Why we love The Sims: Living boldly, vicariously

Oct. 27, 2019, 11:58 a.m.

One of the unalienable rights of a Generation Z childhood is being sucked into a temporary obsession with The Sims. As kids we engaged in nonsensical conversations, built houses, fell in love, held down jobs and had children, all from behind a screen. I have fond memories of sitting in a bunk bed with my little brother, controlling our unsuspecting Sim with a DS stylus. You could do anything with your Sim: we enjoyed making ours take uncomfortable showers in other people’s houses.

I’ve always found it interesting how much people love The Sims. They’re arguably the most popular human characters ever created in digital media. And yet, Sims are incredibly simple characters. A Sim’s wellbeing is defined by a set of finite characteristics: hunger, energy, social, etc. It’s straightforward to satisfy these simple needs: if your Sim is hungry, feed her. If she’s tired, tell her to go to sleep. Your Sim eventually ages, and may start a family, but the game stays the same. You satisfy your Sim’s needs and she stays happy. It’s not a complicated game, nor a particularly layered one. So why are people entertained for hours on end by such an unsophisticated game?

Of course, a big part of what makes The Sims so fun is the element of control. When I asked my friends about The Sims, they all brought up the design-your-character stage. I remember spending forever customizing my Sim to perfection. One of my friends admitted that she used to download add-ons to dress her Sims in better outfits. I think people love the feeling of control they have over their own little character: it’s like dressing up a doll. And once you get past the design stage, it’s darkly satisfying to have complete and utter power over a virtual human. You can have your Sim get arrested, bake a cake at 2 a.m. or get stuck in a swimming pool. The possibilities are endless.

But our obsession with The Sims isn’t just about control; it’s about happiness, too. We don’t always know what will make us happier. In fact, many people spend their lives chasing an abstract notion of “happiness” and find themselves unable to achieve it. But Sims are the opposite: they have entirely predictable emotional lives. We know exactly what will make a Sim happier and exactly how to achieve that. There’s something very emotionally comforting about seeing such a clear, easily-fulfilled route to contentment. The Sims represent an idealized version of life in which everything is obvious and happiness is easily attainable. 

And finally, I’d argue that our love for The Sims stems from our innate human need for social rebellion. When we play The Sims, almost everyone makes their character do some socially unacceptable things. Maybe we shower in other people’s houses, get married within a day of meeting someone, sleep with every other Sim in town or make blatant enemies. I think this is the #1 reason people fall into Sim-obsession: it’s an outlet for our repressed need for rebellion. 

Since we are all humans that live in a society, we’re bound by a long list of cultural, legal and social norms that dictate our behavior. Think about the 50s, when American people were entrapped in a web of old-fashioned gender norms, traditional family structures and sexual repression. Even today, we’re heavily controlled by social norms — for better or for worse. I cannot, for example, go into other people’s homes and take uninvited showers, because I’d either get arrested or become a social pariah. Though I don’t actively want to do this, I think there’s a part of every human being that resists our containment in an ordered, regulated society. We all want, in some intrinsic, animalistic way, to rebel against our social structure. And through The Sims, we can! I can live the craziest life imaginable, without any real-world consequences. As we follow innumerable norms in everyday life, playing The Sims provides an outlet for all our repressed rebellion. You can do all the things you’d never be able to do in real life and experience all the exciting, rebellious adventure of social deviation. It’s vicarious living in its truest form. 

What can we learn from all this? I haven’t played The Sims in years, but as I started thinking about its popularity, my memories of the game have made me reflective. It’s almost sad to think about us as kids, playing The Sims in hopes of gaining control and happiness in our lives. But I think the best thing to take away is that we could live our real lives a little more like how we play The Sims: with less anxiety, and more clarity. 

Contact Tara Parekh at tarapar ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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