Sims standing around a neighborhood action bulletin board.
Image: The Sims 4
Games Features

The Ambitious 'Eco Lifestyle' Pulls at the Seams of 'The Sims 4'

It's an impressive piece of design that teaches young people about real world activism. But its portrayal of sustainability is a little bit fuzzy.
25 May 2020, 4:55am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Eco Lifestyle, the upcoming Sims 4 expansion, is easily the most ambitious work that the Sims' dev team has done on this game. It's a delicious soup of mechanics—delicate as a sprig of parsley, robust as a hearty stew. It also reveals the limitations of the world that they've created to play in.

One important thing to know about The Sims 4 is that it isn't our world. Sims don't have sex, they woohoo. Sims don't drink alcohol, they drink juice. In the world of the Sims, a job is available to you any time you want it. There are bills, but no taxes, nor are there mortgages or loans. It's a post scarcity world where food is plentiful and available by simply opening your fridge.This all remains true in Eco Lifestyle, but now all this bounty has an implied consequence: your ecological footprint.

When you're playing with Eco Lifestyle, a bar is added to the bottom of your screen that measures your ecological footprint. Your ecological footprint can either be Industrial or Green. Although you can keep the footprint industrial as long as you'd like—and can push it even farther in that direction if that's your flavor of fun—I spent a lot of time trying to make my ecological footprint green. This feature will be active in Evergreen Harbor, the new world that comes with this expansion, and can be toggled off or on in other worlds in the game.

You can make individual changes that influence your footprint, like using solar panels or wind turbines, but they don't help much. In order to really make an impact, you have to take advantage of the Neighborhood Action Plans.

In each neighborhood of the new world in Eco Lifestyle, there is a bulletin board where Sims from the area can vote on policies they'd like to enact. Some of them are silly, like the mandate to make everyone wear a bag on their head. Others more directly affect the environment, like power or water conservation acts, which means that Sims will be fined if they use too much of the respective resource.

Getting other Sims to vote for the plan that you want isn't easy. I spent untold hours trying to get the Sims in one of the neighborhoods to repeal the Sharing Is Caring act, which allows other Sims to just take things from your house. There I'd be, trying to make the moves on a cute Sim, and then I'd go to the kitchen and see that she stole my stove and bounced. Most of the time in The Sims if you want to convince a Sim to say, marry you, it just takes persistence. As long as you keep giving them romantic interactions, the romance bar will raise enough so that even if the two Sims have only known each other for a day, they'll still get hitched. Not so with organizing in Eco Lifestyle. You have to take time to build a relationship with Sims, fostering relationships with the other people who live in your city. It's a community organizing simulator, and the only thing it's missing are tedious leftist infights.

I'm incredibly excited at the prospect of having such an unapologetically political game in the hands of The Sims 4's major fanbase of young people. Some of the people who play this expansion are going to be voting in their first election very soon, one that hasn't left them with any good options for candidates who are willing to fight climate change. Hell, Eco Lifestyle approaches the idea of sustainability and the harmful effects of climate change from a position of total acceptance. There are no climate change truthers in this game, nor is there really room for debate. _Eco Lifestyl_e also poses a question about pollution that it doesn't really answer: where does it come from?

The Sims is a game without hierarchies. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia don't exist in this world. There are no layoffs in The Sims. There are no monstrous CEOs, nor do corporations meaningfully exist in this game. There are politics, as implied by the political career, but any Sim that enters that career has an equally likely chance of becoming a world leader. Sims don't have to make compromises the same way that people do. In our world, almost every consumer choice I make contributes in some way to climate change, because it empowers the corporations that are perpetuating it. It doesn't matter if I stop buying things because these companies hold unimaginable power, and they have an absurd amount of money that they use to sway politicians to their views. Those companies, like Chevron or British Petroleum, need to be held accountable. In real life, community organizing about the climate will specifically name the wrongdoers that are killing the world.

In The Sims 4, those hierarchies aren't there and there is no one to hold to account. While it's wonderful to put the tools and means for community organizing in the hands of young people who will need it, it shies away from naming the actual problem. Part of this is a problem of video games, which are designed to place an outsize importance on the choices of an individual actor. Part of it is also the industry as a whole, which hasn't quite grappled with its own place in the crisis of climate change. To name the problem would mean that The Sims would have to name itself.

It's disappointing that Eco Lifestyle obfuscates the roots of the climate change that it empowers its players to fight. On the whole, I think it's more exciting to think about young people who have maybe never thought about activism before playing this pack. There are many pleasures to enjoy in Eco Lifestyle, like crafting furniture with the fabricator. You manage trash by sorting recycling, compost and landfill waste and then turning the leftovers into furniture, and I spent untold hours doing just that. The new death by flies is extremely amusing, and I can't wait to live out my Etsy seller dreams by making candles. My hope is that the young people playing this pack will engage with the organizing mechanics meaningfully enough that they will take those ideas from Eco Lifestyle to the real world, with its hierarchies and layoffs and inept bosses. There are people to hold accountable here, and I think Eco Lifestyle can be the first stepping stone in joining that struggle.