A lot of the video games I played as a kid had to involve a lot of action, preferably fighting and shooting enemies. I wanted to play games that looked cool and kept me on the edge of my chair. I enjoyed the experiences I had on my Game Boy Advance, but they weren’t as expansive as the ones on my computer. I think of games like NeverSoft’s Spider-Man and Batman Vengeance, of the number of hours I put into them as a kid, even in moments where I was probably better off studying for my final exams. Until one day, when I played a game that was unlike anything before.
It was a different game. For my childhood self, there were no “punch” or “kick” controls in this game. The fights were more like arguments that could develop between characters. The aim of the game wasn’t to defeat the big bad villain.
The aim was to live a life and make the best out of it. And that is what I tried to do when I was playing The Sims.
I don’t know the circumstances of the event that exposed me to The Sims. I think what happened was I once saw my mom playing, and I begged her to get it like I always did as a kid whenever I saw some cool-looking game. I don’t think it was the “official” game as such, though. I am pretty sure it was just someone burning a CD, but regardless, I was finally happy to play it.
I always thought The Sims was a recently released game as I didn’t have a concept of time when it came to the releases of video games. I played it in around 2008, and yet, I didn’t know it came out almost ten years before. And I think that speaks to the timelessness that comes with it. Because even with its successors like The Sims 2 in 2004, it did capture what I feel is the zeitgeist of living in the early 2000s.
A lot of my childhood was spent in India until after I was eight years old. I left for the US with my mom in 2009 and lived there for a while. In a way, The Sims foreshadowed how it would be to live in the States. Sure, the houses I built were like the house I lived in. But at the same time, it felt very distinctly American. It continued my exposure to American media, with the various Cartoon Network shows on the air, the Spider-Man comics I read as a kid, and the like. This is why I think The Sims was the first time I was aware that I was playing a game set in what I like to think was a pseudo-American world.
After I went to the US and lived in my first American household, I had a habit of comparing what was in the house to certain things from the game, especially with stuff like the furniture used for the tables. And that’s not even getting into how I interpreted the game’s world to be some sort of suburban paradise, just like the neighborhood I was in when I went to the States for the first time.
I am not here to discuss The Sims as some sort of commentary on American families and the suburbs. My broader point is that something is appealing about seeing another world in a very realistic game. Even if I was more familiar with my life in India since I grew up there, The Sims showed me an American world without any distinction. I could create families like the ones I knew in real life. Like me, the kids in the game had to go to school and do excellent on their studies. I can’t deny that it led to a broader curiosity about the world in general as I grew up. It’s the kind of curiosity that I feel is why, for instance, as a film student, I try to look for films outside the Western landscape or how bands from other countries took on genres that became popular in the West.
Every time I logged onto my computer to play The Sims, I wanted to play with and explore that interesting and fun world. Characters could pass away and haunt the place. Your house could get robbed, and to prevent that, you need alarms, but depending on your income, they could be expensive. All these elements made me go back to it almost every time I turned on the computer. Managing another character’s life was one of the most addicting things for me as a kid because, in the end, I wanted them to be happy.
And then there were some learning experiences. I once created a “family” of kids, thinking how it would have been sweet to have kids living together and being friends. Then, I realised the impractical applications of such an idea, considering they can’t work and earn money to buy groceries for food, let alone order a pizza. Even if the kids went to school, they needed to be ahead in their education, or else they would go away to military school.
On the other hand, I also learnt that maybe having a routine wasn’t always the best idea. Sometimes, I would notice my characters getting bored. There was this one memorable instance where I remember making a rather upper-class family and prioritizing routine for them, but that felt less fun. The kids studied at a certain time. The adults were doing whatever “adults do” to be all “grown-up.” But one time, I just felt tired of following a routine. And so, I decided to have the mom and the dad watch cartoons and bond over it.
The point is that as I kept playing the game, I stumbled onto a lot of obstacles that almost ruined my vision of the world I created for the various characters in the game. There were moments where my characters would run out of money and go broke. Sometimes they would even pass away, which was a shocking concept for a kid. I saw characters mourning, and even though these were fictional characters that I created, I still felt for them. But the game never ended, and these things never stopped me from quitting the game.
In a way, I could see that reflected in my life. As silly as it may sound, those were times when the end of the world for me was getting a poor grade in Hindi or not understanding long division or even outside of education, events like me getting sick. I always thought there was some sort of pattern, like failing a test because I didn’t study hard and I was slacking off, instead of putting in extra work or that I was sick because I wasn’t eating healthy enough for a kid. But sometimes, things just happen, and it’s out of your control. And the best way to deal with it is to accept it and just move forward.
I guess in the end, all of this meant a lot to me because it gave the kid version of me an idea of the importance of life. And I am not saying that I had the maturity to understand it, but I got the gist of it at the time. There’s always an air of unpredictability to life, and it is important to embrace that instead of running away. For a kid like myself who wasn’t the best with his social skills and who was probably a little weird, it was escapism I found in The Sims. And with the comfort of the escape, it also did teach me a lot about understanding my life: that I’ll have to deal with a lot of things that may threaten to tear me apart (like the line uttered by the immortal Tommy Wiseau in The Room), but I have the strength in me to keep moving forward.
And as corny as that does sound, it is a lesson I wholeheartedly embrace.