In Memoriam: How The Sims Made Real Life A Bit Less Awkward

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The new Sim City is on the way, revitalised and as graphically updated as you could imagine on current PCs but also lugging along with it other modern day features such as the always-online DRM system. I can’t help but think back to simpler times, when I used to come home from school to play the classic Sim City 200 on my first ever computer (a Pentium 586 133Mhz), marvelling at all the possibilities at one’s mouse cursor tips and stressing out over dropping approval ratings amongst the general populace as I contemplated raising taxes to garner funds for our soon-to-be-exploding power plant. Well, it was either that or selling off nice old houses with backyards and replace them with soulless glass-windowed sky-rise apartments, and cutting the road maintenance budget so as to make rush hour traffic conditions appalling (in which case, welcome to Sydney Australia!). The game marvelled with its detail and flexibility, teaching me more about renewal energy sources than any class at school ever did, and it was all done with 32 mb of RAM back when such a requirement may have meant a big deal - never mind always having to be online, we didn’t even have the friggin' internet back then. ~ Just when it seemed as if Sim City was the ultimate game allowing you to yield tyrannical power over an entire city of your own creation, destroying everything with natural disasters or alien invasions and building it all up from scratch again just for kicks, along came The Sims in the late 90’s which put you in charge of the lives of individuals and hence, granting players an incredible package capable of architectural and interior design, family relations and social interaction, regulation over intestinal function and even an insight into psychology - all via a voyeuristic telescope of sorts that tapped into everyone’s curious (and very, very evil) little imaginations.

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You could set up awkward relationships. You could make one Sim utter crude remarks to a person of dignity and cop a slap to the face in return. You could even get your innocent little people to act not so innocently, with neighbourhood affairs and incestuous love scandals that would put The Bold and The Beautiful to shame, where polygamous (or should that be ‘polygonous’?) relationships were well in vogue long before Bill Paxton in Big Love made it compelling. In other words, it was either every tabloid magazine reader’s dream game or, for the rest, an avenue to enact some good old fashioned virtual cruelty; who hasn’t left a Sim unattended to the point where they wet themselves and cried in humiliation, or boxed them into a tiny room with 1 unit wide walls unfed and unloved until they died, eh? Anyone? Anyone? In hindsight, blurring out our Sims’ private parts while they showered and wee’d were perhaps the least of the developers’ worries. ~ Addictive to the point of having your Sim characters more bladder-happy and clean than you were is my instant memory of the game, but giving it more thought, and out of all the immersive titles that I’ve played ever since, I’d say that The Sims has certainly impacted me the most and opened my mind in several significant ways. I always loved starting out as a bachelor living in a tiny apartment with a combined living room and bed room, not worrying about anything apart from making enough money from a going-nowhere job to support one’s big screen TV purchase and gaming addiction: a lifestyle I then actually inherited in real live in my mid 20s (I regret nothing!).

But after doing this for a while, within the game and in actuality, life became just a little bit boring; where entertainment and all the freedom in the world just wasn’t enough. ~ And so the dreaded search for one’s life partner began, with dating in real life an often awkward journey but in The Sims, involving the convenient ‘creation’ of a suitor. You’d then build up your relationship with this person by first befriending them over time with home cooked meals and evenings in front of the TV, before deciding the right moment to whip out the big tough heart-pounding questions, no doubt feeling a bit weird about it because you were performing the gaming equivalent of closing your eyes and imagining a romantic tongue kiss with [INSERT NAME OF CELEBRITY CRUSH HERE]. The Sims captured that giddiness of early love so well that I’m not sure whether I should be ashamed to say that I had butterflies in my stomach when ‘Betty’ and my in-game self shared their first pash together. ~ Probably yes. ~

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 A big limitation of the original game, though, was that even though Betty and I had our baby and were ready to further our lives, little Maxwell would never grow up into an adult. There he would be, forever stuck in a state of limbo, behaving naughtily as a mischievous child and never learning any consequences (which is, actually, a pretty good description of some of the friends I grew up with. Hmm). The Sims 2 bridged that gap by allowing full life cycles from birth to death, so once again I put myself in the game as a character but this time, armed with the wisdom of my early adult life from the first game, ultimately ended up with a family of 8 children. I probably took things too far. ~ All of them, despite the toil and all the ungodly man hours I spent playing that damned game, managed to grow up into fine adults as Betty Mk II and I settled into retirement. But it’s only now, years later, that I’ve come to understand that it was I who had grown, coming to the seemingly elementary realisation that, well no shit, it is quite a hell of an effort being a parent. But thanks only to The Sims, I knew this seemingly obvious fact of life not only quite intimately, but also from the perspective of both parents. If ever you wanted a Freudian demonstration of parent-child relationships in video game form, look no further.

The Sims was magic because, at its core, it made you appreciate your social supports, and showed you that you’re not the only person from a dysfunctional family. In fact, it made dysfunction and unpredictable (and predictable) drama the very point of the game. And it’s for this reason that, even though the new Sim City may well be unsurpassed as far as a city-building and sociology simulator, I’ll always look back fondly on The Sims for helping me understand just that little bit more about all those little human dramas within these big cities, and not least more about myself and those close to me. And the most time-efficient way of balancing one’s Food, Entertainment and Bladder meters, too.

image By: Will

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