players to choose between being on one side or the other of an often fractious and all-too-familiar power imbalance. As a child, I was drawn to The Sims as a role-play for adulthood, a world of expansive promise and possibility; playing For Rent, I was reminded, depressingly, of how the game is rigged.

I did, recently, finally, manage to buy an apartment of my own—after saving for years and leaving the large, expensive city where I’d spent my late 20s. It’s modest compared with the residences of all my Sims, and every bill and breakage leaves me wishing I could just type rosebud and make it go away—but that’s life. I’ll take walls I can drill into over a heart-shaped vibrating bed.