I always know that my seasonal depression has begun when I spend more time playing The Sims than I do living my flesh and blood life.
My parents bought me the very first version when I was a kid. They were blissfully unaware that there would be dozens of expansion packs to purchase in the years to come. In those pre-Amazon days, my mom patiently drove me to Norwalk to see if the computer store had the newest CD for The Sims: Makin’ Magic or The Sims: Hot Date.
These games weren’t cheap, but it wasn’t like I played sports. My parents decided to foster my love of computers, and on my birthday I received one of those big round iMacs with a colorful floral shell.
I spent hours hunched over that computer playing God. During middle school, I coped with bullying by creating Sim versions of girls who tormented me and drowning them in a swimming pool.
But I didn’t only exact vengeance on my pre-teen foes. I built intricate, if hideous, houses and complex families with dozens of kittens. I ran snowy resorts, attended spooky carnivals and even had a robot butler.
The Sims allowed me to imagine the elaborate lives of fictional characters, years before I began writing short stories of my own.
I might have grown out of The Sims as a teenager, but then The Sims 2 launched. The new game had depth. It offered generations and customizable traits and better camera angles.
My dominant memory of high school summer breaks is listening to pop music on Z100 as I reimagined my family as Sims. I gave myself the siblings I didn’t have, fraternal twins who shared a bedroom with me on the second floor of our contemporary beach house. I wasn’t lonely as a teenager, despite spending most of my time alone. I had all of these Sims for company.
The Sims 3 arrived on the scene just before I went to college, which might be why I never got into it. I didn’t love the animation style or the open-world gameplay, and for the first time my real-life life was more exciting than whatever I could make my Sims do. I went to class and slept around and fell in love and made actual friends.
As a college student, you are constantly surrounded by people to argue with and learn from and crush on. I didn’t need to escape into a simulation to feel like I was making something of myself.
The months after I graduated from college, however, were some of the loneliest I’d ever experienced. I had an internship that I liked, but I was commuting three hours a day from my mom’s house into New York City and back. My parents had separated, and I was privately struggling with my bisexuality. My friends, who once lived just outside my dorm room door, were now scattered across the globe.
That fall brought The Sims 4, a godsend for an isolated 22-year-old coping with post-grad depression. When I wasn’t dozing off on MetroNorth, I created my college friends (and more than one ex-boyfriend) and moved them into modest cottages in Oasis Springs and Willow Creek.
A friend created a Sims version of me, capturing my tiny eyes and my round face, and I built Sim Ella a hideous Mission-style house from scratch. The physical appearance of Sim Ella’s husband was heavily edited with every new relationship I found myself in.
As my blog picked up in popularity and I made new friends in Brooklyn, I gamed in moderation. Like many casual Sims players, I would lose interest for months at a time and then binge gameplay for weeks, usually when the weather got cold.
But The Sims 4 became a daily affair again in 2016 when my depression and anxiety worsened. I retreated into my tiny bedroom, with its puny radiator and cockroach infestation, and played out entire lives on my laptop. There was the reclusive female scientist and her outgoing clone. There was the lesbian art critic who married one of Sim Ella’s daughters. At one point I downloaded the entire cast of Harry Potter from the Sims Gallery, each detail of their faces painstakingly recreated by a talented stranger.
The Sims 4 wasn’t a form of self-care, exactly, but it gave me an outlet to decompress from work, time to listen to podcasts about the 2016 Presidential election. It was my soothing comedown after a hard day. Then, when Trump won and leeched away the world’s remaining color, The Sims let me create another world to live in.
When current events are ugly and outside of your control, The Sims’ quirky but logical progression of growing up brings some semblance of relief. For your animated avatars, career advancement is simple and within reach. If your Sim practices chess for six hours, they will gain the logic skill required to be promoted to astronaut. The completion of a daily task—say, doing your homework—helps your performance improve, and enough improvement will get you a higher grade.
Relationships share the same clear, achievable steps. If your Sim flirts enough with their crush, they will develop romantic feelings for each other. When their connection is strong enough, they can move in, or get engaged, or “WooHoo,” the child-friendly term for doing the nasty. Individual personality traits might add a wrinkle to relationships—a noncommittal Sim will feel tense if they settle down with one Sim lover—but it’s not difficult for you to force a Sim to do your bidding.
I first started playing Sim Ella’s life in the fall of 2014. Now in 2020, Sim Ella’s granddaughter Eloise has just moved in with her girlfriend, an artist named Payton. They live in a beach shack on the shore of Sulani, with rainbow pride flags on the front porch and a large art wall where Payton can sell her paintings. Eloise is a lifeguard, which gives her plenty of time off to work on her tan and fish in a nearby cove. They’re enjoying young adulthood free from responsibility, beyond paying their electric bill.
Eloise and Payton are talented and beautiful. They have adoring families and perfect weather (I turned off thunderstorms in the game settings). While they catch the occasional case of Llama Flu, they don’t have to worry about fatal diseases or medical debt.
