Launched in 2000, The Sims franchise is known as one of the best-selling PC games of all time. If you were one of the seemingly few who didn't play it, it was a life simulation game where you controlled your Sims characters' fates – whether they became a lazy slob working as a bit actor, or a business mogul with a seven-bedroom mansion.
But for a lot of us, hours were spent finding new and ever more extravagant ways in which we could make our Sims die.
Since the emergence of video games, worried parents and pundits have used them as their scapegoat for whatever is ailing society. If your kids require anger management classes at ten years old, blame video games, not the merciless bullies at school. The Sims isn't often brought into this conversation, but thinking about it, maybe it should have been? Few other games needed as much pre-meditation to murder a pixellated character.
And thinking about all the virtual slaughter we committed as tiny adults now is slightly uncomfortable: Why did we want to knock them all off?
My first assumption before looking into this further was that everyone just thought it was fun to kill their Sims. From deliberately sparking a fire while whipping up a casserole to causing a minor electrical mishap in the bath, death in The Sims is comedic, which is probably why we enjoyed experimenting with the many ways in which they can perish – right?
Apparently, this is not the case – something I discovered when I first sought out former Sims players.
I made a vague Facebook post asking if any of my Facebook "friends" had been avid players of The Sims. To my surprise, the responses were plentiful. "Rosebud;!;!;!;!;!;!;!;!" one friend responded, referring to the infamous cheat code where you gain a thousand "Simoleons" (the currency of The Sims universe), the semi-colons and exclamation points indicating a shortcut to multiplying the 1,000 Simoleons. Another friend wrote, "I AM READY TO OPEN UP ABOUT THIS." I felt like I had opened up a Pandora's Box of recovering Sims addicts, so I gathered my findings and brought them to Adam Lobel – game designer and a specialist in social psychology, currently based at the University of Geneva and a member of the GEMH (Games for Emotional and Mental Health) Lab in the Netherlands – who examined my respondents' testimonials.
I told Adam that, to my surprise, former players said they didn't like killing their Sims and that, instead, they wanted to take care of them and watch them grow. I also had my own mega-successful Sims who I cared for immensely, and I'd always be very sad if they died, but at the same time I wanted to experiment and see what would happen if I removed a ladder, or kept a Sim locked in a room for too long.
Adam pointed out that we have to look at player motives, especially within the context of an open-ended "sandbox game" like The Sims. "Some people will play The Sims because they love the idea of being a nurturer," he explained. "Other people might play The Sims because they just like to experiment with things and break boundaries."
I told Adam that my passion for killing Sims conflicted with my highly sensitive nature, where I tend to become depressed after seeing a sad movie. Adam explained that The Sims was likely a way for me to experiment with a side of myself that was foreign to my core personality traits. In other words, breaking my own personal boundaries – which chimed when I talked to my Facebook respondents, like my friend Will from Melbourne, who said he didn't necessarily enjoy offing his Sims, but wanted to see what would happen within the confines of the game.
"I always became overly attached to my little folks," he told me. "I definitely did the whole deleting-the-pool-stairs-while-they're-swimming-so-they-drown thing, though. I guess my motivation was to see how long they could endure constantly swimming around before they finally succumbed. And to watch the reactions of their loved ones as they stumble unwittingly upon the deceased. I also would kill Sims in order to get the Grim Reaper to show up so that one of my living Sims could seduce him."
Based on my conversations about The Sims for this article, there seem to be plenty of links between seduction and murder in the game play. For instance, Lizzi, a student from London, told me that her games "always went one way or the other".
"I had this really wholesome redheaded family and I loved them because they all matched each other and that was definitely this idealistic tendency," she said. "Then the other side of the spectrum was just total anarchy and I think it's kind of cathartic to fuck everything up."
I checked in with Adam to see if all of this – including my own experiences – were normal. He said it's all illustrative of how gameplay in general is an exploratory realm for our psyche. "That's the essence of the philosophy that we try to bring to studying the benefits of gaming," he said. "We try to look at it as this safe space for emotional development and self-discovery."
So ultimately, if you were one of the many players who killed your creations during the Great Sims Boom of the early 2000s, chances are you're not a closeted murderer. And who knows who'd you be without it.
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