How Playing The Sims Taught Me to Really Live
Within the past couple of months, I have wet my pants. I have passed out on the floor from exhaustion. I have nearly died of hunger. Visible stink lines have emanated from my body because of poor hygiene.
And I have become angry. Very angry.
Well, not me per se. But sort of me. The virtual version of me. Sim Jamie.
For several months I have been playing The Sims—a video game based on daily life—as a window into my own real-world existence. The conceit was this: Five years ago this magazine won an award for a cover illustration. Longtime subscribers might remember the cute cartoon that fronted the SUCCESSville issue, featuring insights from video game companies on how to use gamification—or the process of achieving goals that get progressively more difficult but also more satisfying, like in a video game—to incentivize customers to keep coming back to their businesses. So, the theory went, if we can gamify our businesses, why can’t we gamify our own lives? Why can’t increasingly satisfying rewards lead to bigger gains?
Related: 5 Rules to Win the Game of Life
In the virtual world, we might seek points, but is there any difference between gaming points and money, for example? CNN founder Ted Turner said, “Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.” And although some concepts might be more difficult to quantify than money, is there a difference between acquiring gaming points and increasing our stores of happiness? Or health? Or purpose?
Aside from the occasional foray into Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario Party and Tetris as a child, I never played video games. I find them pointless and self-indulgent. When I’m reading a book, crafting or binge-watching a TV show, I feel relaxed or at least encouraged that I’m learning something new. But playing video games—especially single-player games like The Sims—seems to me like a mindless time suck. But my assignment for this story was to see whether the process of improving and growing a virtual version of myself would inform and inspire positive improvement and growth in my real life. If I can make Sim Jamie the best possible version of herself, will Real Jamie take notice and want to make changes, too?
Who’s to say that managing a virtual me wouldn’t create positive change for real me?
As an outsider to the home arcade, I have always been at least somewhat intrigued by virtual reality games such as The Sims and Second Life (a similar online game) in which people create fictionalized versions of themselves to live, work and play in a virtual world. These games perplex me. Why would somebody cook dinner for his or her virtual self and meet computer-generated friends instead of just doing those things in real life? Why spend fake money to furnish a fake home?
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Hordes of people play these games though, so there must be something I’m missing. After all, Electronic Arts and its software subsidiary Maxis, which creates The Sims, has sold 200 million copies since the first version of the game hit stores in 2000, a successor to previous titles like the Sim City series, SimFarm and SimAnt: The Electronic Ant Colony. I was 10 years old when the original Sims came out. My friends were obsessed with it, but I never got hooked.
Research from American game designer Jane McGonigal has shown playing video games is beneficial for our long-term mental health because it encourages us to use the creative portion of our brains to solve problems. The hippocampus—the portion of the brain where learning and memory live—also appears active in brain scans of people who are playing video games. Who’s to say that managing a virtual me wouldn’t create positive change for real me?
With an open mind, I download The Sims 4, the game’s latest version, and dive in. The first step is to alter the default female young adult character—Sim Jamie—to look more like me: much paler skin, less muscular, narrower shoulders. But my most defining feature—my unruly, dark brown curly hair—is not available as an option. No option for curly hair? What? I’m supposed to be creating the closest version of myself in looks and personality, yet I hit a roadblock right from the get-go. Begrudgingly, I choose some slightly wavy hair, ballet flats and a fit-and-flare blue floral dress—something I would actually wear—and move on.
The next step is to choose three personality traits that best define me, as well as a long-term aspiration for my Sim. Aspirations can be personal (falling in love, for instance) or professional (becoming an astronaut). The traits that match me most closely are perfectionist, ambitious and cheerful, and the aspiration that is most closely aligned to my hope for a successful career in the magazine industry is to become a best-selling author. OK, Sim Jamie is going to write books. So far, so good.
The corresponding career choice is writer. The entry-level position for this job is writer’s assistant, although it doesn’t offer much reward in terms of the game’s currency: simoleons. With good performance and preparation, my Sim can be promoted to blogger, then freelance writer, advice columnist, regular contributor and on and on, all the way up to best-selling author, and all of the simoleons that go with that lofty title. Sounds good.
Because I am creating this life to resemble mine as closely as possible, I also create a Sim for my fiancé, David. He is a medical student, so I give him “nerd brain” (a Sim who is book smart and handy) and the quick-learner skill.
The first few times I play the game are disastrous. This was the era of the pants-wetting, the passing out and the stink lines. I learn that managing two Sims is nearly impossible (let’s hope this isn’t a premonition for my future plans to have children). The minute I get either Sim David or Sim Jamie to a level of comfort—bellies full, bladder relieved, and mild fun or social time experienced—the other one feels tense, hungry or lonely. My inability to control my Sims’ basic needs translates into their jobs. Because I can’t seem to keep both of them happy, satisfied and generally not in harm’s way, I cannot get them to work on time, and if I do, they’re starving, grungy from missing showers or unhappy from not having enough fun the night before. They don’t receive promotions at their jobs, and they’re generally… blah.
