At 22 years old, I am a proud member of a generation raised on life simulation megahit The Sims, and I’m not alone in feeling that the game played a monumental part in my childhood. Falling deep into a cornucopia of expansion packs, cheat codes and modifications, The Sims was my daily escape from reality into a world where I could create the emo teen I dreamed to be, complete with pop punk boyfriend.
While building avatars and virtual worlds was no unique act for kids in the late 90s and early 2000s (Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin and Second Life were all popular pastimes), The Sims was a universe that offered an unprecedented level of control alongside the unbridled joy of creativity. From honing interior design skills and excelling in your career, to building the “perfect family” (or perhaps the most eccentric), the game had no end-goal, no winning. You never completed it — you simply lived.
Nearly 20 years on, The Sims is still one of the best selling video game franchises of all time. But why did this seemingly banal simulation of real life resonate so deeply with millennials, and how does it continue to thrive today?
Building a World
Like many, I’m guilty of abandoning my Sims once I reached the responsibilities of adulthood, but I spoke to dozens of people in their twenties and thirties who still buy every expansion pack and delight in saying ‘Sul Sul’ (‘Hello’ in Simlish) to their Sims every evening.
“As a 29-year-old woman, I am happy to admit I still play The Sims,” says content creator and podcast host Charlotte Haynes. “[It] gives me the power to escape for hours on end, and gives me control where I don’t [have it] in life, like relationships, work and any of life’s stresses.”
This theme of using the game as a way to cope with hardship is a common one. In one of my favorite episodes of the podcast Reply All, a teenager creates a Sim that represents her late Grandmother, so she can interact with those memories to help manage a difficult time in her life.
Bethany Jane, blogger at Adventure & Anxiety, agrees with the power of The Sims as a tool for self-care and self esteem. “I was obsessed with The Sims as it removed me from my own humdrum existence into a universe where anything was possible. It was a utopia where gender, sexuality, race didn’t matter,” she tells me.
Jane has been playing for nearly 20 years now and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. “It’s still an escape for me, a way to live a life where I have complete control over [my] love, work, family and home lives. I still play now as an adult… living vicariously through my Sims is such an outlet.”
Monika Von Koller, 23, a video game tester at Lionbridge, a testing and globalization company that counts The Sims’ publisher Electronic Arts as one of their clients, claims her love for the game is the reason she pursued a career in testing. “It was definitely one of the games that influenced me the most to want to work in the industry,” she says, “not only for the game itself but for the community.” As a child, she logged 1000 hours playing The Sims 2, which she says gave her “a lot of wonderful memories.”
Living in the Big SimCity
Von Koller is not the only millennial I found whose path in life was influenced by The Sims. Charlotte Dougall, 24, credits The Sims for her career as a freelance digital marketer. “[It] was my first introduction to computers back in 2000,” she says, “and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve grown up digital-obsessed to the point that I now work in the industry.”
Ironically, she now cites “escapism” from her freelance life as the main reason she continues to play today. Now, she can even give her Sims their own freelance career in the game’s latest iteration — when they’re not too busy getting dressed up in Moschino garb and solving sci-fi mysteries in Strangerville, that is.
Luke Hilson, a 36-year-old urban designer and master planner, spends his days designing streets, town squares and play areas as a result of his obsession with Sims precursor SimCity.
“I used to love playing SimCity when growing up and would spend hours perfecting my carefully considered town. I’d ensure that the residents were near to the shops, their work and the park, I’d organize the buildings into clusters or character areas,” he tells me. “There’s very little difference between that and my job! It’s great seeing how your design choices directly impact the users — both in the game and in real life.”
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A Continuing Fascination
It’s clear that the Sims we built in those early years shaped our psyches in a major way. Two decades later, does the game still boast the same power?
There are certainly enough expansions to keep players engaged. Now your Sims can Get Famous and rise to celebrity status. They can live the student dorm room dream in Discover University. They can explore a tropical paradise (with mermaids!) in Island Living. Sims 4 is pushing the boundaries far beyond those pixelated pool parties and the “motherlode” cheat code mayhem I remember so fondly. There are even rumors that Sims 5 is on the way in 2020. But beyond the titillating new developments, the game’s continuing emotional core is undeniably its greatest asset.
“When The Sims came out in 2000 it presented a satirical world focused on materialism and suburban survival,” Lyndsay Pearson, General Manager and Executive Producer of The Sims tells me. “The gaming world had never seen anything like [it]. It was an incredible tool for creating characters, stories, homes, lives — something I’m not even sure we could have foreseen as the developers at the time.”
“The Sims can be a place to explore and create without judgement,” she adds, “and young people often feel they lack control over their real-world space,” she says. The Sims sort of snuck its way into the lives of so many people because the game is personal, powerful, and each time you play it feels unique to you.”
Y2K Never Dies
90s and Early 2000s nostalgia is big right now. Instagram accounts celebrate the golden era of celebrity. The biggest fashion trend on the resale app Depop is “Y2K” (think bum bags, cargo pants, Matrix sunglasses). And there are even Twitter accounts dedicated to “Sims Problems” and “Sims Logic,” depicting out-of-context graphics from the games.
Could it be that millennials remember The Sims as more powerful than it actually was, because of our sense of nostalgia for a “better time?” That might be part of it, but it doesn’t change how much the game has impacted the lives of its players. It was something unprecedented, as Pearson says. “It was the first game I’d seen that gave players creative freedom and allowed them to use their imagination,” Jane concurs. “Even if only to dream up new, inventive ways to kill off your characters.”