Real Play


On Games

Autumn, Sims 2. Courtesy of Lucie-Bluebird Lexington. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

I played The Sims a lot as a preteen. It was the only computer game I ever liked that didn’t involve horses, and it lived at my dad’s house, where screen time was not limited. My friend Diana had it, too, and she and I played together sometimes, in the small office connected to her parents’ bedroom. Diana liked the design element of the game, and would use cheat codes to make her Sims very rich, then build them big houses. She chose balconies with glass railings, and reupholstered her Sims’ furniture. 

That part was not interesting to me. My Sims were not allowed to use cheat codes. Instead, they had to succeed within the terms of my own life, or what I imagined it would be as an adult: they had to get jobs, learn skills, and build relationships. They spent time learning to cook, mostly by reading the cookbooks on their bookshelves. They paid bills that arrived in the mailbox, and redid their kitchen floors only if they made the money on their own. Everyone got a smoke detector, and I worked hard to help them keep their Need meters—Hunger, Bladder, Social, Fun, Energy, Hygiene, Comfort, Environment—in the green. If not given instructions, Sims will do their best to handle these needs themselves, electing to use the bathroom or play on the computer. But I liked to do it for them, sending them to the fridge if they were hungry, to bed if they were tired, and to another Sim if they were lonely.

At my dad’s, I started with the first edition, The Sims, which came out in 2000. That one had only four angles available, each ninety degrees apart, in which I could look down and out (and through the walls) of my Sims’ square houses, at three possible levels of zoom. The game was very gridded: furniture could only sit within blueprinted squares, never diagonally. Cockroaches, when they came, crawled in circles within one square only. The cheapest flooring option was black-and-white linoleum tile, which I sometimes used for my entire house, and on which the cockroaches would spread, in a grid, if I didn’t kill them. 

The Sims 2 came out in September 2004, when I had just started fifth grade. I think I got it right away—I remember I was excited—though I’m surprised, now, that I had access so early to a game that I mostly remember in terms of where I could make my Sims WooHoo, their term for sex: bed, hot tub, shower. They were very demure, and would go under the sheets, or underwater, or behind the door, and then become pixelated. Still, though: there was a lot of WooHoo, and eventually a lot of Try for Baby, which would, in The Sims 2, sometimes lead to infants, then toddlers. The toddlers grew into children, whom my adult Sims could Help with Homework. Eventually these children became teenagers, and got boyfriends, girlfriends, pimples, and the desire to run away. 

Sims, like people, live in networks of relationships. For the Sims, these were scored on a range of -100 to 100, based on formal ties (Family Member, for example) and past interactions. Certain interactions became possible if a relationship was particularly negative—Fight, Declare Enemy–but I didn’t want my Sims to have enemies. I wanted them to have Friends, then Crushes. I wanted them to Fall in Love–symbolized by red hearts, which would spin around their heads–and I wanted them to Get Married, succeed in their careers, make babies, and become good artists. I liked to have them Practice Painting, and then, when they were good enough, just Paint. I liked to see what they made, and sometimes I put their art on their walls, to improve their sense of Environment.

I would note that I was playing this game for six or seven hours at a time on a big black laptop of my dad’s, at his kitchen table, on otherwise undefined Saturdays and Sundays. Without imposing any intention on my younger self, I can say, factually, that I was engineering for my Sims what I considered to be normal family lives. I wanted them to live near beautiful trees, and to have gardens. I wanted them to be good artists, and I wanted them to not die until I said so. Because of this, I obsessively saved my gameplay, even though it took a minute every time. The unexpected could always happen. My Sims could get eaten by magic plants, which looked like cows. Aliens could abduct my Sims and return them pregnant. Sometimes Death, a sort of nonplayable character, would show up at my door and come in to eat a sandwich, if he didn’t have other plans for me or a member of my family. There were professional dilemmas, which sometimes seemed rigged against good outcomes. If anything went wrong, or did not support the healthy and expected development of my Sims’ growing families, I wanted to be able to exit the game and return to the last save. The gameplay didn’t have a sense of fate: lightning almost never struck twice, and with my consistent effort, my Sims could usually live the lives I wanted for them. 

I don’t seem to share this gameplay experience with most former Sims players I know. Usually, when The Sims comes up, people talk about the ways they would kill theirs. The classic was to put them in the pool, then delete the ladder, and watch their Energy deplete as they swam in circles and waved at us, through the screen, asking for help. I did not do this. 

Instead, I planted aspens, Japanese maples, and willows on my Sims’ properties, which I think of, often, when I see them real life. Socially, I still think in terms of clickability: who feels clickable to me, and what will become possible once I’ve decided to click. Sims can only initiate certain interactions (Make Out, WooHoo, Fight, Confess to Cheating) if they already have a certain degree of connection and history with another Sim, as designated by the points system, and occasionally by descriptors such as Acquaintance, Just Met, Best Friend Forever, or Going Steady. The interacted-with will respond positively or negatively to another Sim’s social advances based on their prior conception of that Sim, or the strength of their relationship. At my recent birthday party, everyone felt extremely clickable: I saw people I wanted to interact with, and the interactive possibilities, once clicked, tended to fan out into the positive. I was confident that whatever interaction I chose would likely go well and that I would leave with a very full social meter, as well as a positive memory.

