What The Sims taught me about living

With the arrival of a new expansion pack, Cottage Living, one writer contemplates what The Sims has taught them about idealising work, productivity and success

Article by Xandra Robinson-Burns | 30 Aug 2021
  • The Sims Cottage Living

The way you play The Sims says a lot about you as a person. This I have believed since the first version of the game came out when I was nine years old. With no clear way to ‘win’ the game, The Sims requires you to bring your own measures of success. Some players enjoy making beautiful homes, earning more money, or building a legacy that lasts generations. As a kid I would steer clear of anyone who delighted in finding creative ways to murder their Sims, such as drowning them by deleting pool ladders. My preferred gameplay is a mix of time management and storytelling. I craft backstories for my Sims, who max out skills and climb virtual career ladders, satisfying my favourite pastime: productivity.

Selecting which expansion packs to buy is another personality test. Strangely, I am most drawn to packs for activities I don’t actually want to do, like Get Famous or Discover University. I passed over Cats & Dogs, because my own dog requires enough of my attention. City Living, however, brought me some lockdown solace, when I got to experience virtual festivals, street art, and food stalls through my Sims.

Recently, I have caught on to how the storylines I create in the game ‘just for fun’ are actually clues for how I want to live IRL. The University expansion pack became a fantasy version of academia, as I created a student house of ambitious women, all excelling in their studies while prioritising wellness. They cook nourishing meals, go for morning jogs, and share their successes before going to bed at a reasonable hour. This hypothetical self-care study group pointed to my actual desire for a community of women, supporting each other’s dreams, and leveraging humanities degrees into well-paying arts careers. 

Then, there was Salim Benali, an aspiring novelist with the Lazy trait, who came with the City Living expansion pack. His bio in the game hints that he played too many video games and didn’t get any writing done. I reframed this narrative, suggesting that he can indeed complete writing projects, have fun, and take naps. In fact, in my version of the story, Salim’s passion for video games helps him channel his creativity. He becomes a fantasy novelist, spawning geeky franchises beloved by fellow gaming nerds. Perhaps I, like Salim, desire to make meaning from the games I play in my downtime. Games aren’t lazy or counterproductive, but integral to my creative work. I didn’t set out to recreate my dreams in The Sims, but it happened anyway, where I least expected it. 

When the most recent Sims expansion pack, Cottage Living, was announced, I knew I had to give it a go. Cottage living is my literal life goal at present. That said, my dream of moving to the woods is pretty vague. I desire the quiet, the trees, a space to write – but I’m still defining the details. Historically, my Sims’ storylines have given me unexpected life guidance. Could I leverage that into learning about an actual aspiration of mine? Or would simulating cottage life distract me from my real life goals?

Booting up my game with Cottage Living installed, I created a few different storylines, but couldn’t get into the flow with any of them. It felt like work, imposing my personal agenda of life clarity onto this wholesome village of an expansion pack. While I would enjoy many of the Cottage Living activities IRL, I noticed a disconnect between how these actions feel as tasks rather than as parts of life. The game quantifies a cottage bucket list, defining certain activities as ‘success’. While I would love to max my relationship bar with a flock of wild birds by singing together, I am more interested in the act than the achievement. I would do this every day, and never truly be ‘done’. In the game though, making my Sim do this all the time is, frankly, boring. 

The Sims quantifies life progress in a way that is artificial in real life, and yet, we fall into the traps of progress bars and arbitrary achievement anyway. So while some of my Sims taught me how I want to go about goals, Cottage Living made me ask myself: what if my next goal is no goal? Perhaps I’ve levelled out of levelling up. While I am seduced by progress, my next great challenge in life is to let go of the levels and just live. 

The scary thing about actual cottage life is that there is no winning. And isn’t that how The Sims started out? Life can be simple. Just feed yourself, get enough sleep, and check for ladders when you get in the pool.