I emerge from my last class of the day to find my boyfriend and best friend entwined on the quad. Up until this point, my life had been going according to plan. I had all my needs balanced, a litany of friends, a stipend from sending the first few chapters of my novel to my agent and a closet that boasted prettier clothes than I had ever had in my entire life. My boyfriend, Don, hit that sweet spot of not-my-age but also not-decrepitly-old. I was sharing a spacious new apartment with my best friend from the Valley. I wanted for nothing.
But now, this.
They don’t seem to register my presence, too engrossed in each other, Don’s tongue rammed down Vanessa’s throat. I did not plan for this. I did not plan for this because infidelity was not supposed to be innate in either Don or Vanessa; both of them were supposed to be inexhaustibly loyal to me. In the sudden anger that engulfs me, I brandish a sword from my pocket and start slashing until I can’t tell whose limbs are flying in the air at random, his or hers.
In the sudden anger that engulfs me, I brandish a sword from my pocket and start slashing until I can’t tell whose limbs are flying in the air at random, his or hers.
It’s only when my face is doused with blood in a bad approximation of Carrie, and I am staring down at the mess that makes up what was once the two people closest to me in the world, do I feel a frisson of regret. With a sigh, I open the drop-down menu and click “Load Game.” This time, before my pixelated self emerges from class, I right-click Vanessa and Don on the quad and delete them.
But even though they are gone from the game, they are perfectly preserved in my memories. The game does not delete our “friendships” even when their in-game bodies are not physically present anymore. I used to think it was a metaphor for something poignant and thoughtful; now, I’m fairly sure it was just an oversight on the part of the developers.
I have been playing The Sims 4 since the day it came out, with a whopping 3,354 hours spent ignoring my cramping stomach and sleep-deprived eyes in favor of bolstering my Sims’ needs, but it’s only recently that I had the idea to use it for something more than instant gratification. I had been binge-watching Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal” in between classes, a show which revolves around using excruciatingly detailed sets and scripts to carefully prepare for any social situation. As someone whose childhood was spent binge-watching “The Truman Show” and adoring “Pleasantville” (and not merely for my burgeoning crush on Tobey Maguire), this idea struck a chord in me. The notion that I could prepare for any situation that arose had always been to me, as an exceptionally neurotic Jew, irresistible.
Besides, I could use a little stability in my life. As a junior transfer six hours away from my home in the Valley (San Fernando, not The Sims 4’s approximation of it, De Sol), this was the longest I had ever been away from home. Here, my days were rigidly defined, and with that rigidity came a seemingly relentless deluge of time. Mondays through Fridays were jam-packed with classes, as I had decided to take 20 units and an internship to boot. My friends proved an embarrassment of riches, in that they were wonderful and we had established a camaraderie derived only from surviving GBO week relatively unscathed, but the majority of them were French, imbued with an accompanying joie de vivre that made me feel prematurely aged. Between the rigidity of my class schedule and incessant torrent of weekend forays into San Francisco and Oakland, I was becoming frayed at the edges.
Between the rigidity of my class schedule and incessant torrent of weekend forays into San Francisco and Oakland, I was becoming frayed at the edges.
“The Rehearsal” was my one respite, and with it, the dawning revelation that I could construct my own set, my own actors and my own set of overarching decisions, to load and reload at my discretion, until I received the optimal set of circumstances that would lessen the burden of constant improvisation to my new experiences.
I set off to work at once. I hadn’t had time to play the Sims in months, but as I made myself, taking pains to find the right set of curly hair (after all, the experiment would not be effective if I could not accurately put myself in my Sim-self’s shoes), I found myself getting back into a groove I thought I’d lost somewhere in 10th grade. The only liberty I took was giving myself a better wardrobe than what I could presently afford. After all, who would complain if I refrained from buying from Shein or Aliexpress and lived vicariously through my Sim-self’s wardrobe instead? Besides, clothing did not factor into Sims’ perceptions of my Sim-self, so it would not ruin the experiment. My matching pink sweater vest and pleated skirt combo would remain.
Still, I wanted the experiment to be as true to life as possible. I downloaded mods that would allow Sims to experience attraction or repulsion to my Sim-self, and was quickly dismayed by my findings. My Sim-self, it seemed, made a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Some found her annoying, and others still found her pretentious. My attempts to find a boyfriend-benefactor who would fund my foray into college went unanswered, though my best friend did profess her love for me. Unfortunately, she had fewer Simoleons than I did, so I had to ghost her.
I ended up cheating until I could afford the 1,200 tuition rate at Britchester University, my top choice since I thought it resembled Berkeley more than my other option, Foxbury. Once there, though, it quickly became clear to me that the men in my Sim’s hometown had been outliers. The Britchestians loved me; more than that, they laughed at my jokes, often to the point of death. In real life, I had to seek out validation from the Holy Trinity of Hinge, Bumble and Tinder, but here, there was no validation necessary. Multiple Sims began asking me out on dates, courtesy of a new feature meant to give the nonplayer characters agency, to further embody real-life circumstances.
The only problem was that they were decisively not mirroring my real life circumstances. My likes page on Hinge consisted of a series of successively more and more unappealing men, one of whom wrote, “I’m tryna fuck u” as his introductory message (the way to win him over, apparently, was to smile). Over the course of two months, my friends were developing complex relationships with frat bros and hot, emotionally unavailable European men at I-House; what was I doing wrong?
