Playing ‘The Sims’ in the harsh light of adulthood

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No one has played every video game. Not even the experts. In Backlog, Digital Trends’ gaming team goes back to the important games they’ve never played to see what makes them so special … Or not.

The Sims first came out in February of 2000, when I was a freshman in high school. I’d grown up obsessed with SimCity designer Will Wright’s games, elaborate simulations of everything ranging from an ant colony up to a whole planetary biosphere (The latter, SimLife, is my personal favorite). The Sims brought that focus to a more familiar scale: a single, everyday human life.

More specifically, a single consumer’s life. You manage an individual or family of Sims, balancing their physical and emotional needs to keep their mood up as they go through the daily treadmill and gradually advance in their hopes and dreams, whether that’s mastering a career, falling in love, or filling a mansion with the most expensive things. Wright frequently spoke about his desire to create toys more than games. Through that lens, The Sims is the ultimate virtual dollhouse — a play-place in which you can play out any and all late capitalist domestic fantasies.

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In high school, my Sims were speculative exercises, projections of the sort of adult life I might want, as an escape from the rhythm of teenage life. Coming back decades later at 32, with a career and rent, medical expenses to pay and a dog to take care of, it’s a different experience. Playing The Sims as an adult is less an act of escapism from one’s own life so much as a meditation upon it. I set out to replicate my own life in microcosm, to learn from it, and, hopefully, to create an idealized version of it free from the yokes of bureaucracy and tedium.

What I found instead was a distillation of familiar problems, recursively self-inflicted upon my own avatar. Watching myself endure the achievement-driven grind in The Sims, I saw a mundane life drained of wonder in a way that feels all too familiar.

SimUlacra and SimUlation

For this exercise, I played The Sims 3 (2009), for no reason other than that I happened to have it in my Origin account, purchased at some point in the last decade on deep discount. I only had the base game, and thus was not able to fully replicate my life, dog and all, because publisher EA still sees fit to charge $20 for individual Sims 3 expansions, with The Sims 4 (2014) already deep into its life cycle of DLC and branded tie-ins, and that’s an insane price to honor.

“Playing The Sims as an adult is less an act of escapism from one’s own life so much as a meditation upon it.”

After replicating my appearance, I selected the traits that would define SimWill’s AI. First and probably most important for what followed I chose Absent-Minded. Imaginative and cerebral from a young age, managing focus has never been my strong suit. I went with Bookish, Computer Wiz, and Artistic to reflect the nerdy polymath of a theater maker turned gaming writer. For his life’s ambition, rather than the sensible goal of making a stable living from writing, I opted for the more monastic dream of mastering both writing and art. True to my alma mater, I’ve always prized ideas over practicalities, and my material life has always suffered accordingly.

Personality in place, I set Will loose in the spartan, starting accommodations I’d set up for him. First, I found a job. Paper Boy, the entry level journalism position, pays a whopping $38 per hour (The SimMedia world isn’t in crisis, I guess). The Sims starts you off on a weekend, however, so with employment squared away, SimWill settled into a blissful afternoon of painting. Relaxed, well fed, and creatively productive, he (and I) felt optimistic going into the week.

What am I, some sort of wizard?

Familiar problems reared their head right away Monday morning. You can queue up actions for your Sims, but, left to their own devices, they’ll follow their instincts. SimWill slept until an hour before work, then grabbed a book from the nightstand and read right up until his carpool arrived. Without breakfast or a shower, SimWill grew hungry and cranky over the course of the day until he arrived home and burned his dinner, since his cooking skill started from scratch.

SimWill’s creative ambitions were quickly drowned out in a sea of logistics that he could never quite keep his head above. Remembering to eat and bathe on a regular schedule were bad enough, but throw in cleaning and household repairs, newspapers piling up, and now someone wants him to teach an art class this week… It was just too much. On top of all that, all work and no play made SimWill a cranky boy, so sometimes he’d have to unwind, which would often result in staying up too late playing video games, starting the vicious cycle over again.

Cleaning, household repairs, newspapers piling up, and someone wants him to teach an art class… It was too much

Sims with more fastidious traits tend to a lot of life’s basic maintenance automatically, but SimWill needed a little more active guidance to keep his life on track. He was just starting out in life, so I’ve got about a decade’s lead on him, and I’ve gotten somewhat better at dealing with life’s juggling act in that time, but not that much better. Frankly, a large amount of my current togetherness comes from living with a partner who’s much more on the ball.

A big part of what I’ve always loved about Sim games is the sandbox element. I create the system from on high and then sit back and observe the emergent chaos, tinkering as it grows. This time, I had to continually prod SimWill to do everything he had to get done. Wake up. Click. Take a shower. Click. Eat breakfast. Click. Go to work. Click. Click. Click. CLICK. It felt like a real job to keep SimWill’s life together, in a game of my life that I was playing… for my job. It was a tedious ouroboros that filled me with sympathy for every parent, loved one, collaborator, and authority figure that’s had to deal with my feet-dragging reticence to get anything done that doesn’t intellectually challenge and interest me.

Wherever you go, there you are

This casts into sharp relief the irony that many of the games I prefer involve a similar sort of scheduling challenge. Survival games like Don’t Starve take The Sims’ basic premise of building a life from scratch, and amp up the challenge by removing the helpful supporting framework of a surrounding society. An early love of Dungeon Keeper has since translated into a fascination with management-type games like Oxygen Not Included and RimWorld, where you design and maintain whole tiny societies’ daily routines. My brain spins up in excitement at the prospect of systemic puzzles in the abstract, finding personal expression through the creative task of engine-building, but I fail to bring that enthusiasm to bear on solving my own life.

Modern games have this insidious way of keeping you hooked with a drip feed of goals, micro and macro, that keep you barreling from one task to the next, chasing that dopamine hit from the next reward. Pursuing these rewards tends to supplant the actual content of the game in players’ hearts, however, complicating the relationship between time and value, and creating all sorts of strange incentives, like a desire to churn through a game as efficiently as possible, rather than savoring it. SimWill’s eyes were on the prize overall, but moment to moment he was often a wreck.

Where escapist fare provides a sense of structure and tangible accomplishment that many people lack in day-to-day life, the notion that “gamification” can actually improve our lives has gained a lot of traction in the last decade. Countless TED talks expound how games will make us smarter, more creative, more productive, and just generally better. The Sims takes the ethos of gamification to its reductive conclusion, distilling modern life into a literal game.

In so doing, it reveals how hollow that mode of living can become. It’s all form and no content. SimWill writes, not to actually create anything, but to drive up his writing skill. He eats, not to enjoy food, but to avoid hunger. The Sims presents a daily routine stripped of all the essential, unmeasurable aspects of life that make living worthwhile, replacing it with an endless treadmill of personal achievement. Within a week, SimWill started to have some semblance of a functional life, but in order to achieve that, we both had to subsume our will to the ruthless logic of the machine or risk being chewed up and left in the dust for refusing to play along. When being a good citizen runs directly counter to the goal of being a good human, the whole enterprise seems suspect.

After a long, real day of struggling to make virtual ends meet, I turned off my computer and threw the ball around for my dog. I wasn’t accomplishing anything, but I sure felt better.

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