On its 20th anniversary, Sam Brooks looks back on The Sims, the safest space for an entire generation of gamers.
Over the past two decades, The Sims has turned from a quirky life simulation experiment into one of those games that even non-gamers know about, and might even play from time to time. It’s a phenomenon that has never truly waned in popularity since it became a surprise hit at the turn of the millennium, selling well over two hundred million copies with no sign of stopping soon. For some, it’s that game that barely counts as a video game – it’s the refuge of nerds and people who need to get a life rather than play at one. And for others, it’s that game where you can kill an avatar that you name after your real-life nemesis by telling them to go swim and removing the ladder – your chance to play a banal, suburban Old Testament God.
And for others, it’s a safe space inside a screen when none exists outside it.
The thing that makes The Sims markedly different from any other game, even if you’re playing without cheats on, is that it allows the player to explore a world that is almost entirely egalitarian. Prejudice based on gender, sexuality and race doesn’t exist in The Sims. No matter where you fall on the kaleidoscope of identity, you are equal with everybody else. So long as you have the will, the time, and the intelligence to figure out the game’s quirks, you can make it to the top of whatever field you desire, be that rocket science or rock music. You can start a dynasty or live without children. You can host drinks night after night, hangover free, and become the socialite of your dreams/nightmares.
It’s no wonder that this game became a comfortable fortress for an entire generation of queer people. In what other video game, or other piece of art, do we see ourselves not only so well represented, but where we can break free of the narratives of the past and create our own stories, with complete authorship and control?
Since the first accidental same-sex kiss way back when the game was in development in 1999, The Sims has been a bastion of inclusivity, constantly widening the scope of who you can be, what you can do, and how you can express yourself. It’s only gotten better on this front, with more options across the sexuality and gender spectrum than almost any other mainstream cultural product, video game or not. While it started off an accidental kiss, a quirk in the coding, it’s moved on to intentionally including options for Simians to not just marry people of the same sex, but a wide range of gender options including what gendered clothes to wear, if any, and the inclusion of a fa’afafine character. With each game and expansion pack The Sims steps forward and opens its arms ever wider.
It says to you, whatever your pronoun: “This can be your safe space too. Come in, figure out how to make a house, and then live in it however you want to. Don’t forget the chairs.”
It’s that control that is the key to the feeling of safety The Sims provides, I think. When I first played The Sims I was a teen who was stridently clear on both my gender identity and sexuality, and never had to retreat to this particular video game for safety. But I can’t speak for others. How many queer people of a certain generation do you think made their same-sex Sims kiss before they even had the idea or inclination to be physically, let alone romantically, intimate with someone in real life? How many queer people explored their ideas of sexuality and gender in that same space, within a screen that can be easily alt-tabbed away from, in a world where there’s no guarantee that exploring those things won’t have dire, life-changing consequences?
But The Sims was a safe space to me for another reason: It was a way to control the uncontrollable. The last time I fully got into The Sims was during a dark period of my life, the kind of period when you mentally calculate whether pyjamas technically count as clothes for the two minute shuffle to the dairy and back. And so, for nearly a week straight, I immersed myself in a world that I could control – cheats on, of course. A virtual version of myself, with his shit comfortably together, lived a life that I could entirely control. If I didn’t like what was happening, I could hit a few buttons and boom! New life, new person. The game let me step into an existence I could have ownership of, when my real life felt increasingly out of control.
When I got out of that dark period, it was the control that I experienced within The Sims that gave me the confidence to move on. I couldn’t choose how I felt, but I could take actions that could help me feel better. I got myself back into a safe space, one where I didn’t need to jump into someone else’s life to feel like I was in control again.
While writing this piece, I checked my phone nearly constantly, half out of habit, and half for that familiar jolt of dopamine when someone likes or interacts with me. I look at how many people have viewed my Instagram story – a screenshot of a tweet that a famous actress did about a piece I wrote. I check my retweet of the same story, who has liked it, who has interacted with it, how successful was that retweet. I check the battery on my phone, which always seems to hover around 50% no matter how recently I charged it. I make sure my alarms are set – 7:30, 7:40, 7:48. I check to see that I’ve done enough extra-curricular writing that day – five hours a week, to make myself feel better.
There are constant ways that we measure our lives now, for better and for worse. To misquote Lil’ Kim: “How many likes?” Frankly, I enjoy this. It lets me feel in control of my life, because if I can control things as small as when I wake up or how much time I spend writing outside of work, then it feels like I can start to control anything. I’m miles away from a dark place, and it’s these little controls that keep me there. Even, and especially, when the big uncontrollable stuff – you know, the real stuff, the kind of thing people write poems and make movies about – comes knocking at the door like the infamous Simian Grim Reaper.
This week, I played The Sims 4, now six years old with a mindboggling 42 expansions, and spent more time arranging the virtual lounge than I did the very lounge I was playing it in. In The Sims, I’m not limited by the fact that there are three outlets on one side of my lounge and none on the other, so that’s where the TV has to go. I can put a TV anywhere. I can have two TVs in the same room! With the cheats on, I can even have the most expensive TV. For a few hours, I had the kind of control over a life, a strange facsimile of my own, that was immensely calming. I was in my safe space.
I turned it off before I got to what anybody would consider gameplay. I’d had my fix. I had to go have drinks with my friends, half of whom had watched that Instagram story, and half of whom hadn’t. I couldn’t control that. I set my alarm for 7:40am the next morning. I could control that. I’ve got a few of my own cheats, life-wise.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to The Sims properly, outside of scholarly (to use that term very loosely) curiosity. Its main appeal to me was as a safe space; it could give me control during a time when I had none. But while fortresses and bastions are safe spaces, they’re not homes. You can’t stay in The Sims forever, but I’m so glad that people can stay there for a time if they need to. But I’m also thankful that in 2020, with my life constantly measured, and comfortably under my own control, I don’t The Sims need anymore. I have my safe space, and I don’t need to boot up a game to live in it.