Why millennials love The Sims

For some millennials, playing the PC game allows them to live the lives they can only dream about - but its success over two decades is about more than that

The Sims – a place where you can side-step reality and live out the dream of constant job promotions and an impeccably decorated loft apartment. Photograph: Sony

The Sims – a place where you can side-step reality and live out the dream of constant job promotions and an impeccably decorated loft apartment. Photograph: Sony

 

Rosebud. It’s the last word uttered by newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s iconic film Citizen Kane. A reference to a sled he owned as a child, it represents loss of innocence and the ruthless pursuit of wealth at the expense of family, friendship and love.

Okay, Boomer, it’s actually the most common cheat code in The Sims. Type it in during cheat mode and it gets you 1,000 Simoleons. Do it enough times and Rosebud becomes meaningless but your Sim is filthy rich and for no effort.

This cheat has been around since The Sims – the best-selling PC game franchise of all time – was first released 20 years ago. With more than 200 million copies sold during this time, a whole lot of millennials and Gen Z-ers have grown up playing the game. Could it be that there is an expectation of a certain Sims-esque lifestyle of palatial mansions filled with pricey furniture and state-of-the-art appliances? A world where no one rents (the game literally doesn’t have this option) and everyone starts out with 20,000 in their bank account by default?

Brokest generation

Even if this is not the case, millennials have been dubbed “the brokest generation”. Whether they expect things to fall into their laps or not, many have only ever known the normality of rented accommodation, zero-hour contracts and the gig economy. So why not indulge in playing The Sims – a place where you can side-step reality and live out the dream of constant job promotions and an impeccably decorated loft apartment?

Sure, this is one reason for the enduring appeal of The Sims franchise but it’s a bit reductive to assume all young people are hiding in a computer game instead of facing real life. Sims fans, or Simmers, love the game for many reasons, not least of which is the sense of community.

“It is an amazing community to be a part of. It is definitely one of the highlights of playing the games,” says UK-based student Thomas TV who was born in 2000, the year the first Sims game was released. Thomas creates houses which he then shows to his over 12,000 followers on YouTube. His videos have thousands of views from Simmers eager to follow his step-by-step builds.

“A lot of people in this online community have been playing The Sims for their entire lives, and to some it becomes a part of who they are. Being able to get to know them and learning about how The Sims is a part of their lives is very interesting.”

The Sims was the first online community South African student Christine York ever joined and, according to her, one of the nicest out there. “Everyone I’ve come across has always been super welcoming and supportive. And there are Simmers from many different ethnicities, countries and walks of life. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know so many amazing people that I would’ve never met if it wasn’t for this community.”

York also has a YouTube channel and she livestreams Sims session on Twitch: “I love doing gameplay or even building live with my viewers. What I find most fun about it is the live interaction. I can ask my viewers opinions on something or we can just laugh at what my Sims are up to. It’s a great way of connecting with your viewers that you just can’t get through a regular YouTube video.”

The strongest appeal of The Sims for York and other players I interviewed seems to be the sense of nostalgia it evokes. Having grown up playing this game, it is intertwined with childhood memories.

“I used to play with my mom. She and I would take turns playing on our ancient Vista computer and we had so much fun showing off our Sims, their stories and their homes to each other. Those will always be some of my favourite memories,” says York.

Same-sex marriage

Millennial David Donaldson, who helps run a Facebook group called Simmers District, echoes this sentiment: “I’ve been playing The Sims since I was like 11 or 12 years old. I say ‘playing’ but my sister Kelly would be playing and I’d be watching. Once I got hooked, I begged my mum to buy me the complete collection of Sims 1 for Christmas. I remember it running on this really old Windows XP computer.

“And going over to my dad’s house at weekends, where I’d play The Sims 2 with Kelly, they are my best memories of playing the game.”

But The Sims also drew in a generation of LGBT+ players who felt at home in a game where same-sex marriage, gay parenting, and non-traditional families were the norm. This was followed with an update to The Sims 4 in 2014 providing custom gender setting. Players could now create Sims who identified as male or female with a choice of a masculine or feminine frame and clothing preference, and the option to either become pregnant, get others pregnant or opt out completely. They could also choose whether their Sim sat down or stood to use the toilet.

“I’m a millennial: I was born in 1991,” says Brazilian PhD student Thiago Neitzel. “I think The Sims means a lot to my generation because it is a really inclusive game that represents everyone, no matter the skin colour or sexual orientation. I think it is the first game in history to have non-binary characters and the first game to give us the chance to create transgender characters.”

Liverpudlian Erin Hodges is a game design student who has been playing The Sims since she was three years old. Although she is Gen Z, the game appeals to her for some of the same reasons as Neitzel. “I feel like The Sims means something to my generation as it taught us about LGBT+ people, and different cultures. It not only allowed me to accept myself as a young LGBT+ woman, it also allowed me to learn about other people’s lives, beliefs and cultures, which is why I just love the game with all my heart.”

As for the notion that a generation raised on avocado toast and Instagram are playing out a utopian fantasy where everyone gets to own their dream home, Hodges doesn’t outright dismiss it but says: “It’s not just a millennial thing. Even older generations who play the game build dream homes that they have never been able to afford in real life.”

Maybe millennial Simmers are simply looking to play out the fantasy of owning any home at all. “In recent years property prices in real life have started to go through the roof,” says Donaldson.

“As a person who is on the rental market myself, building my dream house in the Sims 4 and living it through the game is probably the only way I’d be able to afford to live in a dream home. It will never happen in real life, not in my lifetime anyway.”

But why not live out these dreams? As Neitzel notes, this life simulation game gives the player complete freedom to experience the improbable and the impossible: “I was able to go on holidays to resorts in mountains full of snow at any time and make my dream of seeing snow for the first come true [albeit] in the game. Also I created a vampire who lived in a penthouse apartment and got to turn the entire city into vampires too.”

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