science of us

The Very Soothing Sensation of The Sims

Photo: Getty Images, EA Games

The Sims franchise turned 20 this year, which means I have been playing the life-simulation game for just about two decades. If I had to put a number on it, I’ve been a kinda-sad person for about 25 years. The Sims did not make me a kinda-sad person, but for me — and friends with similar struggles — these two things seem to go hand in hand. Why think about what I could do to benefit my future self when I can instead focus on making my Sim a best-selling author who is also a veterinarian in about 90 minutes?

In The Sims, you can speed time up to get through the boring bits, like sleeping or dating. Queue eight conversation actions in a row to get your Sim to flirt with another Sim. Fly through the bullshit until you are given the option to kiss and then “WooHoo” (which is, yes, sex). After I turned 30 in 2017, the slightly older women in my life loved to tell me that my 30s would be so much better than my 20s. I hope someday when I am slightly older I can say the same thing, but at 32, everything just feels the same except that time is hurtling past me ten times faster than it did before.

I think I’ve been sad since I was 5, which is funny to me and only me — no one else is allowed to laugh at it. I find it absurd that this could be true and so I don’t know what else to do except find it funny. Like, really, bitch? Your brain started in when you were 5? I remember one day telling my father that I felt like crying and I didn’t know why. I crawled up next to him while he was lying on the couch and cried, because he said I could if I wanted to. The crying felt forced, and I wonder if it’s because I thought being sad meant you had to show it.

When your Sim is sad, you’re given options on how to best make them forget what is making them so sad. The Sim can cry it out in bed, or pet their dog, or turn to another Sim for consolation. Time heals all Sim wounds, but these actions will accelerate the process.

When I was very sad in 2017, I was the most sad I’ve ever been. Nothing accelerated the healing process. Time did not heal my wounds, but it did provide a window of opportunity during which I woke up and realized that the thing that had gripped me so tight was just a little bit weaker that day. I made an appointment with a therapist and eventually made an appointment with a psychiatrist. Time gets a lot of credit for healing, but bupropion does all the dirty work.

This is not at all how feeling better works in The Sims. If your Sim witnesses a death out in public, all of the Sims in the area will watch in horror as the Grim Reaper does a bit of mortality admin. Then the Sims collectively wail, like that one scene in Midsommar — deeply sobbing, throwing their heads back, face to the sky, then forward into their hands, not quite in unison, but close enough. They will get over it completely in three Sims days. Maybe two if they pet enough dogs.

The thing about The Sims is you’re either not playing at all or you play every free moment of your waking life. I don’t know anyone who plays for whom this is not true. I also don’t know a single person who goes through these phases who is not very open about dealing with depression. This is not to say that people without a mental-illness diagnosis do not play The Sims — it is just to say that I’m apparently not friends with any of them.

The Sims is more or less a game about controlling your environment and the people in it, and nearly every action has a logical consequence. I think this makes it the premiere video game for depressed people, a demographic that is susceptible to feeling like few things are within our power to change. If your Sim works every day and completes the tasks needed to move up in their field, they will be given raises and promotions accordingly. It’s how the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, no handouts” people erroneously think the world works. Put in good work, get good results.

The Sims also has shortcuts to well-being available to those who want them. Every impatient Sims fanatic knows the “Rosebud” cheat code from the first Sims: With this, players eschew working an honest Sims job in favor of instantly getting enough simoleans (the official currency of the Sim people) to design a house. I have never liked designing houses. I am bad at it and I hate doing things I am not instantly good at. (The first time my father tried to teach me to ride a bike without training wheels, I fell off once and refused to try again for two years. This part of me has not changed much.) But last year, I made a genuine attempt at making a Sims home. Alas: Despite my effort, the modest dwelling looks like I was asked to design a home that embodies the concept of anguish.

I have seen houses before. I have seen so many houses before. I cannot tell you why I thought this was how a house is supposed to look. It took me a very long time to do and I tried so hard to just make a nice home. When I finished, I was so impressed with how bad it was that I took a picture.

I do not use cheat codes to design beautiful houses; instead, I play The Sims with the same morality I would use to care for a family. Sometimes I make the main Sim look like me. Usually I don’t. Once I spent 90 minutes making my Sims look like Khloé Kardashian and Lamar Odom and was late to my aunt’s birthday dinner because of it. I take care of my Sims and give them goals and make sure they live up to their goals, probably while sidelining my own. Mostly I like having babies to complete the goal of creating an effortless family unit. There is nothing exciting in The Sims, but there is that steady drip of progression.

For me, the end of a Sims phase is usually abrupt, brought on because I have too many babies at once. I have that issue with understanding things are still worth doing even if I can’t do them perfectly, and this applies to my real life and my Sims. If one of the toddlers grows up before I taught her how to talk, I get so stressed out that I simply shut off the game and don’t turn it back on again for months. When I return, I just create a brand-new family and throw my old one in the trash. Being able to quit The Sims as soon as it gets frustrating is the most satisfying part of all.

How many times have I wished for equally clean endings for the end of unsatisfying relationships, or jobs I drudged through, or the frustrating last day during visits to my family who I love unconditionally, but somehow always stay with one day too long? How nice would it be to try out children for just a little bit before becoming a mother? Of course, these are the unexceptional wishes of any person craving order and assurance — anyone aiming for stability, whether they’re depressed or not. But when my mental health is at its best, The Sims has less appeal. It’s when I’m feeling good that a steady drip of progression with clean endings sounds boring.

The Very Soothing Sensation of The Sims