Gaming Writer Mia Lynam explores how life simulation games appeal to and engage with their player
A slightly embarrassing fact that I have only ever admitted to my trusted friends, and am now trusting you with, is that I will (more often than you think I mean when I say often) create a version of myself on The Sims 4 and… live my life. I’ll send myself to university doing the degree that I’m currently undertaking, graduate with honours (which is much easier to do when you click on a notebook and choose ‘Study’), and then move into a cottage I built as a Level 8 Writer (which, if you haven’t played The Sims, is a very lucrative level to start on. Well done Sim self!).
One thing that makes these games addictive is that you can start fresh, anew. Unlike other games where you restart if you’re losing the race or match, you can start a whole new life just to try something different. When I get bored with my Sim self’s life of writing and gardening I’ll make a new save. Maybe I’m an astronaut in this one. Or a teacher. This time I live in the suburbs. Or in a high rise. I have a cat. Two dogs. A cow and some chickens. Sometimes, I’ll venture out, go wild and give my Sim self a bob. I’ve since learnt that it would definitely not suit me, but the idea is refreshing.
Life simulation games like The Sims 4 give you control. You can map out your entire life; house, job, looks, family. Everything is under your jurisdiction, and there are no consequences to your real life- aside from your sleep pattern. You can achieve things from the comfort of your bed or desk, not even having to fill out an application to hold your dream world in your hands. If you cheat, you aren’t caught; you’re just rich, or immortal. Everyone in your household is controllable, and if you don’t like any of the other Sims, you can just delete them.
I’ve watched many TikToks where players of Animal Crossing: New Horizons remove one of the villagers if they’re too ugly. And considering the fact that the villagers are all animals, this shows that people are willing to do anything (even forcibly removing a pigeon from its own home) because he’s not aesthetically pleasing. They can control who fits into their ideal life and wave the misfits off from the docks of their own island.
Many of us struggle with ideas of control. Wanting to know and be sure of outcomes and life paths is never one hundred percent possible, but life simulation games give us the certainty we might not have otherwise. If there is an unexpected outcome in a game, you can just start again. Easy. Or you can just cheat your way to being a billionaire, but somehow to me that feels too easy.
Life simulation games have become more popular since the pandemic. Social media was full of videos of The Sims 4, Stardew Valley, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was conveniently released in March 2020, letting cozy gamers everywhere create their ideal space from the comfort of their own home. In a time where leaving the house regularly and being with friends was not a safe option for most, multiplayer farms and travelling (virtually) to your friends’ islands let you create a life away from your own with the people you love. They’re so simple, too. No juggling necessary evils like school or work- if you want to have a little garden, you can have a little garden.
The main appeal of life simulation games, at least personally, is escapism. Yes, you can live out your career goals in The Sims 4 or create a Joja empire in Stardew Valley, but the pull to these games is the carefree nature with which you can play. There is the option of grafting in these games, and players who stream how far they can get in twenty four hours, but the average player can enjoy the virtual virtue of slow living, and the purpose of satisfaction as opposed to achievement. Playing is a form of escapism to a quieter, calmer world, where the worst you have to worry about is selling vegetables, ticking off your to-do list, and making your house look pretty. Here you don’t always need to work office jobs to live, and making art can offer you the same profit if your Sim is skilled enough. If only you could sell a £300 painting on your third try.
Life simulation games have been, and remain, so popular because you don’t have to win. There probably is a point in the game where you’ve done everything possible to do, but it doesn’t have an end. The credits don’t roll. You can keep playing, keep living, keep growing the little garden in your tastefully decorated home.
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