Playing The Sims as a Proxy for Life

Ryan Fan

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When I played ​The Sims,​ I always made a particular kind of Sim: the Renaissance man. Imaginary Ryan would be good at everything, from playing music to making a lot of money to being invited to the parties all the popular people went to. If you wanted a glimpse into my values and priorities as a teenager, you could look at my Sims file and see how I lived virtually and vicariously through a video game.

Liv Siddall of ​The Guardian​ once wrote about how playing ​The Sims​ took up two or three hours a day and then much longer on the weekends. For Siddall, the game helped her to create a “haven of order and control”. During her teenage years, she wanted to be someone else, someone who could throw her teachers into pools, someone who could invent a Josh Hartnett Sim and kiss him, and make a Sim of a pretty, popular girl at school.

“The limitations of Sims often frustrated me.”

I had no patience for the needs of my Sims. I got frustrated by the need for a Sim to sleep, a need for a Sim to have fun and not work, and the need for the Sim to eat when the food was too damn expensive.

But the needs panel that are reflected in health bars were the greatest reflection of real life. In real life, if you’re not having any fun, you might become depressed and not go to work, like in ​The Sims.​ In real life, if you force yourself to stay awake too long, you might just automatically fall asleep wherever you feel comfortable.

In the game, you still have to pay bills, clean, make your bed, and take care of kids. You have to make dinner, go to work, and do a lot of the things you have to do in real life. But at the same time, ​The Sims​ is not real life, and you can just be someone different than you are.

There’s no winning in ​The Sims​, according to Siddall. There’s no credit roll, and even if your Sim reaches the top of the career ladder, retires with a healthy pension, and dies, the game goes on. Like life, your Sim family might span multiple generations. What passes in one generation becomes renewed and revamped in the next one, and then the next one, as if life and family were some crazy video game.

Siddall herself played until 3 a.m. every night when she had a huge work deadline, even while knowing that “​The Sims​ would be catastrophically detrimental to my deadline.” For her, playing the game assuaged her anxiety and allowed herself to escape into a new world.

Despite this career setback during ​The Sims,​ Siddall saw her time playing ​The Sims​ as an overall positive experience, since she was placed at the center of the story and was able to explore what it meant to be human, all within the comfort of her own home. But that didn’t mean her experience wasn’t addictive.

She has been playing the game a lot less since internalizing why she played the game in the first place — now, she feels much better. She isn’t scared to leave the house, and she doesn’t sleep in the day. Work isn’t as overwhelming to her as it used to be, and she realizes this:

“You can’t ‘win’ at life any more than you can win at ​The Sims.”

​Jamie Friedlander of ​Success Magazine talks about the phenomenon of gamification, the process of achieving goals that get progressively more difficult and more satisfying. ​The Sims ​is a game that tempts us to gamify our lives, to see life as a game where we might try to progressively get more and more money, happiness, or perfection. Jamie wanted to see whether improving her Sim meant positive improvement for her life:

“If I can make Sim Jamie the best possible version of herself, will Real Jamie take notice and want to make changes too?”

The idea of ​The Sims​ had always perplexed Friedlander. She wondered why people would make fake dinner and hang out with fake friends, and it’s something she never really got into. She started playing ​The Sims 4, ​and dove into her default character who looked like her and dressed like her. She decided on personality traits that matched herself, including being a perfectionist, ambitious, and cheerful, and made her aspiration to be a writer and a career choice to be a writer.

She made a fiance that matched hers as well, and found her first few attempts playing the game “disastrous” — from her Sims wetting their pants, passing out, and stinking from poor hygiene. The moment one of her Sims got comfortable, the other one got hungry or lonely. She wasn’t able to control her Sims’ basic needs, couldn’t get them to go to work on time, and generally felt like ​blah.

The ​blah​ state is one she feels in real life, before she heads to work. Her real-life sleep schedule isn’t perfect and she is persistently tired due to being a restless sleeper. In real life, she doesn’t control her husband, but she did get better at the game after watching some YouTube videos about getting better at the game. In real life, Friedlander was an incredibly organized person who loved to plan things. However, she rarely planned her days.

Sim Jamie needed more social interaction than real Jamie, and that reality pushed her to seek more social interaction in daily life. Friedlander, who is extremely committed and absorbed in writing and editing, started to come out of her shell and chat more with her co-workers, and people in her barre and pilates classes. Someone who usually thought she needed a lot of alone time, she realized she didn’t after socializing more with others and felt more full.

In real life, Jamie started seeing life as a staircase progression.

She started to be reminded that by achieving small goals, she was achieving bigger and bigger goals. Even though life in ​The Sims​ goes faster than the real world, Friedlander was encouraged to make a plan for achieving some long-term career aspirations and goals. She wanted to have her writing published in a variety of magazines, so she set reminders to sent pitches to publications she respected. Having a deadline on her goals allowed her to hold herself to a greater sense of accountability.

Friedlander laments falling into a sense of monotony in her routine, doing the same thing every day, and in ​The Sims,​ she did the same. She got bored, and decided to cheat and disable needs to her Sim wouldn’t hungry, tired, or grumpy. Her Sim wouldn’t need to use the bathroom. Once she could cheat, Sim Jamie got rich, achieved unprecedented career success, and bought an extremely nice house.

I remember when I used to cheat in ​The Sims​ and do the same, to make my family extremely successful and my kids the smartest and overachieving kids in the school. I knew it was never an attainable goal, but some part of me yearned and reached for that reality.

Friedlander didn’t change her life, but she became more focused on her freelance work and more determined to set goals. I don’t know if ​The Sims​ made me make any substantive changes in my life because playing ​The Sims​ means I’m not engaging in life, and am behind a computer or TV screen.

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Playing ​The Sims​ was just a proxy for a life I might have wanted to have or indulging in my imagination. ​For Friedlander and myself, the appeal of ​The Sims​ is that we can temporarily escape real life and take control to make things what we want them to be — as long as we realize it’s not real life, it doesn’t hurt to indulge.

Originally published on SUPERJUMP on May 13, 2020.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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