Sims: They’re just like us. I first realized this as I sat awake at four in the morning on my twentieth birthday, watching my virtual doppelgänger celebrate her own passage from “teen” to “young adult,” with an eerie shock of recognition. In a moment of weakness, I had bought The Sims 3 for myself as an early birthday present instead of studying for my art history midterm. Back at the “party,” my Sim self yawned and then, with her house still crowded with shouting and dancing friends, snuck upstairs and collapsed into bed.
The Sims was supposed to be a retreat from reality, but I was wrapped up in a bout of coming-of-age anxiety. “Teen angst” could no longer explain away my every woe, or “adolescent stupidity” excuse my behavior. Twenty seemed an unavoidable marker of adulthood, and what better way to thumb my nose at that than by immersing myself in the fantasy of a game I spent my whole childhood coveting? As a 10 year-old with a rickety Mac, I cherished visits to the houses of friends lucky enough to own The Sims.
But playing with friends was eternally dissatisfying. One friend was interested only in watching Sims get into vicious fistfights. Another liked to trap Sims in swimming pools with a diving board but no exit ladder, leaving them to slowly drown. The Sims is rated “T for teen” for a reason.
I fixated on creating perfectly-proportioned Sim couples, surrounding them with beautiful objects, and watching them on their inevitable paths to love. Each Sim house was a little piece of paradise. Every moment of in-game happiness was a thrill. There was nothing like watching a couple’s first “WooHoo!” beneath the sheets, amidst a cloud of pink hearts.
When I returned to the world of The Sims this week, it seemed to have lost some of its brightness. Sims could miss deadlines and get fired from jobs. Couples split up. Everyone eventually got old and died. I could still immerse myself in the virtuality of their world—and did, for eight straight hours—but it wasn’t a perfect escape any longer. Quitting out of my game to watch a movie was a relief—at least the characters weren’t speaking Simlish.