Memories were a new feature for The Sims 2, and they existed in unweighted timelines. Burned Toast could be beside Fell In Love, or Got Fired, or Burglar! While these were important for my Sims’ personal histories, I, too, was obsessed with documenting my Sims’ lives. There was a Camera feature, available to the player, which would allow me to capture moments that felt, to me, important. Typically these were first kisses–which I would frame near the willows, getting multiple shots of the same moment from different angles—and weddings, and playing with babies. I especially liked when they fed wedding cake to each other. It didn’t matter that I could repeat any moment, or that the gestures were always the same: documenting these moments felt urgent. These photos were stored in an album only I could see, and which I never looked at. No one looked at it: my Sims didn’t even know it was there. They didn’t get cameras, or if they did, I don’t know what they did with their photos. I don’t know why I did this—social media wasn’t a thing yet, and I didn’t like photography in real life. Now I’d like to see those albums, if only as an archive of what I thought, at twelve, would eventually be worth remembering. The photos probably do live on a disc in a box somewhere in my dad’s house, so I guess it’s possible I could find them, which I might try to do.

If that disc is there, the Sims I made and knew so well are there, too, unchanged since we last interacted. I gave them up around seventh grade, without any ceremony. One day I told my dad that I felt I had to stop playing: that eventually my Sims’ lives would start to substitute for my own. Thirteen going on fourteen, I could see that I was approaching the point in life where things were supposed to happen to me. If I continued to play at being other people, I might not figure out how to do anything myself. To WooHoo, for example: I might never actually WooHoo if I spent so much time taking dirty pictures of fake people WooHooing, especially since they went under the covers, and I couldn’t see anything at all. 

I told myself, though, that if I ever became seriously injured, ill, or confined to bed for an extended period of time, I could download The Sims again. I figured there would be nothing better to do, or that I would at least have earned it—via my discomfort, or enduring whatever had happened. Fourteen years later, when I was twenty-seven, I was suddenly facing two months of lying down. I downloaded The Sims when I got home from the hospital. 

By then, we were onto The Sims 4. I started my Sim off the same way as always: she looked like me, and though there were new personality factors to manipulate (rather than ten-point ranges, such as Grouchy to Nice, I now had to choose descriptors), I tried to make her someone I wanted to be. I think I made her Creative, and a Genius, and potentially Good, though I might have chosen Bookworm instead. When she got to her new square house, I made her Read cookbooks, then Find a Job on the computer. She paid her bills, sometimes after she left them on the floor. She did not have a roommate, and she wasn’t trying to have kids, at least not immediately. When she had the time, she Practiced Painting until she was good enough to just Paint. If she had the energy, she Practiced Writing, and eventually, she began to Write Book. Her aspirations were not so explicitly career-based as they had been when I was younger, which I guess is nice, though she did struggle, having moved to a new place, to make friends. 

It turned out, for me, that The Sims was a terrible game if I had to Go To Work, Pay Bills, Cook Dinner, and Clean Counter in real life. My Sim was always getting hungry, burning toast, and stomping her feet. Often it took so much time to Go To Work, Sleep, and Eat from the plate she left on the counter that she’d start to smell bad, and would take a shower without me telling her to. None of these things boosted her Fun need meter, and the things I did in my free time, ostensibly for fun—Practice Writing, and Paint—weren’t fun to her, at all. Her Fun meter was always in the red, and she’d give up on her writing and painting before I told her to. I ended up buying her a nice bookshelf—for +5 Fun points, out of a possible ten—but she didn’t think reading was fun, either. She left her books on the floor and started waving at me with a thought bubble over head, inside of which there was a television. 

I didn’t want to buy her a television, because I didn’t have a television. I told her to Go to a bar in town, but she didn’t have Fun there, either. She did invite a non-playable character home, but when they got there, she didn’t seem very interested in him, and instead played on her computer. The NPC didn’t seem to mind. He spent the hours until dawn picking up her books from the floor and putting them in her nice bookshelf. Then he went home. 

I didn’t take any pictures of my new Sim’s life. It seemed both boring and exhausting, the way she tried to take care of herself while also maintaining a social life, not to mention a creative practice. None of her art was very good, and I didn’t get to read her writing, which she didn’t like to work on. She was always so tired. I guess I could say it was an affirming experience; I was already living the life I would want to design; there wasn’t anything I really felt I needed to explore virtually, or at least nothing that was available via this Sim, who really complained a lot. I ended up returning the game within forty-eight hours, which meant I got a refund. After that, I used my computer to watch a lot of television, and read a cookbook Diana had mailed me, to be nice, since I was injured. She’s an interior designer now.


Devon Brody is a writer living in Nashville.