Blah, of course, is a real state most people experience in life. By the end of college, most of us have learned to manage the need for daily showers, regular eating and enough sleep. But even now, my real-life sleep schedule isn’t perfect. I’m a restless sleeper and therefore persistently tired. My daily routine typically involves begrudgingly rolling out of bed 45 minutes before work (after hitting snooze a couple of times), making a quick cup of coffee, skipping breakfast and hurrying to the car. I always feel rushed. Pretty blah.
Because I don’t actually control Real David’s life (much to his relief, I’m sure) I decide to start over and create a new world with just myself as the Sim. It’s too bad, because Sim David was really cute, but without having to control him as well, Sim Jamie is now more in control herself, making Real Jamie far less anxious. I don’t feel frazzled, and I can actually keep my Sim’s basic needs fulfilled at all times. Sim Jamie wakes up early to write. She has time to make bacon and eggs for breakfast. She goes to work for eight hours, just like Real Jamie, and after work, she has ample time to go jogging, make buttered gnocchi for dinner, have her new friends over, write some more and even watch TV before bed.
After watching a few YouTube tutorial videos, I slowly gain confidence in my ability to master The Sims. And maybe real life, too.
Related: 4 Keys to Building Your Confidence
In the real world, my close friends and family members joke about how hyper-organized I am. I go to great lengths to plan for big things, like my upcoming wedding or vacations, but for some reason, properly planning my day never happens.
In an attempt to be more like Sim Jamie, I’m determined to get out of bed earlier. As I slowly bring myself awake at 6 a.m. for the first time, I feel incredibly groggy and tired. My first cup of coffee does nothing to ease the sleepiness, so I have another cup. And then a cup of green tea. After 30 minutes I’m slowly feeling more awake. I have an hour until I need to get ready for work, so I decide to do something I have been putting off forever: writing in my journal. I’m on my 17th journal. I began writing on an almost daily basis when I was 14 years old, but since then, almost daily turned into weekly, and then weekly turned into monthly. It’s one thing I love to do, but I never seem to have the time or energy for it anymore.
So I spend my entire extra hour before work writing. The time flies as I pour out my thoughts, and before I know it, the clock hits 7:30 a.m. I put my pen down and get dressed. Throughout the day, I feel calmer and more at ease. I’m an anxious person, and writing down my thoughts on paper brings a sense of clarity. Because I was able to purge all of my worried thoughts before working, I could focus better. Instead of worrying about my wedding dress alterations or whether I’ve been eating too many jalapeño-flavored potato chips lately, I can concentrate on my work without interruption.
That is, except for my new emphasis on socializing more. I’m not an antisocial person, but I’m very content spending time alone. I eat lunch by myself most days while listening to music or a podcast, and I have no problem spending nights alone when my fiancé works late at the hospital.
But Sim Jamie needs social time every day in order to be in the best possible mood. I never thought about this being a necessity in my own life. Real David and I are Dallas transplants; we moved here because he got into medical school here. Although we have met a few nice people, almost all of our family members and closest friends live in other states. We spend nearly all of our free time together and are both satisfied with that. But characters in The Sims need social interaction even when they are in relationships, and positive psychology research proves that more deep social bonds are indeed good for our well-being.
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I decide to test this in my real life to see whether there is any merit to it, starting at the office. I’m extremely focused when I’m writing or editing, occasionally getting lost in my own world. But I make a real effort to come out of my shell and strike up conversations with different co-workers. I ask my closest friend in Dallas, whom I only see once a month or so, if she’d like to set up a weekly coffee or dinner date. On my drive home I start calling my best friends in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington, D.C., just to say hi. I begin chatting with people at my barre and Pilates classes instead of just sitting in the back and surfing my phone until class begins.
Although I feel busier, I also feel fuller. Being more connected and in touch with people made me realize that I don’t need that much alone time. When I started being more social, I discovered that I still had a couple of hours to myself each day, and the social connections, for lack of a better phrase, made my heart feel full. Socializing with others even helped my anxiety, because I had less time to be alone with my own worried thoughts.
The game also challenged me to push toward goals in stairstep progression.
Apart from fulfilling my Sim’s basic needs—eating, using the restroom, getting sleep, keeping good hygiene, having fun and being social—the game also challenged me to push toward goals in stairstep progression. To reach her best-selling author aspiration, much of her spare time had to be devoted to writing. As she got better and better at the keyboard, the goals became more challenging.
Each virtual day, the game reminded me what Sim Jamie needed to do to achieve her goal. First she needed to write for one hour every day while feeling inspired—a mood she could reach by viewing art or taking a longer shower with time to think, for example. Then she would need to self-publish a certain number of books, and so forth. After meeting daily, weekly and monthly goals, she could move up in the ranks: The first stage is “fledge-linguist,” followed by “competent wordsmith,” then “novelest novelist” and eventually best-selling author. To reach that final status, Sim Jamie needed to complete all of the minor tasks and eventually write three best-sellers and earn at least $25,000 in royalties.
