Twenty years ago, the world was introduced to a new kind of “living” with the introduction of The Sims. You didn’t shoot anything in this very different videogame, and there was no high score. Instead, gamers created personalized avatars that just knock around in a city or suburbia for a while. For the past two decades, players have been designing houses, raising families and living entire lives within the confines of the game. The Sims is currently in its fourth iteration, has dozens of spinoffs and has also made more than $5 billion.
But what has given this virtual world—which appeals to both hardcore gamers and casual players alike—its staying power?
In the wake of the coronavirus, that question is a little easier to answer. Video games give us a chance to feel like we’re doing something, even when we can’t get out of the house. And The Sims gives us a chance to do normal things.
COVID-19 has effectively shut down the rest of the entertainment industry. Movie theaters have been closed, TV shows have suspended filming, and even the Olympic games will be postponed. And with so many people practicing social distancing and finding ways to stay busy while staying at home, there has been a surge in the video game industry.
While some people are using online games and free voice apps like Discord to talk to each other while playing, others are simply tuning in to apps like Twitch to watch gaming events live. Not sporting events: Gaming events. When the IndyCar and Formula 1 racing events were cancelled a few weeks ago, online motorsports magazine The Race organized an “All-Star Esports Battle”—essentially a virtual car race using the racing game rFactor 2. That event, which had professional racecar drivers participating, reportedly drew more than half a million viewers. “Soak that in for a moment. Half of a million people, many of whom were likely planning on watching the real race, were content to watch a pretend, virtual race via the internet,” said James Brumley of The Motley Fool.
Now, if it’s feasible that people would be willing to watch a pretend race, then it isn’t such a far stretch that they’d be willing to create a pretend life.
“Sims are just like us: they have hopes, dreams, jobs, and quirks. They need to eat, they need to use the bathroom, they age and die. They fall in and out of love, they catch their house on fire when they’re cooking, and they spend too much time watching TV,” said Matthew Gault of Time. It’s an interactive dollhouse “where disasters happen, but the player often has control over those calamities.”
And considering how helpless the coronavirus has made people feel these past few weeks, it’s understandable why a game where you control the story could be so appealing.
Of course, The Sims was popular even before the coronavirus. Superfan Kayla Sims (and yes, according to Time, that’s her given name) is a 21-year-old who actually makes a living streaming her Sims gameplay on Twitch and producing YouTube videos from it. “The Sims has gotten me through some of the worst times of my life,” said Sims, who started playing when she was 12. “I used the game as an escape when I was a freshman in high school and my father was first diagnosed with cancer. It felt like everything in my real life was imploding, and The Sims was the perfect place to run away to.”
The Sims isn’t the only game to use fake reality as a means of escape. Slate writer Benjamin Frisch put together a list of gentle games with similar soothing qualities to play during self-imposed quarantines, calling Stardew Valley the “ultimate cozy game” and recommending Animal Crossing: New Horizons as a place to do “all the things you can’t do right now.” However, the ability to set your own goals and create your own story seems to be what has drawn people to The Sims for the past 20 years.
Grant Rodiek, senior producer of Sims 4, said “For a lot of people, this is a game they quietly play by themselves and pour themselves into on a weekend to destress and have a bit of fun on their terms.”
That being said, let us not forget our real lives as we control these virtual ones. Your sims might need to eat and sleep and socialize with others, but so do you—even if it’s from six feet away right now. It’s fun to immerse yourself in a game—especially one that so effectively mimics reality—but at the end of the day, it really is just a game.