I'm Almost 30 and I'm Still Addicted to 'The Sims'
Living falsely through the game.
I've had a 15 year relationship with The Sims. I've played every version, acquired every expansion pack and stuff pack. I've sunk hundreds and hundreds of hours into these virtual lives over the last decade and a half. Let's be real here: it's an addiction. I'll be 30 in the next few years and I still find myself returning to this franchise over and over. But why? Why does this franchise have such a huge impact on my life?
Part of me thinks it's because I can live the life of my dreams without having to go through the pain of failure or rejection. There are no negative consequences in The Sims if you play by the rules. I'm the kind of Sims player who takes really good care of her Sim families. I build an amazing house for them, decorate the rooms in the way I might decorate my own if I had an endless supply of money. I guide them through their lives, level up their skills, help them get promotions, hold their hands through relationship problems, through the difficulties of childbirth and marriage. Basically these Sim families end their lives with all of their wishes fulfilled. There are no regrets here.
Sometimes I even name my Sims 'Emma'
I know The Sims isn't real life, but there's something strange and addictive in being able to make money appear out of thin air. Bills to pay? No problem! My Sim family wants a new sofa? Here you go! It's fantasy made reality in my head. How could you not be excited by fixing all your problems with a click or two of the mouse and a few well known cheat codes? To be able to provide for yourself, even an imagined self, is wonderful. Freeing in a way life sometimes can't be.
Sometimes I even name my Sims "Emma," make them look exactly like me (or at least, my imagined ideal me), and give my Sim-Self the life I want: be a successful writer, have a healthy loving relationship with my partner, a garden full of plants I can tend to, and (depending on the version of the game) a house full of dogs and cats. Pretty much everything I hope for in real life.
My Sim-Self is creative, good at cooking, keeps the house neat. She laughs at jokes, can hold a good conversation and isn't ever anxious. She doesn't drop things when her hands give out, or sink into a deep depression when things aren't going quite the way she expected, she focuses and gets things done. She's my ideal self. Someone I can take joy in improving because I know she's improving. Seeing it play out on the screen is satisfying in ways that life can't be: I can see my Sim-Self's skills develop in "real time," as the meter over her head fills and fills, as she progresses from level to level until she masters her chosen vocation.
For one Sim, I made her level every single skill up. This particular Sim was a genius, reaching intellectual heights I could only dream of.
I can see exactly how well she's doing in her relationships too, whether or not a joke didn't land properly, if my partner is angry with me, if I'm officially "best friends" with my new next door neighbour. I also know when friends are feeling neglected, or when we've stopped being best friends. I can create and introduce the perfect mate, which removes all sense of chance for a happier life for my Sim-Self. Further, I also know why my Sim-Self is being grouchy: this might be because she's tired, or needs to pee or is hungry. In real life sometimes I don't even know if I'm mad or hungry—most of the time it's the latter—but in my Sim's life, I can quickly identify and meet my Sim's needs.
I'm not always so good. There've been times when I've felt like self-sabotaging my Sim-Self's life. Sending her to work in a mood, yelling at her partner for not doing the dishes, forgetting to feed her dog or cat or child (things I'd hopefully not do in real life). But it's hard to do this to my Sim-Self. It's hard to hurt these virtual people even though there's no lasting consequences. It's even harder now that The Sims 4 (the latest version) has introduced a range of much more complicated reactions and emotions. Sims react to scenarios in a more realistic way; for example, if my Sim is sad because she's starved for company, she'll go back to bed and not emerge until she's had a good restorative cry. Even afterward, she may still be sad and require coaxing out of her mood. No matter how much I destroy a Sim's life, however, the good news here is that I can always begin again with a new Sim, a new house, a new career.
In comparison to my time with The Sims, I have the barest bit of control over my real life. I don't feel like a productive member of society. Nor am I calling the shots. External pressures and influences mostly guide my way through life (or not guiding it depending on the situation). The Sims can be seen as a vehicle for control freaks, for A-types like me who find it difficult to sometimes step back and admit I can't oversee and control everything. For those who don't yet feel like they have a place in society. I can't control every tiny minutiae of my own real life. I sometimes have to let go. In The Sims' spaces I feel productive. Less so when I save my progress, exit the game and return to my real life. Only then do I realize just how much time I have "wasted." How much time I could have spent furthering my own goals, fulfilling my own achievements, working on my relationships with those around me rather than those of my virtual Sim-family.
In comparison to my time with 'The Sims,' I have the barest bit of control over my real life
Though I relish in my ability to multi-task with ease, with punching in my Sim-Self's tasks one by one so all her needs are filled, I haven't personally achieved anything in my time playing. My Sim-Self has. All I've achieved is sitting in front of my computer for a few hours. It's a band-aid for my struggle, for my attempt to live a meaningful, productive life. And each time I emerge from my save game to face my real life, I'm reminded of these things I haven't accomplished. The endless to do list I've ignored in favour of living endless fake lives. While my Sim-Self has finished her novel and sent it off to a publisher, I've not written a single word. It's not every game that makes me feel as guilty as this. I play Borderlands, and I'm still happy after a gaming session because I've adventured through another world. There's no real correlation between the things I do on Pandora, an alien planet full of strange creatures, and the things I do in reality. Nothing in it makes me feel like I ought to have been doing something else when I leave. Nothing in it makes me feel guilty for anything still lacking in my life.
So while The Sims provides me with an fun outlet for my desires for a perfect, ideal life, it's also a stark reminder that these kinds of idealized realities don't exist. That by spending hours and hours in this fantastical space where I can control everything I'm avoiding doing the hard but rewarding work of living my own life. I wonder if The Sims will still hold the same allure when I follow in the courageous, open and mostly happy Sim-Emma's footsteps, or if achieving my goals in the real world will still hold the same kind of addicting buzz. And if not, well, then The Sims will still be there for this control freak.
All screengrabs: Emma Fissenden