Calloused hands are usually a sign of hard work. Not for me and Joe. We were teens experiencing the first wave of home video games, and we made the most of it. After convincing my parents we needed the coveted Atari 2600 (I could play Asteroids at home! Imagine!), I made a last-minute switch to Mattel’s brand-new IntelliVision console. We played until we had blisters.
Today’s games would’ve staggered our imaginations. One that has captured the hearts of modern PC gamers is The Sims. Since 2000, Electronic Arts has sold 13 million copies, plus 23 million expansion packs—exceeding $500 million in sales. Now The Sims 2 has arrived, selling over a million copies in its first 10 days. Why is this game so captivating? I immersed myself in The Sims 2 to find out. After hours of play (no blisters yet) I merely scratched the surface, but got a strong feel for what the game is about.
The Sims 2 offers players the chance to guide virtual characters (“sims”) living in a virtual town. Game play centers on two tasks: achieving the sims’ lifetime aspirations (financial success, romance, gaining knowledge, having a family), and meeting eight basic needs: hunger, comfort, bladder, energy, fun, social, hygiene and environment.
Whereas most games are about winning, The Sims 2 is about experiencing sim-life. Every element of the game is customizable, from what your sims look like to their homes, clothes, meals, furniture, toys and hobbies. If you had to condense the American dream into a digital format, it might look like The Sims 2.
The result feels surprisingly true to life. Sims can’t do whatever they want without consequences. They must work to pay bills, buy groceries and interact with others to meet social needs. Staying up late depletes energy and undermines their ability to achieve goals. The Sims 2 mirrors many important lessons from the “real world.”
However, the game also gives characters the freedom to indulge unwholesome sexual appetites. Sims can spend the night with each other, have premarital sex, cohabitate, bed multiple partners, commit adultery, get divorced and enter into same-sex romances. Uninhibited sims will hop into any available hot tub—in the nude. (Players see no nudity, just pixelated bodies similar to today’s reality TV shows.) On the other hand, sims can choose to get married before having sex and/or children.
Some young players will make good choices for their sims. Others might be tempted to “try on” behaviors they have not yet chosen in real life. Thus, the game gives players a chance to practice immorality, albeit in a virtual world.
These problems are significant, but I wonder if a bigger issue isn’t how the sims’ world encroaches on the real one. I spent hours trying to satisfy my characters needs and wants. My wake-up call—literally—came when I found myself annoyed by a friend who phoned while I was playing. I struggled to disengage from the game long enough to listen, a sure sign I’d spent enough time playing.
Likewise, teenagers may lose themselves in this virtual world and grow impatient with reality. After all, the next round of simulated gratification (making money, buying new things, expanding your house, etc.) is only a click away. Sims’ choices are rewarded quickly, whereas we often persevere for years in real life before seeing a comparable payoff. Teens passionate about Christ may even begin to expect God to operate on a similar timetable with a measurable and predictable system of rewards. We know He doesn’t work that way.
It’s not hard to see how The Sims 2 hooks players. Its alternate reality is compelling, especially when real life is hard. Just as sims are driven by their aspirations and needs, teens long for a satisfying life and significant relationships. As a parent, you have the ultimate opportunity to engage with their hopes, dreams and struggles—so they won’t want to exchange vibrant reality for a virtual counterfeit.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.