ILLUSTRATION: DAVID ALABO
I'm ready for a partner and kids—and if you're a little more mindful while playing, you just might realize something about yourself, too.
IN A BID to feel in control of something in my life during this damn pandemic, I turned to The Sims. What I got instead was unexpected, yet far more important—mindfulness and clarity. It can likely do the same for you.
My most recent playthrough of The Sims 4 started at Thanksgiving. Well, more accurately, following Cyber Monday, when I randomly dropped $60.52 on four expansion, game, and stuff packs despite not having played the game for two years. Why did I do this? Who knows. Let’s blame the food coma. I’ve been playing The Sims since the original game was released 21 years ago (on February 4, 2000), and most of my playthroughs involve me building a parallel, alternate, or idyllic version of my own life. (Shoutout to the versions of me in other dimensions who perhaps made some better choices and are chilling on a boat in the Mediterranean right now!) This time was no different.
I spent, as I usually do, a lot of time in Create A Sim picking my interests and outfits for various seasons and social scenarios. “Who am I?” is always the major theme during this portion of gameplay. How honest I am with myself when picking these depends on the day and what’s going on in my real life. This time, I went with accuracy: My Sim wanted to be a writer and was nerdy, adventurous, and liked reading books. While I have rarely changed out of my pajamas over the past year, and even then have rotated through the same four outfits, my Sim was rocking the latest fashion—from ballgowns to swimsuits. Then I created my cat, Gatsby, because I can’t live without him even in the digital world.
My Sim is wearing my usual black jacket and jeans, while Gatsby enjoys some cuddles, just like he does IRL. ELECTRONIC ARTS VIA SAIRA MUELLER
After moving my Sim into her new apartment in San Myshuno, spending hours decking it out to somewhat resemble my current home (shoutout to the money cheats), and immediately signing her up for a career in writing, I did something I don’t usually do—I saved my game and went back to Create A Sim to build myself a partner and move him into the same city. I then spent more time than I care to mention running the Sim version of me around the city trying to “randomly” bump into him. (Unfortunately, there are no dating apps in The Sims—although you can mod the game to add one—and meet-cutes are harder to come by when you have a specific person in mind.) And that’s when it hit me: I’m ready, like actually ready, for a (hopefully) life-long partner and kids. That day, I resolved to be more open and honest with my dates about what I’m looking for to ensure we are on the same page early on, and it has made dating so much easier—and less stressful—already. Like when I had a deep conversation with a guy I had just started dating and he told me he never wants kids—all I could think was: “Crisis averted! And now I have a new good friend.”
I’m not alone in this lightbulb moment thanks to The Sims. Nor am I the first person to start acting on it IRL. My thesis: If we were all a little more mindful of our actions in The Sims and what it means for us in our real lives, we’d be much better off.
But Are You Really Being Honest With Yourself?
Sometimes it’s hard to focus on the bigger picture, especially when the days start running together—not to mention the weeks and months—and it feels like the best parts of life are on hold until we’re in the After Times and “things go back to normal again.” Instead, we find ourselves just trying to get through each day, working and mustering up the energy to do menial tasks. What if I told you there was a way to gamify your life, and that The Sims could help you?
Vincent Minichiello was in a limbo state like the rest of us when he picked up his PlayStation 4 controller and booted up The Sims in February of last year. The now 27-year-old had just left the agency he worked for in Washington, DC, and was spending a few weeks at home in Elmira, New York, before moving to Seattle for his new job producing some of the largest esports events in the world.
He was “extremely bored just basically waiting for my life to start in a few weeks … and it just so happened that Sims 4 was one of PlayStation’s free games of the month. It became a huge distractor for me. It was basically all I did for about a week before my move.”
Minichiello started his Sim off with a day job. ”I think it was something like a telemarketer! That resonated with me because my first job out of college was essentially a sports team telemarketer, so I wanted to see where my Sims character could go from there,” he said via email. The only “activities” Minichiello’s Sim had in his house was a bench press and a computer. Why, you ask? Because that was what the tutorial house came with. He moved the bench press into the computer room and spent all of his Sim’s free time building his tech and fitness skills with the aim of transitioning into a career in gaming or fitness—all while keeping his Sim’s “Needs” (Bladder, Hunger, Energy, Fun, Social, and Hygiene) in the green.
he Needs bars in The Sims let you know when your character needs to do everything from eat to taking a shower. ELECTRONIC ARTS VIA SAIRA MUELLER
Then, Minichiello moved to Seattle. After staying in an Airbnb for two weeks, he found a studio apartment and moved in. “It was really hard for me to find the motivation to furnish it and get my life started,” Minichiello says. “I was procrastinating like crazy. I was overwhelmed. I didn't know where to start. So, rather than get my life situated, I went right back to The Sims.”
But, when returning to his playthrough, Minichiello had a lightbulb moment.
