In September, Electronic Arts released an infographic revealing all kinds of statistics players have generated in the year they've been playing The Sims 4, the latest in the life simulation series and one of the best selling PC games of all time.
Since the game was released on September 2, 2014, players have created 93,000,000 Sims, who collectively "woohoo'd" (the game's cute euphemism for sex) 235,000,000 times. Five million of those Sims have died. Game publishers like releasing infographics with large numbers to illustrate how popular the game is without actually revealing sales figures, but there was one curious statistic that says a lot more about the game and the people who play it: There were 27.5 million marriages in The Sims 4, but only 1.7 million divorces. That's a divorce rate of 6 percent, which is 34 percent lower than the US average according to the American Psychological Association (some recent statistics have been more optimistic, but still put the divorce rate at over 30 percent).
Why are The Sims players doing such a tremendous job keeping their marriages together in the game, when in reality, divorce rates are higher than ever?
"That's a loaded question," Rod Humble, who worked on The Sims 2 and 3 and was previously head of The Sims Studio, told me. "The model could be slightly off, or it could be that when you're playing The Sims, you're paying a lot more attention and trying to make it work. In real life, life kind of takes over and you can end up with two people looking at each other saying 'how did we get here?'"
The Sims 4 senior game designer Daniel Hiatt told me the obvious answer: there isn't another real person to fight with in a Sims marriage.
"Of course, if you just don't want to be married anymore, you can always just kill her."
"In a real marriage, there's a lot more room for conflict and for people to grow apart, whereas in The Sims there's only you, the player, to make that conflict happen," he said.
However, marriage isn't something that just happens to you in The Sims. It's something players want and make happen. You have to go from friends, to flirting, to romantic interest, to going steady via social interactions. You can also throw a wedding party that gives you gameplay goals for successfully cutting cakes and entertaining your guests to get more prizes.
You get stuff for getting married. It's a reward. It's not a first-person shooter with winners, losers, and a final score, but in The Sims, marriage is winning.
By the same logic, divorce is losing. According to the The Sims 3 wiki, "The divorcee Sim will experience more emotional turmoil, and will receive a large Lifetime Happiness drop as well as a moodlet for being betrayed/broken up with." Moodlets signify events that impact how your Sim feels. Divorce is a negative Moodlet.
The Sims players have tried ending their marriages amicably with little success. When one player asks if there's a way to end a marriage without fighting with his wife in The Sims 2, other players explain that the couple's relationship state needs to be pretty low for a divorce, and suggest either starting an affair or to simply stop communicating with his wife completely. Those are two ugly strategies to avoid a fight, but not nearly the ugliest.
If your Sim has the "Commitment Issues" trait, then they can get a divorce without much trouble, but at that point you're basically role-playing an asshole, and you still hurt the other half of the marriage.
"Of course, if you just don't want to be married anymore, you can always just kill her," one player said.
It's an old-fashioned perspective for such a progressive game. For example, The Sims has always allowed for same-sex relationships, and since The Sims 2, the game recognized same-sex marriages, a full decade before same-sex marriages were legal nationwide in the United States.
But according to Rachel Sussman, a psychotherapist specializing in relationships and author of The Breakup Bible, it's not that far from the truth either.
Image: Electronic Arts
"We're hearing more and more stories of couples trying to have a more healthy divorce, but more often than not one person wants it when another person doesn't, you might have a third party involved and infidelity," she said. "It can be very painful."
According to Hiatt, this view of marriage and divorce also reflects what players want.
"I think a lot of our players are trying to tell conventional stories and we're giving them the tools to tell those stories," he said. "The game is a reflection of what people are trying to do."
"People aren't going to get cancer," Humble said. "They're not going to have all these things in life that are particularly dark. It's an optimism simulator."
Humble went on to tackle the same subject with a starker point of view with The Marriage, a small game he developed alone. It uses abstract shapes and colors to communicate more nuanced aspects of marriage with gameplay. For example, when a blue square touches a pink square, the blue square shrinks and becomes more transparent, while the pink square grows slightly and becomes less transparent, showing how one person can disappear or become minimized in a relationship.
The Sims players, Hiatt said, tend to be more optimistic, with most choosing cheerful, romantic, and friendly traits for their Sims, and very few choosing evil or mean traits.
"The Sims" is designed to direct players towards marriage without considering why
So it's not that the model is slightly off, as Humble suggest. It's that we already view marriage as an end in itself.
As Sussman told me, it's a healthy relationship that people should strive for, in the game and in real life, not necessarily marriage
"The divorce rates for second marriages are even higher than first marriages, and I think that is because people don't take the time to stop and see the mistakes they made the first time around," she said. "There's a pressure from society, to get married and remarried."
The Sims is similarly designed to direct players towards marriage without considering why, but it's a marriage consisting of only one human. The other person is a series of wants, needs, and traits laid bare via progress bars, and that's an easy relationship to manage.
"I think that probably says more about how computer programmers view relationships, rather than a particular point of view," Humble said and laughed. "I do have a slight concern particularly when it comes to my work, that maybe I'm bringing the tools to bear on a subject regardless of a subject."