The Sims turns 19 years old today. If you’ve ever pooh-poohed it for just being a “dollhouse” aimed at women and girls, maybe it’s time to give it a try.
Nineteen years ago, players got their hands on the first Sims game. As the story goes, SimCity creator Will Wright was inspired to make a “virtual dollhouse” after losing his home in a fire. Rebuilding his life made him think about the components of human existence. Since then, there have been four Sims games, a couple of spin-offs like The Urbz, and a huge community full of creative storytellers, modders, and YouTubers who are devoted to the series.
When the first Sims came out, I don’t remember there being any gender-based stigma around it. Hell, my older brother was the one who bought it. He showed me how to play it, because I was curious, but he was the one who plugged hours into it. He even bought the sequel, whose disc is still languishing somewhere in our parents’ home. He was interested in The Sims for the same reason other players were—what would it be like to live out your fantasy life in this virtual world? In The Sims, my older brother was an athlete who ran every day. In real life, today, that’s not far from the truth. He once paused a catch-up session we were having when I visited him from across the country because he wanted to go to the gym.
As the years have progressed, The Sims no longer seems to have such ubiquitous appeal. If you take a look at the fandom, a lot of the major players are women. Streamers and YouTubers like Lilsimsie, Deligracy, and Xmiramira are all young women, and their presence in The Sims’ fandom can turn the tides of their collective opinions. Whenever I write about The Sims, I hear from readers that their wives are grateful for my articles. I don’t hear as much about those same people playing The Sims for themselves.
Why not? It’s a fantastic game, as interesting as any other management sim. Playing a family of five in The Sims 4 is as complex as managing a mid-size fortress in Dwarf Fortress, just with less alcohol. Like many games that end up associated with women, The Sims is assumed to be be boring, easy, or just “for girls” in a way that glosses over the excellent work that has been put into this fascinating simulacrum of human life.
The thing that The Sims does that’s most interesting to me, and why I keep returning to it, is distill the way we live into its base parts. The needs meters speak to this. Not only do your Sims need to eat, go to the bathroom, and sleep, they need to have fun and socialize as well. In The Sims 4, your Sims also have emotional states that are triggered by stimuli in the environment. Figuring out how to fill your needs, gain levels in skills, and make sure your Sims don’t die is an elegant puzzle.
After buying the expansion pack that added a “wellness” skill, I found that making my programmer Sim do Yoga would give her the “focused” emotion, which in turn made her better at programming and boosted how fast she gained that skill. From then on, she always did Yoga before she programmed, which doesn’t feel all that far off from how real-life programmers find their center.
Even if The Sims was just a dollhouse, that wouldn’t even mean it was a bad game. The thing about dollhouses is that they’re limitless opportunities for storytelling. Everyone knows how much fun it is to throw a Sim in a doorless room and watch as they slowly lose their marbles before dying. You can create a legacy spanning generations, go from rags to riches, become a movie star, be a black widow that kills all their spouses, fuck a ghost, get abducted by aliens, become a master vampire, or breed and sell puppies. The game can get boring, sure, but usually when you’ve run out of ideas. The perfect blank canvas of The Sims will always be there when you’re ready for your latest scheme, though.
The Sims is one of the great loves of my life, and I want to share it with everyone. If you’ve overlooked it through the years, I encourage you to give it a try. You might just fall as hard for it as I have.