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The Sims glorifies the menial tasks of everyday life
Illustration by Skylar Owenby, Western Carolina University

How the open-world game turned mundane routines into one of gaming’s most successful franchises.

It’s hard to imagine how a game centered around the menial tasks of everyday life could spawn one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, but The Sims has used this concept to entertain millions of players for over two decades. The series tasks players with managing a household of people known as “Sims” by attending to their social, financial and bodily needs. The franchise has only grown more popular with each successive installment, and with recent rumors that The Sims 5 is in development, it seems that the love for the series has yet to die down. The Sims may sound tedious or stressful at first, but it transforms real-world scenarios into a surprisingly fun blend of strategy and creativity through the clever use of common video game tropes.

Creating Player Goals

The Sims avoids monotony by constantly introducing variety into its gameplay. In a 2003 lecture at the Computer History Museum, series creator Will Wright described games as a feedback loop comprised of successes and failures. Nearly every game revolves around a single long-term goal, but its moment-to-moment gameplay must keep the player’s interest across short intervals. To accomplish this, game designers create scenarios in which players must frequently make decisions. In most action titles, this involves using the right weapon in combat or deciding how to overcome a particular obstacle. With The Sims, the player constantly chooses between fulfilling objectives, managing needs and balancing finances. Unexpected accidents and opportunities add further action to the gameplay while also forcing the player to adjust their schedule to handle these events, making the game both unpredictable and entertaining.

The various “Sim” titles by Maxis have always touted their open-ended gameplay. SimCity and SimEarth encourage players to maintain prosperous societies, but the games also provide the tools to demolish shopping districts or trigger mass extinctions. The Sims features a similar interactive freedom but offers a much larger variety of possible objectives. The player’s sims may get married and start a family, advance to the top of a specific career field or amass a fortune from stolen goods. Successive entries and their expansion packs build upon this simple framework through the addition of new jobs and recreations, such as opening a business and vacationing in another country.

Accomplishing these objectives requires players to invest a significant amount of time and fictional money. The slow process of working toward these goals would eventually grow tedious if it weren’t for the way that The Sims constantly rewards players through smaller optional objectives. The game occasionally presents the player with tasks that range from minor acts like buying furniture to grander achievements such as buying a new house. Players can ignore these objectives yet completing enough of them will allow the player to unlock special traits for their Sims. These goals keep the player challenged and entertained and yield worthwhile rewards.

The Sims also tracks the player’s progress through “leveling” systems, much like those found in many RPG games. As players practice and improve at a particular hobby, they will raise their Sim’s “skill level,” which grants them new actions related to the skill. For example, a Sim with a low guitar skill will initially struggle to play the instrument, but increasing the skill level allows the Sim to perform songs and earn tips from nearby listeners. Careers are structured similarly, with every promotion bringing higher salaries and more benefits, such as unlockable items or a reduction in work hours. These advantages assist the player in buying better furniture and constructing a larger house, rewarding them for the time they spend with the game.

Players can also ignore the life-simulation gameplay in favor of solely building houses or dressing up Sims. While the original game only allows for simplistic, one-story houses, later installments make room for additional floors, basements, elevators and various other structures to design any type of building imaginable. Customizing Sims has also grown more impressive with a wider variety of body and clothing options. Various websites (and in-game features for the more recent entries) enable players to share their creations with others, which has helped the game’s community to thrive for years. Regardless of how you choose to play, The Sims provides you with the tools to be as creative as possible.

Imagination and Storytelling

The lack of any narrative in The Sims is one of its greatest strengths, as it helps players create their own stories through gameplay. One player might make a soap opera full of tenuous relationships and romantic affairs, while another may craft a crime drama by befriending powerful figures to ascend the ranks of a local mafia. While these stories are primarily formed through the player’s choices, the unpredictable gameplay often produces unexpected twists and events. Furthermore, the inclusion of supernatural and absurd elements, such as ghosts and time machines, means that The Sims can deliver plots that no other game can produce.

Much of the game’s ability to engage players in these custom narratives stems from its immersive worlds. Common examples of immersion in gaming range from the detailed forests and mountains of Skyrim to the lifelike cities of Grand Theft Auto. These approaches are effective, but The Sims uses its preexisting mechanics to fulfill the same goal. Like the player, Sims around the town work jobs, start relationships and advance in life through various means. Furthermore, they are characterized by assigned traits that determine their behavior, giving each Sim a distinct personality. Although the small towns of The Sims aren’t as heavily populated as those in other open-world games, the knowledge that every Sim is living their own life independent from the player instills the setting with a sense of dynamism and believability.

Simplified Escapism

Despite marketing itself as a recreation of real life, The Sims is widely enjoyable due to its simplified caricature of reality. Most games in the genre attempt to keep a light-hearted and colorful aesthetic. The Sims presents deaths as cartoonish accidents or peaceful farewells from old age. Furthermore, babies and toddlers are unable to die in any way, preventing the game from becoming too serious. Players can also extend Sim lifespans or disable aging altogether if they never want to encounter these scenes. Even in its darker moments, The Sims maintains a consistently whimsical tone by establishing clear limitations for its realism.

Each game’s soundtrack adds to this peaceful atmosphere through a careful mixture of genres. For example, the first game couples improvisational jazz with new-age music. Jerry Martin, the game’s composer, explained in an interview with Polygon that his intention behind this unconventional combination was to ensure that the soundtrack wouldn’t seem repetitive even after hours of play. It still matches the relaxed gameplay, making it perfect study music as well. Later soundtracks in the series distinguish themselves from Martin’s heavy use of the piano and horn, yet they operate under a similar philosophy of mixing calming instruments for a slow but hectic composition.

The Sims was instrumental in shaping other life simulation games, such as Nintendo’s Animal Crossing and Tomodachi Life. Each of these titles provides a source of escapism by presenting an open sandbox, encouraging players to customize the setting and characters. The Nintendo Life sim games present much fewer risks and responsibilities to players than The Sims, but they still follow the same principle of engaging players through simple yet rewarding objectives.

Mundane activities are also used to entertain players in more intense titles, such as approving paperwork and passports in Papers, Please and cleaning the aftermath of grisly disasters in Viscera Cleanup Detail. Although these games attempt to distress the player with their stories and gameplay, the process of learning and becoming more efficient at tasks can be just as rewarding as life simulators. At the same time, the simplicity of these titles means that they are heavily reliant on stories that can be shaped by the player’s actions. By carefully balancing enjoyable or interesting settings with the menial tasks of gameplay, games like The Sims can imitate reality with just enough leniency to still serve as a broadly appealing source of escapism.

Gamified Perspectives

The success of The Sims can be attributed to its understanding of player behavior. Most players begin a Sims game with a specific goal in mind; whether it’s amassing a fortune and moving into a mansion, or simply transforming their house into a death trap, the player must work toward their large ambitions from humble beginnings. Throughout the game, they will experience multiple successes and failures but always operate with the knowledge that their goal is achievable. As a result, The Sims encourages players to approach their virtual lives with an optimistic, goal-oriented mindset and a willingness to take risks.

While this perspective is much harder to maintain amid the complications of the real world, life simulators balance creativity, simplicity and adversity to form an experience that rewards players for their perseverance. The individual choices players make may seem minor. However, players get much satisfaction from seeing their efforts amount to significant achievements, making The Sims one of the most widely enjoyed games of all time.

Writer Profile

Maximilian Padilla-Rodriguez

Florida Atlantic University
English

Maximilian Padilla-Rodriguez is an English major currently working toward completing his senior year at Florida Atlantic University. When not busy with course work, he spends his free time reading both fiction and nonfiction.

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