I enjoyed the reminders that by achieving small goals, I was leading up to progressively bigger goals. Sims accomplish these goals much more quickly than real people do. Everything about The Sims goes by faster than in the real world, including the Sims’ life spans (on normal settings, a Sim can be born, grow old and die in about 85 days). Although Sim Jamie could write a best-seller in less than five hours, and Real Jamie’s goals will take far longer, I was still encouraged to make changes in my actual life. I went in with long-term career aspirations and goals, but no specific plans in place for achieving them. The satisfaction I felt after reaching my small virtual goals encouraged me to set attainable goals in my real life.
One of my biggest dreams is to have my writing published in a variety of magazines, so I set weekly reminders to send pitches to publications I admire and a deadline several months out to have an article published by at least one of them. Having an expiration date on my goals provides me with a sense of accountability, just as Sim Jamie’s 85-day countdown clock reminded me that my own time is precious.
The perplexingly meta experience of seeing my life from the perspective of a puppet master taught me all sorts of things I could do differently. Sim Jamie started her career as a writer’s assistant, was eventually promoted to a blogger and then an advice columnist. Writing books on the side was one of the qualifications to earn a promotion each time, and as she advanced in the publishing world, Sim Jamie regularly received royalty checks in the mail.
But something wasn’t adding up. Pretty soon, Sim Jamie was making much more money from her self-employed writing than she was from her day job, even though it took up less time, and she could write whenever it was convenient. So I had her quit her job as an advice columnist to take up freelance writing full time. This was the definition of a leap into the YouEconomy. Now she had more time to write, which was fruitful not only because she could crank out more books, but also because the extra practice meant that she was becoming a better writer, and each subsequent book earned her more money than the last.
Sim Jamie’s freelance success didn’t inspire me to quit my real-life day job (much to my boss’s relief, I’m sure, because then who would he command to play video games for months on end?). I like the stability of going to work at SUCCESS, and I love what I do. But the gamified YouEconomy proof did inspire me further toward my goal of adding freelance work on the side.
In the real world I’m guilty, like many people, of falling into a life of monotony at times. Wake up, go to work, go to the gym, eat the same dinner, work a little more, watch TV and go to bed. During the winter months, this felt particularly cumbersome and draining. My real life felt stagnant and boring. And similarly, Sim Jamie’s life began to bore me. I had finally figured out her routine so she always felt content, but the game started to drag because I knew exactly how to do everything.
Co-workers who had played The Sims as teenagers told me this was because I didn’t use cheat codes to make Sim Jamie’s life progress faster.
So I decided to go rogue. Google uncovered one cheat called “disable household needs decay,” which would keep all of Sim Jamie’s basic needs fulfilled. She wouldn’t feel hungry, tired or grungy, or even need to use the bathroom. She wouldn’t need to be social or have fun. My earliest struggle in the game was satisfying all of Sim Jamie’s needs, so I grinned when I saw this cheat and immediately typed in the code. From here things moved quickly: Sim Jamie sold novel upon novel and had extra time to master the violin. She didn’t need to spend time with anyone and instead focused on making more money than ever. She bought nicer flooring and furniture for her home—nice enough to even impress the Landgraab family down the block, the richest family in the game.
It was me, Sim Jamie, and all the simoleons I could ever spend. And yet Real Jamie felt unfulfilled for Sim Jamie.
Around two years ago, I finished my master’s degree in journalism and considered moving to New York City for a job that looked impressive on paper. I was high on my ambition trait and determined to become a wildly successful writer. David and I had been together for five years at the time, but were long distance for the previous year as he was in medical school in Dallas and my master’s program was in Chicago. While he was visiting me one weekend, we went hiking and then out for dinner and drinks. It was a simple but blissful day. I remember looking at him and thinking, No job, no matter how prestigious, would make up for the fact that I would be alone, not spending time with the one person who makes everything in my life worthwhile.
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In playing The Sims, I got to live that New York life for a little while. Although the need-decay cheat allowed Sim Jamie to become famous, increase her wealth and have a house worthy of the Landgraabs, the game became sad. I missed the times when Sim Jamie would flirt with Sim David or have Sim friends over for a party. It made Real Jamie feel lonely. And because I no longer had to practice mindfulness for Sim Jamie, staying aware of her mood and needs, I became self-centered and lost in the pursuit of material success.
I didn’t completely overhaul my life as a result of The Sims, but the game did encourage me to make small improvements that stuck.
It was then I knew that I had played long enough. I didn’t completely overhaul my life as a result of The Sims, but the game did encourage me to make small improvements that stuck. I have since taken on a handful of freelance assignments. I have also become more social and focused on short-term and long-term goal setting. And in a way, living through a virtual version of myself—interacting with my virtual friends and family—reminded me that the most important thing in life is spending time with those we love, not behind a computer screen or so focused on our work that we let what’s truly important pass us by.
I now see the appeal of games like The Sims. They allow us to temporarily escape our real lives to engage in a world where we have total control to make things exactly how we want them. But I also don’t think I’ll be partaking in this form of escapism again any time soon.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.