Does playing The Sims affect our mental health?

5 Mins read

Life simulation game, The Sims, gives you the power to create the life of your dreams — to the extent that you may no longer feel happy with your real one.

In early 2000, California-based studio Maxis released a project that was about to change the market of life simulation games drastically.

The Sims one of a kind at the time, having no ending, special quests or plot whatsoever. But, it gifts players the opportunity to create life and control the destiny of someone else in a way they can’t control their own.

The Sims allows you to create a sim, give them a family, get an empty lot, then build a house and decorate it to your taste. As soon as the basics of the game are set, you begin to control them through their everyday lives.

It is in your hands to fill their needs, get a job, have any kind of relationship, achieve lifetime goals and do whatever you want with them until they die. However, the game does not stop there. You have a choice to continue playing that family or create a new one.

The sim is not a robot. They have thoughts, wishes, needs and fears – all fully affecting the state and mood of your sim. It adds to the whole appeal of the game for it to mirror real life.

Above the sim’s head, there is the plumbob that indicates the mood of your sim. The plumbob is in the shape of a diamond, where the green colour indicates a happier mood and the red one is lower.

The picture of two girls on the bridge with green plumbots above their heads.
The plumbob shows a sims’ individual mood [Assanali Zhaksylyk]

The Sims gives you the power to be the ‘God’ of your created world. If in real life there are some obstacles on your way before reaching your goals, the Sims lets you taste what it’s like to have an unlimited bank account, realise all career ambitions and live a perfect life within the game.

To continue the huge success of The Sims, the production expanded the series and created additional packs that made the game even more expansive. The packs are themed, and include content that allows the players to have a change of seasons, adopt pets, raise a toddler or be a supernatural species like a mermaid or vampire.

I’ve played The Sims for as long as I can remember. With all the packs in my collection, I played the game day and night, and staring at the computer screen is definitely is the reason why my vision is so poor now.

Like many other players, The Sims was my escape from reality. It was my safe place, where I could put all my imagination into it. I was not creating just a sim; I was creating a whole story behind them, and that activity brought me happiness.

When I got older, sometimes my joy for playing The Sims could turn into guilt instead. Playing for hours hasn’t felt as good as it did before. I couldn’t help but think that I was wasting time, while my sim effortlessly achieved goals in the game.

But, I wasn’t alone in that boat. A Reddit post with the question, “Does anyone else get depressed when they play The Sims 4?” revealed 96 people who have dealt with the same experience of playing The Sims.

[Reddit: @GingerSnap2244]

As it turns out, the true-to-life appeal of the game has its side effects. After putting a sufficient amount of effort into the gameplay, the players start to subconsciously compare their real life to the virtual one, causing them to question their existence.

In the essay, “We’re all depressed. Let’s Play Sims”, Ella Dawson shares her story, where she was projecting her real life within the game. Her sim, called “Sim Ella 2.0”, had everything that the real Ella has — the same house, profession and even appearance.

All was going well, especially for Sim Ella 2.0’s career, which suddenly struck the real Ella. She admits in the essay, “Her (Sim Ella 2.0’s) success is a bittersweet reminder of the dreams I struggle to reach, probably because I spend so much time playing The Sims.”

When Ella received a message congratulating Sim Ella 2.0 on having 4,000 sim followers and being the first to discover complicated subjects in her work field, it was the moment when the side effect of the game stepped in.

“Something about this message broke me. It was too weird, too perfect an imitation of my actual life. There I was, a social media manager with a blog that focused on stigmatized topics like mental health, blowing off steam by helping my Sim self get promoted to social media manager,” Ella explained.

The game, which was initially a source of fun, had become a reflection of Ella’s professional journey, making her face the blurred lines between escapism and reality.

The picture of the sim in the real world, looking for help in Psychology section.
Sims often reflect the real-world journey of their creators [Assanali Zhaksylyk]

For those who like to get lost in a virtual world like The Sims, the desire to have everything under control sometimes takes over.

The total control over the sim and its environment gives the feeling of satisfaction to the players, because they know that they can always use a cheat code in case of a mistake. Whereas in real life, there are consequences to your actions, and many people may think things are not worth doing if they cannot be done perfectly.

Omar Alrejaib, a 25-year-old architecture graduate from Los Angeles, was playing The Sims all the time in high school. However, once he entered adulthood, his experience wasn’t the same.

By playing the game, where Omar could build houses and properties, he felt triggered by doing something that he was supposed to do for school.

“Any game that simulates real-life tasks became triggering rather than relaxing. I get depressed by playing these games, because I’m imagining the perfect life. But, after I’m done playing, I find it hard to achieve this perfection in real life,” says Omar.

To research this phenomenon further, I was accepted into a closed community of The Sims players on Facebook. Everyone in the group was openly posting their sim families, achievements and funny stories that had happened to them in the game.

By asking the same question from the previous Reddit post, I was surprised to receive answers that were completely opposite of the previous ones. The community was positive and caring, sharing their personal experiences and trying to comfort me.

If previously we have seen cases of The Sims causing unhappiness in life, then here it was a different case. The game helped people to cope with depression and anxiety.

Some are struggling with feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness, where The Sims gives them the chance to live in fantasy and strive to be the person that they want to be.

For instance, @stonedsimsenseless, an admin of The Sims Community, loves to play out different life scenarios and shape them how they want them to be without actually experiencing them in real life.

The Sims 4 helps with my mental health by giving me a creative outlet. My passions lie in the performance arts and making things beautiful or interesting, the game checks a lot of those boxes,” they said.

Depending on the person, The Sims can cause or heal depression. To turn one into the other, players suggest thinking of your sim families as little people who are only doing well in life because of you.

The photo of the group standing on the streets of London with plumbots above their heads.
Some players use their sims to do things they can’t do in the real world [Assanali Zhaksylyk]

In the game, for each productive action, you receive a reward. The same practice can be used in real life. For each small routine, like washing dishes or doing laundry, you can get a small sweet treat or imagine receiving a positive moodlet, which is a reflection of the sims’ mood in the game. 

Though The Sims remains a favourite game for thousands of players, its affect on mental health will always come into question. Life simulation games are becoming more realistic with every release, which may lead more players to feeling inadequate in their real lives.

If you feel that this topic relates to you, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

Featured image by Assanali Zhaksylyk

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