The Childhood Video Game's Look Into Uni Life
It's 3am, and I’ve just finished my essay for ‘Art History 3001: Artists you’ll never be as good as’. Switching off my computer and emerging bleary-eyed from my room I realise I haven’t slept in 32 hours. I stare blankly up at the ceiling for a moment, imploring God to let me sleep but he is merciless. I must eat. So, I go to the kitchen to cook a grilled cheese. My vampiric flatmate is sitting at the table frantically reading yet another book on gardening. She doesn’t look up. What happens next is a blur, maybe I fall asleep, or maybe I’m just not qualified enough at cooking. The stove bursts into flames. Now I’m on fire too. I look at my hand in confusion. My emotional state? ‘Very Tense’. It must be the essay stress.
The Sims is, without a doubt, the most realistic depiction of university life in any form of media. Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue, Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jack Whitehall’s Fresh Meat – none of them come close to the beautiful mundanity of Will Wright’s digital masterpiece. When the first game was released in 2000, journalists like the Washington Post’s Bob Thompson (who incidentally compares the game’s childhood-ruining potential to the September 11th attacks) tried to explain to bewildered parents the appeal of a game about, essentially, nothing.
As a child with limited agency over my life, managing my own household, choosing my own wardrobe, and setting my own bedtime was far more exciting than any zombie-slaying beat-em-up. When it came out, the university expansion pack gave me my first insight into the world of higher education. I always knew that I wanted to go to university but had little idea what that would entail: academic stress, loneliness, time management, relationship issues, and hard work. The Sims captures pretty much every aspect of student life.
Getting up every morning really is an exercise in self-management, so is cooking for yourself, planning social engagements, writing essays – everything we do at university comes back to The Sims’ central gameplay mechanic. Then we intricately plan our outfits, we splash out on room décor and fairy lights – only to rearrange it all whenever we go through a minor mood swing. What’s more, we’re constantly rushing from one thing to the next, an endless cycle of doing. It’s not easy. And what do we do when we’re fed up with it all, when our fun meter hits zero? Well, for a lot of us, we load up The Sims and do it all again virtually to make us feel better about our own lives.
The Sims shows us that everything we struggle with is normal. There aren’t enough hours in the day to stay fit, keep up with all your friends, and get top grades in every class. Dating is hit and miss, and sometimes you do get eaten by giant cowplants. Okay, so the reality of The Sims is subverted just enough to keep it fun. What does it get wrong about the student experience? There’s no crippling debt. You can find jobs for Art History graduates in any newspaper. And oh, how I wish we were just a short loading screen away from a nightclub, city centre, or Caribbean holiday.
The Sims offers us a dream world, then. A world as it was promised to us as children; egalitarian, peaceful, and free from discrimination. It’s a world we love to escape into, because in our world you don’t get to be president through sheer hard work, and it takes more than joke-chat-joke-chat-kiss to get someone to fall in love with you. The Sims has been criticised for its “valuation of happiness as a by-product of the consumer’s economic development and purchasing power” (Montes and Campbells, 2013). Sure, it’s an ode to capitalism. You work hard to get more money, to buy more stuff, to get better at skills, to get a promotion, to get more money, to buy more stuff, to upgrade yourself. The net product, ‘lifetime happiness’ just yields more stuff: ‘rewards’ to make living less painful– now I can skip sleep and study through the night, I don’t need food, so I won’t burn the house down. Maybe it is insidious propaganda but it’s a reality for most of us. We do live in a capitalist world, at least this way we have a chance of buying our own home.
The Sims rarely feels cynical, it doesn’t parody modern life. Rather, it shows it from a child’s perspective – infused with joy and simplified. Conflict can be resolved by pressing ‘apologise’, good things come to people who work hard, and nobody will judge you for wearing your slippers to lectures, and I love it for that. The Sims makes me happy; it lets me see the world through 8-year-old Thomas’s eyes again. So, when I’m done grinding away at my writing skill, I’ll switch off my brain, stop over-analysing everything, and do what my Sims do – play with life.
Photo: Naina Zilbermints