20 years on, The Sims is still the ultimate roleplay fantasy for generation rent

Imagine if Rosebud worked in real life. Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha.

by Marianne Eloise
07 February 2020, 2:37pm

When The Sims debuted in 2000, 20 years ago, the world was a very different place. For one, we still had hope. We survived Y2K, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet, the economy wasn’t quite so garbage. We had a Labour government and a Democratic president, albeit not great ones. We were, however naively, optimistic for everything that the coming century would bring. The year 2000 felt like the future, and we had no idea what was next. Things are, suffice to say, very different now. While the future is inherently uncertain, the concept of a future itself also doesn’t seem guaranteed. Rather than the prospect of thrilling possibilities, it's come to represent more of an abyss: the planet is burning, politics are chaos, and on a personal level, many of us lack financial stability. But one thing that hasn’t changed in 20 years is the appeal of The Sims.

The game, in which players control the minutiae of the daily life of avatars (Sims) -- from building their houses to sending them to work -- was dreamed up by SimCity creator Will Wright. He initially had the idea to create a “virtual dollhouse”, but when Wright’s entire home was destroyed by a firestorm in 1991, he was inspired by his experience of rebuilding his life from scratch to create The Sims as we know it. It’s no surprise, then, that what makes the game so legendary is also its use of traumatic elements -- the ability to burn your house down, for example. When Wright took the idea to game developer Maxis, they were initially sceptical, due to the fact that it seemed to appeal solely to “girls”. While they weren’t strictly wrong (many of The Sims’ biggest fans are still girls) the mass appeal of the game quickly became clear.

Twenty years later, there are four main, multi-platform iterations of the original Sims games, not to mention endless expansion packs and spin-offs that allow players to indulge their every interest; from bowling to vampires to Katy Perry. In fact, The Sims holds a Guinness World Record for having the most expansion packs for any video game series. With lifetime sales of $5 billion, it’s far more than a cult game, and pure nostalgia can’t account for its massive cross-generational success. Nor is its appeal solely in actually playing -- YouTubers like Plumbella and Steph0sims have managed to make careers out of viewers’ desires to watch other people play and build. Liam Payne recently released a Sims music video in collaboration with YouTuber Hatsy, Moschino released a Sims capsule collection and stuff pack last year, and artists like Katy Perry, Carly Rae Jepsen, and even My Chemical Romance have recorded covers of their own songs in the Sim language, Simlish. It's nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.

But... why? How did a game centred on the details of everyday life become so not only colossally successful but universally beloved? As The Sims has evolved, so has the world around it, and so have our reasons for loving it, which are as diverse as the players themselves. In the 00s, for many kids, the appeal lay not so much in the building of homes and lives as in the murdering of Sims. Taking the ladder out of the pool, removing doors and windows, letting less culinarily-inclined Sims use the oven. For those of us who were teenagers then, the subversive glee of killing off a Sim and welcoming in the grim reaper was part of the fun as we sat huddled around a PC in the computer room. But it isn’t that simple -- while murder crops up in nostalgic conversations around The Sims often, the game wouldn’t mean so much to people if the only fun part was the nihilistic pleasure of burning everything down.

Beth, who’s now 23 and has been playing The Sims since she was just six, is obsessed with every aspect of the culture. She was involved in the online Sims community in the mid-00s, has made friends through her fandom, and used to make custom content on a YouTube channel. She even discovered Paramore, now her favourite band, through their Simlish version of “Pressure”. Beth, who says that she enjoys “the creative and community side, like building houses and families”, is in the process of being diagnosed with autism and sees The Sims as her special interest. “It’s been such a consistent solid in my life and always makes me calm and happy; if i’m overwhelmed I can just go and play Sims and it really grounds me,” she says.

Alice, aged 24, says that it’s the mundanity of The Sims, like building relationships and homes, that she finds soothing. “When The Sims 4 came out I found a love for it again. I’d sit in my room in halls playing on my laptop when I was mentally pretty poorly. It was a great escape,” she says. “I still use it as that. It makes me feel calm and comfortable and I love the creativity mixed with the nostalgia.” She adds that she and her 12-year-old sister now play together, and she finds comfort in sharing the thing that brought her joy with a new generation.

In 2020, too, many of us are finding more and more creative ways to log off. Burnt out and exhausted by social media and a constant barrage of bad news, we’re reconnecting with offline hobbies. While playing The Sims on your Macbook doesn’t quite constitute a “digital detox”, it is a way to disconnect from an IRL world of responsibility, and it isn't -- technically -- online. Ysabel, aged 28, says that she re-downloaded The Sims as a distraction from her stressful job and found that it had the same calming effect as it did when she was younger. What she found, though, was that it functioned as a kind of utopian alternate reality. “I create characters who live very similar but improved lives to me. I always create women, they always have cats, their taste always mirrors mine, and they're always striving to get promoted at work,” she says. She even downloaded City Living to map out the configuration of her furniture at a new, real life apartment.

Maybe it seems counterproductive to turn off from the real world by tuning into another one, with a whole new house to run and family to keep alive. But in an ever-precarious world, perhaps that’s the enduring appeal of The Sims. It fulfils far-off millennial and Gen Z dreams to own a home, have complete control over our surroundings and maybe even a little bit of money on the side. Plus, when so many of us are in unstable employment, using the motherlode and rosebud cheats for infinite funds can feel like the closest we’ll ever come to true wealth. Owning a home and being in control is, in many ways, escapism of the purest kind for a generation that’s desperate to find meaning offline.

The Sims