Eloise’s mother Camille, Sim Ella’s eldest daughter, died of old age after a long and successful career as a Secret Agent. Her tombstone is nestled in the sand beside their mailbox. Occasionally her ghost comes to family dinner and possesses the flat-screen television for a laugh.
While Camille Dawson and a few of her brothers have completed their mortal lives, Sim Ella Dawson is alive and well thanks to the Potion of Youth. She writes best-selling novels in a funky cottage in Brindleton Bay, where she lives with her husband, a black lab, and a very stinky cat. When it’s not too cold, she takes the dog jogging through the forest. Sim Ella is never short of breath.
In real life, I am a self-employed writer. I rarely leave my boyfriend’s studio apartment because taking the elevator puts me in close contact with the doctors who live in his building. Most of my earthly possessions are stuffed into boxes in my dad’s basement and my childhood bedroom at my mom’s house.
I am frequently winded, and my heart races unpredictably due to anxiety. I aspire to be a successful novelist, but mostly I want a dog and a home where I can hang up my posters of smutty pulp novel book covers.
Meanwhile, my Sim self is at the top of her field. She has created several generations of Sim Dawsons to carry out her legacy. Her success is a bittersweet reminder of the dreams I struggle to reach, probably because I spend so much time playing The Sims.
Playing The Sims was a solo activity for me until I discovered the marvelous world of Sims YouTube. Thousands of folks around the world upload videos of their gameplay, from elaborate storytelling to jaw-dropping speed builds.
At some point the YouTube algorithm introduced me to lilsimsie (Kayla) and Plumbella (Jesse), two women who make their livings from their love of, and talent in, playing The Sims. Kayla and Jesse are whip smart, skilled and incredibly fun to watch. During the COVID-19 pandemic I’ve seen their faces more frequently than those of my actual friends.
In between speed builds and game reviews, they share little snippets of their lives off-camera. While I am acutely aware that lilsimsie and Plumbella are strangers to me, it brings me comfort and joy to watch their videos and know that other people are feeling the same weirdness and grief that I am. When Plumbella took a few weeks off to protect her mental health, I felt a little less like shit for needing space from my Twitter notifications. When lilsimsie shared her frustration that she hasn’t been able to see her long-distance boyfriend for months, I remembered how far apart we all are from each other, and how wonderful it is that the internet allows us to pretend otherwise.
Midway through the pandemic, I downloaded a save file that Plumbella created. To play in this brand new Sims world designed by one of my favorite gamers, I created a new Sim Ella. The game had been updated so much since my initial Sim Ella was born in 2014 that I wanted to start over and make use of the new features. Sim Ella 2.0 looked more like me, thanks to better curly hair options and cozy clothes.
To imitate my life as much as possible, I moved Sim Ella 2.0 into a modest 1-bedroom apartment in San Myshuno. She landed an entry-level job in the social media career and struck up a flirtation with the manbun next door. With custom content I downloaded from independent Sims creators, I had fun filling her home with things like a row of multi-colored cowboy boots on her bookshelf.
Everything was going swimmingly until I received a pop-up alert. Sim Ella had written a blog post to gain the social media followers she needed for her next promotion, and the post was a smashing success. “You’re being applauded for being the first to broach such a complicated subject,” the notification said. “Ella has gained 150 followers. She now has 3,999 Followers in total.”
Something about this message broke me. It was too weird, too perfect an imitation of my actual life. There I was, a social media manager with a blog that focused on stigmatized topics like mental health, blowing off steam by helping my Sim self get promoted to social media manager by writing a blog post about a “complicated subject.”
As embarrassment pooled in my gut, it became clear that I had flown too close to the vicarious digital sun. In that surreal moment, I realized that I didn’t even enjoy working in social media anymore. I didn’t like the career I’d chosen in real life, and I didn’t like it for Sim Ella 2.0. Why was I putting Sim Ella through the same bullshit that I was playing this game to escape?
Sim Ella quit her job in the social media career track and dedicated her hyper-speed hours to writing novels. A few months later, I did the same.
Earlier this year, I considered starting a Sims YouTube channel of my own. Wouldn’t it be nice to turn my hobby into a side hustle? Wouldn’t it be fun to develop a presence on a new platform and monetize my gameplay if I became popular enough? I would need to buy a better computer, and learn to edit video… and be interesting enough that people would choose to watch me play. But I love The Sims, and I’m funny, and we’re all trapped at home anyway. Why not?
The more I thought about it, though, the more wrong it felt to turn my hobby into just another content stream. The Sims is something just for myself. It is precious and relaxing and a little weird. It’s the only thing I do with my time that I don’t package for public consumption, the only activity I pursue just for the sheer pleasure of it.
I’m not a particularly “good” Sims player. But it doesn’t matter, because who cares how ugly my houses are? No one needs to see my tragic window placement or my basic kitchens. The time I spend playing The Sims isn’t productive or perfect, and it shouldn’t be. I don’t need to become a professional Sims vlogger to justify the time I spend playing The Sims. The joy and community it brings me is valuable on its own.
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