Diary: Keeping Up With the Sims

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One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood is getting up early on Saturdays (the only day in the week when we willingly awoke from sleep), tiptoeing around our parents, and pressing the on button to settle down for hours of electronic entertainment. (I suspect this memory rings true in many children around the world.)

For most kids, the technology of choice was the television. Saturday morning cartoons inspire some of the most nostalgic memories in the minds of many of my friends – mornings spent pigging out on the couch with a bowl of cereal and the mis-adventures of anthropomorphic cartoon characters.

My childhood Saturdays, though, was filled with electronic entertainment of a different kind. It was spent playing games.

I recall playing a lot of games, really – much more than your average grade school kid at the time. There was RollerCoaster Tycoon – the de facto standard for nostalgia-inducing memories among gamers in my generation – where I pumped many hours into building the most insane roller coasters possible, and more often than deemed healthy, killing the poor handymen.

There was Pokemon, played on an emulator that my father kindly installed for me. Gold Version was my introduction to the series; as I battled trainers, climbed the Olivine Lighthouse, mined the farm for MooMoo Milk, and stopped the evil masquerade that was a far-too-Koffing-centric Team Rocket, the hours slipped by like they were nothing. Cyndaquil was my favorite Pokemon, followed closely by Flaffy.

Even though these were some great adventures I had, the true jewel of my childhood gaming memories comes in the form of an unassuming little game called The Sims.

Okay, maybe it’s not that unassuming: the best-selling PC game franchise in history, the Sims franchise revolves around a very simply concept: life. You are given command of a Sim – which you can customize – and act out their lives in a fantasy world, populated by other Sims.

My introduction into the Sim world was in elementary school. The game had been released a year or two previously to wild acclaim; I don’t recall how I first heard of it, but I do know that I wanted it. So imagine the joy when I found it hidden inside a backpack, surreptitiously placed there by my parents as a surprise.

Expansion packs quickly followed (this was the simpler days, before downloadable content or Steam), and by the end of 8th grade, I found myself immersed in the Sim world, populated by not only Sims but pets, celebrities, magicians, date prospects, and vacation homes.

Memories of my early school years are filled with recollections of getting home, turning on the family computer, and going straight into managing my Sims’ lifestyles. I was the God to their Moses; whatever I said, they would carve onto their electronic tablets and execute them. It was fascinating, watching my Sims moving around on the screen, going where my pointer went, interacting where my finger clicked.

I also designed houses. They were monstrosities; if I were to look at them now, no doubt I would discard them in the trash without a second thought. But the 10-year-old interior designer that was myself found endless amusement in selecting furniture, wall coverings, pools (without ladders – of course), and generally speaking, designing houses so rich and extravagant that they would make Donald Trump’s hair go flat.

My Sims could never live in those houses I designed, of course – they were simply too expensive, and I never had the patience to actually let my Sims live long enough to amass the funds needed to move into the latest swanky creation, courtesy of Seung Park, architect.

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Then, in 2004, came The Sims 2. This time, I was in middle school, confronted with new goals, fears, friends, and pressure. My gaming reflected that; no longer did my Sims live happy lives. On purpose, I made the same Sim fall in love with two different people and watched the hi-jinks that ensued. I turned into a cruel monarch over the town of Pleasantview, letting loose Sims with dire personalities and even more dire finances. I’m surprised I wasn’t booted out of the town by the fed-up populace.

Still, it was all in fun. I owned far less expansion packs than the original – evidence of my moving away from video games at the time. However, even with only the base game and one expansion pack, I sank many hours into the worthy sequel to the original blockbuster.

Over time, though, both Sim games faded from my memory, crowded out by what many call “growing up”. To many, this is a happy time in their lives – filled with new memories, activities, friends, and possibly, love. For me, though, it was honestly somewhat depressing. Yes, I had friends; did activities, and were mildly successful at them; fell in love, quite – more than once, in fact. But all that notwithstanding, I headed off to college with not a little bit of trepidation surrounding the optimism that traditionally blankets every teenager’s first foray away from home.

I grew up with the Sims; they are as much of a part of my childhood as Wile E. Coyote, Rocket Power, Pokemon trading cards, and Scooby Doo – and maybe even more than any of them.

So I always feel a little defensive when I hear anyone saying, “The Sims is such a boring game”, because it’s far from it. Sure, it doesn’t have any guns – or ‘freeform battling’ – or CGI-induced, spectacular cutscenes, but it doesn’t need any of that. It’s a life simulator, and real life isn’t supposed to be fancy. Real life is bland, it is normal, and it is quite boring indeed.

But among the boring tedium that The Sims emulates and makes the focus of its simulation, there exists a certain joy in being the purveyors of that tedium.There’s an elementary sort of satisfaction upon commanding your Sim to use the toilet, or prepare a meal, or sleep. There’s also the perverse satisfaction – a feeling of shit, what’s gonna happen now – that happens when I command my Sim to act in a way that 100% goes against how I would act in real life. Living life vicariously through your Sims is just one way that the game commands a different sort of addiction than the latest machine-pressed copy of Call of Duty.

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It’s a simpler game for a simpler mindset. It doesn’t demand that you spend every ounce of concentration playing it; it can be run in the background, with a variety of interactions queued up while you go check up on how the eggs are boiling. My Sims will be fine, I know, since they can handle a few minutes without my interruption.

I suppose it’s the simplicity that draws me back into it now, with the latest incarnation in the form of The Sims 3, released in 2009 and still going strong today with expansion packs. In a life filled with quizzical possibilities and uncertain paths, it’s calming and soothing to create a path for someone else, someone who I know will never, ever, hold it against me that I’ve done wrong – just exit without saving. Especially now, when every action I take in the real world has undeniable consequences, benefits, and backlash, this pursuit of happiness that isn’t mine feels amazing.

Sometimes it’s nice to escape into someone else’s world for a while.

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