“It was there, sitting in my unfurnished studio apartment with no pots, pans, plates, silverware, or furniture, that I realized how much time I was wasting trying to recreate the ‘ideal’ life within my Sim’s world, when I should start treating my real life like a game.
“The Sims made ‘happiness’ easy for me to comprehend. All I had to do was ‘gamify’ my life and pretend that I also had energy meters and progress bars in my daily life. As long as I continue to read and study, while making sure all my stats are in the green, then good things are bound to happen.”
“I was starting to realize that I was putting a ton of time and energy into making my Sims character happy and successful, when I should probably spend that time and energy on myself.”
And, sure enough, they did. Minichiello says his mood changed (he was much more positive), he furnished his apartment (including buying cookware and utensils), he cooked healthy meals instead of ordering Chipotle from UberEats every day, he got up earlier in the mornings, and he started going for runs to explore the city.
“I was starting to feel inspired … it was an awesome domino effect that I had never really felt before.”
He spent more time outside reading, which in turn put him more in touch with nature, and led to a new hobby: hiking. “I was so overwhelmed by moving across the country by myself that I didn't realize how close I actually was to getting back on track.”
Minichiello is a “wonderful example” of how transfer of knowledge can happen between our in-game play and IRL lives, according to Rachel Kowert, research director at Take This, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health resources for the gaming community, who also studies the relationship between games and cultural and social norms.
“That’s really cool,“ Kowert said on a video call. “I don’t know if a lot of people do that—but gamification is very effective in behavior change, so maybe The Sims needs to make an app that helps people get their lives together.”
As Kowert alluded, not everyone will get the same mindfulness from their play in The Sims right away—making the connection between their in-game actions and what they want or need IRL, like Minichiello and myself.
“I think you have to be very self-aware and reflective,” she says. “The average person, I’m not sure they’d make that connection … I think it would click if it was pointed out to them.”
This exact thing happened to Kowert herself during our call. When I asked her if there’s a connection between players’ real hobbies or wants and the skills they choose to focus on in-game, she noted that she always maximizes her Sims’ fitness. “In my idealized version of myself, that’s what I would be,” she says, adding that she’d love to be super fit and run a marathon, and that’s probably why she gravitates toward doing it in The Sims.
“I’ve never thought about that before,” she said, before likening players’ personalization of their Sims to a projective personality test—a psychological test in which the participant responds to ambiguous stimuli and thereby reveals their hidden desires and emotions.
If that’s the case, what do our in-game actions and choices really say about us?
No, Killing Your Sims Does Not Mean You’re a Serial Killer
Jeannie Schmidlapp likes to kill her Sims. Well, more accurately, she likes to collect ghosts. It “started off innocently enough with a legacy challenge in The Sims 2,” in which you would score a point for every color of ghost you had on your property, with different colors denoting different causes of death. Then, it escalated. Does that mean she wants to be a serial killer IRL? Well, no, not really—but more on that in a bit.
Schmidlapp realized the killing of her Sims had become a weird obsession when she started planning children for her Sims with a specific cause of death in mind. Beyond the “normal” ghosts thanks to old age, fire, food poisoning, and drowning, she says The Sims 2 added a new ghost with almost every expansion pack.
“The Grilled Cheese Sim who was killed by a satellite was really wild,” she told me via text. “It got even worse when my Sims had enough money to buy their dream home, which came with a special room in the basement that doubled between an arcade when no ghosts were needed and a death room when one was.”
IRL, Schmidlapp is also fascinated by serial killers. I know this, because she used to report to me when we both worked for an esports team (she also used to work for The Sims developer Maxis as a community representative from 2002 to 2003). It wasn’t uncommon for her to regale us with details from the latest serial killer documentary she had watched. Or sprout random facts about how many serial killers had grown up in Washington state when I happened to mention the latest hike I went on. (It’s a surprising amount.)
So, what does Schmidlapp’s propensity for killing her Sims and consuming content about serial killers mean, and is there a link between the two? According to Kowert, the answer is yes—but not in the way you might think.
“I don’t think this person necessarily wants to kill people, but if they’re interested in these kinds of things then it makes sense that they would also express that in the virtual,” she says. “It’s about testing boundaries in a safe space in which there are no real-world repercussions.”
The same goes for players such as The Sims streamer Troi “itsmeTroi” Charity, who occasionally plays with a Sugar Daddy mod, which is exactly what you think it is. Just because she plays with the mod doesn’t mean she wants a sugar daddy herself IRL, although she admits that she does “sometimes wish I had one, so I make my Sim collect money instead.”
Kowert also points out that some players play games to break them, not necessarily to play out a fantasy. In The Sims franchise’s early years, you couldn’t just go to the internet to look up what would happen if you chose a certain action. You had to try things out for yourself and see what the result was. Some of that “I’ll just give things a try and see what happens” mentality still exists within The Sims today, even with Google readily available.
