The Sims 4: Seeking Comfort and Control in Quarantine

Last week as New York City went into COVID-19 quarantine, I received texts from two different friends letting me know that The Sims 4 was on sale for $4.95 (originally $39.99). Whether the price was so low because the game’s popularity has significantly lowered since its peak in the early 2000s or because EA is capitalizing on quarantine boredom remains to be discovered, but regardless, the price worked — I immediately downloaded it and texted another handful of friends about the price decrease.

Since then, I’ve seen plenty of Sims discussions and celebrations on Twitter, reinforcing my hunch that this trend wasn’t just hitting my circle of friends; When the world is out of our control, we’ve found a (virtual) way to control our worlds.

Like many millennials, I haven’t played the Sims since childhood — I especially remember looking forward to accompanying my sister to her violin lessons when we were young, because her teacher’s daughter and I would work on our virtual Sim worlds while my sister studied Vivaldi. (My sister became a much stronger musician than me, but that’s beside the point.) I loved playing at the kind of adult life I aspired to have — creative, full of exciting romantic pursuits, and surrounded by an eclectic group of friends.

Eventually, my sister took to the viola instead of the violin and we stopped going over to that teacher’s house around the same time I entered high school. Studying, flirting, and exploring real friendships and real artistic pursuits became more interesting than computer simulations. I moved to New York for college at eighteen with a very clear epiphany — the self I created virtually in the Sims? The charismatic, creative, romantic ideal self I kept envisioning? I could be her in real life.

I’m currently quarantined in New York City, and that magical life I’ve spent years building and seeking out was almost all but stripped away from me as we’ve had to put everything on pause in the name of health and safety. Don’t get me wrong — I fully believe that quarantining and social distancing is a necessity. Legally, yes, but it’s also just the flat out right thing to do if we want to protect each other and try to move past this outbreak as soon as possible.

But as an extrovert who feels the most alive when I’m on stage in front of a large crowd or in a local bar surrounded by the eclectic, beautiful group of friends I did find IRL in New York, it really f*cking sucks.

When I got the first text from a friend telling me that the Sims was on supersale, I was overcome with a very specific nostalgia. I felt the familiar pangs of childhood safety — this game is synonymous to me with a time of peace and potential, when the rest of my life was still mine to fantasize about, but I didn’t have to actually think too hard or plan anything like which college to go to or which career to pursue. My sister and I would come home from her violin teacher’s house to a home-cooked meal and cozy bedrooms in a comfortable existence that was provided for us by parents who loved us.

Plus, in a bizarre way I’d get to virtually live out my ideal adult life again — one that happened to look very similar to the way I lived just a week or two ago.

The Sims allows us to be in control of our avatar’s life in a way that feels especially contrasting to the lack of control and free will we’re suddenly faced with in our actual lives.

Some friends I’ve talked to have opted for the mystical vampire or wizard expansion packs to add a fantastical element to their gameplay. Other users have made exact replicas of the families they’re unable to see right now (ow, my heart). Without thinking too much about it, I went for a more literal approach — I’m currently quarantined with my partner, so I made Sim versions of us living in a house with only one another. I gave us ambitions and traits that mirror our real-life goals and personalities, and dressed us in outfits that look like ones we actually own (though unlike most of my friends who stuck with their normal monikers, I did spice up our names, which was always one of my favorite parts of playing avatar-based games as a kid. “Tallie Gabriel” became “Amandine Sandstorm,” because why the heck not).

Now, I’m admittedly not a very good Sims player. I never bothered with the cheat codes that give you more money or cooler stuff, and in the first few hours of playing, I got a little dopamine rush just by making my Sims hang out with friends, go to work, and go dancing. You know, all of the things we’d normally be doing if we weren’t under COVID-19 quarantine in the US’s coronavirus hotspot.

Partially for my own sanity and partially because many things about how we humans are reacting to this uncertain way of life have been fascinating me, I checked in with a friend Fran Harland, who also happens to be a low-intensity CBT therapist and licensed NHS psychologist, about the surge in Sims popularity.

“As humans we have an intolerance to uncertainty, which means that we find it difficult to accept that there are things in life beyond our control. The only thing that is certain in life, is death. Yet we still seek to regain a sense of control instead of braving the unknown. So it’s no surprise that we create virtual worlds in which nothing is uncertain and in which we live by our own rules,” she told me.

As I keep being reminded by plenty of friends, psychologists or not, it’s normal as we adapt to this new way of life to grieve the parts of life we didn’t realize we’d have to momentarily say goodbye to so quickly. I’ve cried because I miss hugging each of my friends, because I miss flailing my bony, awkward body to live music and calling it dancing, because I miss spontaneous texts to meet up with someone I haven’t seen in a while and talk about our days over a cocktail. I miss visiting museums and botanical gardens. I miss feeling excited about the warm weather because it will mean windows opening in restaurants and beach days and rooftop parties. I miss gathering.

When I logged onto the Sims an hour or so before writing this, I made Sim avatars of all of my bandmates. My Sim partner and I threw a house party; my partner, who loves to cook in real life, virtually served food for a bunch of coded humanoids while Amandine DJ’d and danced with the virtual bandmates. There is no such thing as social distancing in the game world.

Despite the disruption of normal life, I’m learning to embrace the positives that come from living a life on pause. I’m sleeping longer, have time to incorporate workouts into my day, and I’m spending a heck of a lot less money on gigs and drinks and meals out. I’ve gotten back into practicing classical cello pieces that I never quite perfected just because I find them calming to play, and I have the time. Our carbon footprint is diminishing, even if it’s microscopic in the grand scheme of things. We have the internet and are finding creative ways to stay connected to one another. There is so much fortune in being healthy and safe, and those of us who remain employed will think long and hard before complaining about a work frustration again.

And most importantly, even if it takes months, and even if it takes much longer still for anything to look the way it did just weeks ago — this will end. And I doubt I’ll take those hugs from friends or full concert houses for granted ever again.

freelance writer, cellist/folk musician, poet []

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