Get a Job: Latest 'Sims' Is Believable, if Not Realistic


I am a benevolent God. I am watching myself flirt successfully with my strapping neighborhood crush. I have just eaten a hefty portion of mac and cheese and enjoyed every bite. I'm painting again and my works adorn the tasteful modernist home I share with my friend Maria. My career as a professional ghost hunter fulfills me and pays the bills. There is no shame or sorrow in this world, just the promise of another glorious dawn each day when I arise.

That is the antithesis of my actual life. This simulacrum of me described above lived happily encased in the world I constructed for her in EA's life simulation game, The Sims, when I played as a child. The point of the game is to just do what you would (or wouldn't) in your life and see what unfolds. There are no levels to unlock. There is nothing to win. You just created your likeness onto little pixelated people called Sims and, well, just let them live.

For a legion of children and young adults, The Sims was much more than a game. It became a conduit for dealing with the uncertainty of the new millennium. Whether players wanted a perfect body or just a perfect pool, The Sims allowed them to build an idealized version on screen while piloting an avatar's life. The little beings have grown as the game has progressed. The once blocky Sims, unable to talk to more than one person, are now superhuman beings with lifelike bodily movements who can multitask in the game's latest version, The Sims 4.

The Sims is intended to be believable, not realistic. That's what Charlie Sinhaseni, a representative from Maxis, tells me as we sit in a high-rise in midtown New York City. I'm about to demo the new game and Sinhaseni appears flushed. I soon find out why. The room is smoky; moments before I arrived to play The Sims 4, his laptop caught on fire. This is ironic, considering that Will Wright, the brains behind The Sims, conceived the idea for the franchise back in 1993 when a real-world fire burned his home and all of his possessions.

While the initial focus of The Sims hasn't changed, the new version, out September 2, promises "smarter Sims and weirder stories." This means players can now manipulate their Sims to be hyperrealistic, sculpting their faces from the curve of a lip to the angle of a cheekbone. A new feature enables the Sims to have complex emotions, dictated by their own success and other Sims' words and actions. The game encourages genetic manipulation, and players can build family trees around a singular Sim. You can even have your Sim travel and move between brave new pixelated worlds.

You can simulate virtually any kind of personality, from Mother Teresa to Charles Manson, onto these new Sims, which Sinhaseni calls "blank slates." But since the Sims' world is technically parallel to ours, could a user project our own society's ills—like racism and sexism—if they were so inclined? "They're made to project on. It's the players' choice," he says. So whether you want to construct your fantasy or a postapocalyptic hellscape, it's your call.

But unlike before, you now must give your Sim-self a purpose in life. While the Sims we create are often reflections of ourselves, these little 3-D beings previously possessed no ostensible reason to exist. Therein lies the game's punch line: If everything we do is a distraction entertaining us until death, why not go ahead and upgrade to that $1,600 Shower of Power?

You cannot cheat death in life, but you can reason with it in The Sims (if you are lucky, you can befriend the Grim Reaper and talk it into sparing your loved one in this game's installment). This is but one instance in which the game's developers reveal their black humor, which often deals with control. For instance, the guide tells you how to "manipulate" their appearance or personalities. When speaking with other Sims, you are prompted to "play with their emotions." The Sims, like sex, is essentially about power, but over your alternate self.

Speaking of the self, Sinhaseni confirms something I always wondered about: The majority of users immediately re-create themselves first in the game, then others close to them, then fantasy selves. In that spirit, I try to do this as an ultimate test of the game's success when The Sims 4 demo lands in my inbox. Instead, I end up spending over an hour agonizing and failing to create an honest Sim Paula.

Sculpting my likeness now is much more difficult than I remember it being when I was eight. This is partially because my options are too vast; I find myself mentally asking absurd questions, such as what my style of walking is. Do I walk in a goofy, bouncy or swaggering manner? But the heightened self-awareness doesn't stop there: Now you must bend your Sim's vocal chords to have "melodic," "sweet" or "lilted" tones in their speech, still a variation of gibberish called "Simlish."

If you played The Sims as a kid, it may also be tougher to make your adult Sim likeness; children tend to be more honest with themselves. The brand-new aspiration function is the one I grapple with the most, given that I grew up wanting to write novels but have been told since childhood that if I want to retain my sanity I should pursue something more practical, like accounting. In The Sims 4 you have many aspirations to choose from, including "creativity," "nature," and even "deviance." There are subaspirations, too. If you choose "knowledge" as your goal in life, it splinters into three options: Renaissance, Nerd Brain and Computer Whiz. I almost cheat and pick the "nature" option, mainly because your Sim can aspire to become a "freelance botanist," whatever that means. Instead I make Sim Paula strive to become a "bestselling author," because I am a sadist.

Then comes the personality play. You choose from four categories: emotional, hobby, lifestyle and social. What you choose depends on whether you regard yourself highly or not, as you can choose "genius" and "snob" as traits. But then you have "glutton," "bro" and "hates children," along with "insane." The description of "insane" reads: "talks to themselves and have unpredictable emotions." Since that sounds like a reasonable description of my adult life, I select that one for Sim Paula along with "self-assured" and "ambitious." You can only pick three traits for your Sim, a limitation that might make the players go through a momentary existential crisis.

I dress Sim Paula in something I would wear (brown leather jacket, T-shirt, black pants, disaffected black eyeliner) and attempt to unsuccessfully tease the real-life curly brown mop upon my head before the game prompts me to create another Sim in her family. Mother, father, brother, sister. Then, I see the fraternal twin option. Yes. I'll use this as the ultimate social experiment to discover which likeness fares better in this SimWorld. I name this new Sim Lola, the fake name I always give creepers at the bar. I give her chic, red-rimmed cat-eye glasses and part her long straight hair neatly down the middle.

I initially set out to make Sim Lola my idealized alter ego. Fitter, happier, more productive. But when the time comes to select Sim Lola's traits, I feel oddly conflicted. If I consciously pick traits opposite to my own, does it mean I am unsatisfied with how I, Paula, am as a human? If I choose the same traits as mine, am I unable to think past my own qualities and idiosyncrasies? I compromise and give Sim Lola extended traits I would likely describe myself with: "perfectionist," "music lover" and "gloomy."

I place Sim Paula and Sim Lola side by side. They hop around in the blue Sims bubble. They look like the yin and yang, the devil and angel on our shoulders, the ego and the id. Despite their differences, they look like the same person.

My game hasn't even reached the point where I create a house, but I become unable to shake a single question from my brain: When given the choice, do we make ourselves as we are or as we want to be? I suppose it's the latter, but how you see yourself is different from how others see you. So what is the true version of Sim Paula? Should I have asked a co-worker to make my likeness? My brother?

In this way The Sims 4 is an ingenious game, one that can teach us, especially children who play, volumes about developing identity. It doesn't really matter what our Sim-self's newfound purpose is—chosen or randomized, because you do have that option—chance will take over. They'll have to deal with tragedies and triumph alike. But they'll carry on, as most do.

Just then, Sim Paula begins to weep for no clear reason, and I feel like weeping too. I take this as a sign to turn off my computer and leave the office. Rain trickles from the bruised sky outside; the unexpected weather makes me smile. Then I hop on the train and amble, the same way I always do, home.