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20 Years of ‘The Sims’ Keeping Up With Our Bizarre Reality

The Sims is a reflection of human life; it shows us how we love, create families, and interact with the world around us.
February 20, 2020, 3:23pm
Two Sims from The Sims 4 are taking a selfie.
The Sims 4

After twenty years, The Sims has become a living document of the ways that we have lived our lives. When The Sims released in 2005, in order to have the Sims version of sex, you had to buy a vibrating heart shaped bed. In The Sims 4, Sims can now bone in the shower, and then update their Simstagram story. Grant Rodiek, senior producer on The Sims 4, has been on that journey with the series for a lot of his adult life.

Rodiek first started working on The Sims in 2005. In terms of how much things have changed since then, I don't know anyone else who's worked at the same company for 14 years who isn't as old as my parents.

"It's been interesting because the industry has changed quite a bit. There's not quite as many, like, big [budget] studios anymore. But there's been a really cool growth of small indie devs," Rodiek said. "It's also been cool that The Sims has been really successful and it keeps changing. I think if The Sims wasn't changing so much and technology wasn't changing so much, it'd be pretty boring."

The Sims is a reflection of human life; it shows us how we love, create families, and interact with the world around us. One the markers of how much my life has changed between games is to remember how you used to have to use the daily newspaper to get a job in the game. In The Sims 4, newspapers aren't delivered at all.

"People are still mad that Sims don't have newspapers delivered every day," Rodiek said. "I can't honestly say whether we're right or not right for not doing it. If a big part of our brand and our goal is to let you have the choices to do stuff, I mean, theoretically we could just say, 'Fine, if you want to still subscribe to the physical New York Times, your Sims can do that too.'"

Right or wrong, The Sims 4 has hewed tightly to trends, including trends in technology. In The Sims 3, the items that represented your Sims' cell phone looked like a Blackberry. Now it looks more like an iPhone.

"I remember when I first started back in the day, everybody had Blackberrys and that was usually a sign of a more senior member of the team. And I was like, 'Ooh, I want to get a Blackberry one day,'" Rodiek continued. "Now I don't have a company phone cause I don't want to get email on my personal device."

The Sims 4 is in the unique position of being able to keep up with our own bizarre reality. Previous games in the series didn't have the ability to make adjustments on the fly for the changing times. The Sims 4 exists in an infrastructure where games can be patched as quickly as those patches are written. Small and large changes can be added in every update—one even introduced a freelancer career, which was new to the series. Rodiek said that the research that The Sims' development team has done shows that the younger portion of their audience has started to think about getting a job in a way that the game didn't reflect until freelancing was added.

"The career system is like one of the most intuitive goal systems in our game because whether you want to or not, most people have to earn money. But how they want to earn money is very different," Rodiek said. "It's weird that I've been here for 15 years. That is just not typical these days. We want to make sure that our game, which is about life, actually reflects that. It felt weird that if you're like a freelance writer, which is a very common path, or a freelance photographer or you do a mix of things, that the game didn't actually acknowledge that. It felt like it cheapened your experience."

The Sims 4 is not a perfect model of life, and still struggles with some aspects of what being a person is in the year 2020. Beyond the fact that the game only got gaming laptops with the last expansion, there are still limitations to what kinds of curly hair are present in the game, the ways it expresses gender, and it still only has a smattering of darker skin tones. Granular changes to these systems can, and have been patched in. Over the years, in free updates, The Sims 4 has added more skin tones, made it so that players could individually select if their Sims get pregnant or pee standing up, and added some beautiful curly hairs. Still, the game is playing catch up to culture at large. Even with the added tones, I still can't find a skin tone that matches mine without modding it into the game.

Though The Sims 4 contains a worrisome portent about the continued stability of the media industry, Rodiek and the other game designers must also stay on the cutting edge of trends. Researching trends of labor helped the development team understand how young people think about jobs and work.

"We're literally doing research now on like, what does a teenager think a job will be?" Rodiek said. One addition that's clearly influenced by youth culture is the Influencer career track, where Sims can become a Stylist or a Trendsetter.

They can do the same research for clothes. The clothes and technology we wore in 2005 are very different from the ones we wear now. Because game development takes a long time, The Sims's dev team has to anticipate trends as well as represent the ones that are already out there.

"We have a pretty large dedicated concept team and several of them are experts on fashion," Rodiek said. The trends research isn't just about taking current trends and copying them, but interpreting them for the game. Take, for example, the Indian inspired clothing in the City Living Expansion. They're not exactly saris, but they do reflect Indian fashion and trends in a way that feels unique to The Sims. The challenge for Rodiek and the rest of the development team is thinking about every aspect of life in that way, including the often unthought of, like body hair.

"A comment we get a lot is that if we bring chest hair back and body hair back, we need to make sure it's not gender specific anymore," Rodiek said. "Then the other thing is we just release a lot more often than we did on Sims 2 and Sims 3, often two or three times as much, whether that's the paid updates or the free updates. That gives us more opportunities to try to keep pace with culture, because culture changes so damn fast and we're doing our best."

I started playing The Sims on my older brother's copy of the very first game. In the past 20 years my life has changed in ways I had not anticipated: like many of my Sims, I've joined the "writer" career track; unlike most of my Sims, I have never started a fire while trying to make mac and cheese. Watching The Sims 4 try to keep pace with culture is what keeps me coming back to the series. With each new addition, the more I'm able to recreate and experiment with life as I know it, or imagine lives I'll never live. Maybe I won't ever be an Influencer, but my Sim can, and she can live in a Tiny House while she does it.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.