Now, you can rest easy knowing that your in-game actions don’t necessarily always correlate to what you want to do IRL, but that there often is at least a bit of overlap with your interests and your actions. So what does this mean for modern-day players who use mods to add more gruesome deaths into the game?
“Those are the people that would choose fatality movements in Mortal Kombat,” Kowert says, then laughs. “If you want to go very Freudian, you could go with sublimation effects, which is where you take very negative emotions and you outpour them in a positive way. So it could maybe be an expression of that. My initial gut instinct as someone who has studied games and knows a bit about play motivations—I would like to think that it was creative expression,” she says, before laughing again.
The Origin—and Future—of The Sims and Players’ Actions In-Game
One of the reasons in-game play helps you be mindful IRL is the sheer number of actions you can perform in The Sims—and the depth to which these actions resemble real life, letting players immerse themselves in an almost 1:1 alternate reality in a virtual world.
For a franchise that has been around for 21 years, The Sims has remained remarkably popular. This is likely due, at least in part, to the fact that it doesn’t really have any competition—at least none with the same depth. Currently, in The Sims 4, players can choose from tens of thousands of actions, according to the dev team—from knitting a scarf to baking a cake, snorkeling on a reef, and having your first kiss.
Now think about that in terms of real-world actions and how much you could learn about yourself from exploring these actions in-game. Now think of the 33 million total players who have played The Sims 4—and the 10 million monthly active users, as of June 2020, according to the dev team. If every one of those players were to be a bit more mindful while playing, what could that mean for their lives and the world? It’s mind-blowing to think about the possibilities.
“This game can be so many different things to so many different people, and for a lot of them it is more than a game because it is ‘my meditative place,’ ‘my self-care,’ ‘my tool,’ or ‘my platform,’ whether I’m a modder or a builder or a creator,” says Lyndsay Pearson, general manager of The Sims. “I love that it can somehow be all of those things and then still be a game in there ... it’s pretty special.”
A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to make these in-game actions as similar to real-life experiences as possible. Pearson says that the dev team does everything from watching YouTube videos and looking at Instagram to interviewing people to get a sense of how they experience an action or environment before trying to replicate it in-game.
For the Cats & Dogs expansion pack, for example, it was about creating those moments that would make people say, “Oh, my cat always does that!” Whereas for the Discover University expansion it was about finding the themes and patterns that people across the world experienced while attending all types of secondary education, then boiling that down.
“The little touches matter a lot in The Sims, some little nod that feels super familiar,” Pearson said on a video call. “You’re trying to bring together that big, abstract idea with that really personal touch, and then give people space in between to make it feel like theirs.”
Some of The Sims’ popularity is also likely due to players’ ability to mod their games to add more varied items, actions, and depth to an already deep game—a feature that has been available to some degree since the original version launched in 2000. Modding allows players to do everything from lines of cocaine to living on a houseboat, learning online, or choosing a career in gynecology. This allows players to get an even better sense of what their life could look like with a few changes.
When I explained both my own revelation and Minichiello’s gamification of his life thanks to The Sims to Pearson, she wasn’t at all surprised.
“I’ve heard flavors of that in different ways over the years and I think it makes sense. In a way it’s a mirror—it’s kind of a strange mirror because it is through the lens of a game that can sometimes be silly—but in a lot of ways it can absolutely be that way,” she says. “My sister actually had a similar experience, she was like, ‘I realized I need to spend more time with my friends,’ and I was like, ‘OK, that sounds good. That’s a good learning.’
“It’s a place without a lot of pressure ... a place that you can just clear your mind of certain thoughts and I think that leaves that opening to say, ‘Oh, maybe I should think about this a little differently for me too,’ or ‘Maybe I don’t really want to be that kind of person,’ or ‘I don’t want that kind of skill or personality.’ We have heard stories of that nature from a lot of teens coming into the game, actually, where it’s like trying on different identities. It gives you the space to think about things a little differently and reflect on what you are doing and see your life through a different perspective, which is fascinating.”
Kowert agrees, likening The Sims to a virtual dollhouse where players can live out their ideal life or use it as a way to try out new roles and identities. She says that, when looking at the research on avatars and how people play games more broadly—not just in The Sims—half of the players like to play as an idealized version of themselves and the other half play to test the boundaries, try on a new identity, or see what it feels like to be bad “in a space in which there’s no repercussions”—at least IRL.
Sure, for some people games are pure escapism, or provide the ability to live a life they could never have IRL, but for me it was a wake-up call. A little effort was all it took to make some really positive changes in my life—and you can too.
“I’m always amazed at the insights and experiences people can get from this,” Pearson says. “It can be funny and hilarious—and that’s great—but people have these really deep connections—whether it’s having insight into themselves, or the players who have shared stories about how it’s helped them come to terms with who they really were and be able to express themselves. That’s just kind of incredible.”
Personally, I would have to agree.