When the reality set in that the COVID-19 outbreak meant I would be “hunkering down” in my one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment for the foreseeable future, I knew exactly how I wanted to pass the time and numb my frazzled brain: with The Sims.
A primer for anyone unfamiliar with The Sims: First released in 2000, the life simulation computer game allows you to create virtual humans (Sims) and basically run their entire lives, from building them a giant and hideous McMansion to fueling their scandalous love affair with the neighborhood vampire. (Yeah, it can get weird.) Since it first launched, the game’s only major changes have been the evolution from CD-Rom to downloadable app, and a major improvement in graphics. At its core, not much else has changed. There is no real goal or end-game other than to control how the lives of your Sim-family unfold.
It’s slightly embarrassing that I’ve suddenly regressed to my 9-year-old self, wanting nothing more than to fill the aspirations of tiny Sim-people and live vicariously through milestones like having a baby or getting married—while actually sitting on my couch for six hours. But it turns out I’m not the only one: My best friend texted me that she bought a Nintendo 64 and a Super Mario game to go with it. My coworker, sheltering in her childhood home, confessed that she’s been playing something called Nintendogs on a handheld game console she found in her bedroom. My husband toyed with the idea of ordering a PS-whatever. (He hasn’t—yet.)
The obvious reason for our sudden collective desire to ~game~ is that we all need a way to pass the time. And unlike reading or watching a new TV show, video games require minimal brain power and somehow make hours feel like minutes. It also has a lot to do with nostalgia. We’re trying to cope with an extremely difficult situation by grasping for a time when life was easy and everything felt fun.
But I’m not convinced that these are the only reasons, at least for me. I also really, desperately need an escape. There are only so many times that I can refresh the homepage of The New York Times before I lose it. Social media is no better: On the one hand there’s Instagram, which offers a mixed bag of mommy bloggers color-coding their family’s every move and childless millennials who are somehow finding the time to meditate, workout and make a four-course vegan dinner while also in quarantine. On the other hand is Twitter, a black hole of doom. Video games exist in their own universe, with no news cycle and no real responsibility at all. Do I feel guilty for avoiding the situation and not maximizing my productivity? Yes…but I also have very little energy to compare myself to others (a blessing in disguise).
At the same time, playing a game where I have total control over a fake human’s entire existence is incredibly soothing at a time when I, admittedly a bit of a control freak, am grappling with the fact that none of us have any control over, well, anything at all. In The Sims, there’s no such thing as economic crisis, because you can use a cheat code to make your Sim a bajillionaire. There’s no such thing as a pandemic, politics or social distancing. There are no expectations or actual emotions or nuance at all. Life in SimNation is blissful oblivion.
Admittedly, I may be avoiding reality by playing a dumb game that simulates life but will never, ever come close to approximating it. We’re all facing the unknown right now, and when I descend into my little Sim bubble, I don’t have to think about that unknown. But it’s OK. I know that someday I’ll surface from my video game bubble, and things will be better. That’s the advantage of reality over a game like The Sims. There are dark moments, but without them we’d be totally unaware of the light.