As much as it pained me, I said no to each and every one of these pixelated prospective suitors. I needed to be as true to life for my experiment to be effective, and it was highly unlikely that I would be told, via text message, that acquaintances I’d scream-spoken to over the sound of blaring bass at parties harbored secret crushes on me. So when I met Don, I was as relieved as I was excited. Here was a relatively realistic scenario; we had met at Britchester University’s library, where I approached him to ask to see his cold weather outfit, as it was annoying me that he was clad in khaki shorts in the middle of winter. One thing led to another, and I found myself asking him on a date, which he accepted. It seemed plausible enough that I could meet someone at Main Stacks or Doe, and even more plausible that he, who predominantly wore khakis, would not have a wide variety of heart-eyed hopefuls to choose from.
As much as it pained me, I said no to each and every one of these pixelated prospective suitors. I needed to be as true to life for my experiment to be effective
As time passed, I found myself engrossed in my Sim’s relationship with Don. We went out on dates semi-regularly, I met his family, and all in all, it seemed like all facets of life skyrocketed upwards after we got together. Studying with him meant both my social needs and my school needs were met; I was saving money buying food by eating exclusively out of the refrigerator in his apartment. Not that I found myself lacking funds — because I wrote in a flirtatious mood so often, my romance novels were flying off the shelves.
Not anymore, though. After reloading the game and deleting Don and Vanessa before my Sim-self could witness their betrayal with her own eyes, I paused and sat at my desk, stumped. Why had I reacted so emotionally in the first place? Why did the whims of creatures made up of thousands of lines of code matter so much to me? As I mull this over, my gaze unwittingly falls on my clock. The time reads 2:45 a.m.; my roommate is snoring softly in her bed. I’ve spent 14 hours on this session alone, and all I’ve gotten for my struggles is unceasing frustration.
I had concocted this experiment so I could find ways to improve my life, to stop feeling so burdened by the necessity of reacting to new experiences at the top of my head. But as I sit here now, it occurs to me that all I have been doing is making myself more miserable. The reason why my Sim was doing so well was not the fact she had a gorgeous boyfriend and balanced social-academic life, but because I was stopping her from wasting time playing The Sims on her computer, ironically enough. She was not prone to hours of scrolling on TikTok in her bed, to inexplicable bouts of crying jags. She did not write furiously in her diary about what it meant when a boy said that, in “the most platonic way possible,” he would fuck you during Fuck-Marry-Kill because he was most attracted to you out of all your friends in the room (and seriously, what the fuck did that mean?)
But as I sit here now, it occurs to me that all I have been doing is making myself more miserable. The reason why my Sim was doing so well was not the fact she had a gorgeous boyfriend and balanced social-academic life, but because I was stopping her from wasting time playing The Sims on her computer, ironically enough.
She was a simple creature. When her god told her to do something, she obeyed immediately (in spite of the several seconds of lagging that my cheap laptop provided). I envied her with a zealousness that frightened me. I wanted to be as mindless as she was, to be told what to do and carry it out efficiently, effortlessly. Real life was so much more complicated, which was probably why it had been so offensive to me when it tried to encroach on my simulated utopia. The experiment stopped being about giving myself a life-coaching simulation a long time ago, if it ever had been in the first place. More than anything, it was about leaving the old world for the new.
In my comparative literature class, we had just finished discussing the phenomenon of virtual-reality-induced dissociation, in which people rely more and more on virtual environments such as VR or the Metaverse to escape reality. As the crushing weight of environmental devastation and political strife began to feel known to the world at large, they turned to the virtual world to offset their anxieties — just like what I had been doing with the Sims. On a lesser scale, it was not environmental devastation or political corruption which made me turn to Origin Games, but the sentiment which drove me to it was the same. I was feeling impossibly isolated and sad and overwhelmed; here, with a virtual sandbox known to me since my toddlerhood, I was in familiar territory.
I used the prospect of playing the Sims ostensibly to conduct an experiment in which I could be better prepared for dealing with new experiences; in reality, I have been living vicariously through my Sim-self, and I only realized it the moment that reality had been threatened. Perhaps it would have been better to get rid of the mods that afforded the Sims freer will, but no — I did not want to threaten the sanctity of the experiment. Human beings had free will, or so I had been told; thus, my Sims had to have free will as well, even if they reacted in ways which displeased me, ways I couldn’t anticipate.
That included my Sim-self, too. I stare at her now with tears welling in my eyes; whether they are induced by genuine sadness or mere sleep deprivation, I do not know, but I do know what has to be done. Reluctantly, I move my cursor away from where I had been prepared to cancel her action queue, which automatically set her walking home after class to goof around on the Internet. My Sim is her own animal; if she wants to ignore her social, academic and body-based responsibilities in favor of scrolling through r/AITA (or whatever the Sim equivalent was, anyway), who am I to stop her? For once in her existence, she is culpable for her own actions, and if they end up making her miserable in the future, then at least she will be miserable on her own terms. Her mind is her own, as much as a mind coded by a handful of underpaid game developers can be.
As I settle in to watch the ramifications of this decision, a bittersweet smile on my face as I marvel at the human capacity for growth, Bella Goth emerges from behind one of the nearby buildings and chainsaws my Sim-self in half. The motion sends blood and guts spewing over the pristine Britchester sidewalk, but Bella doesn’t stop until I am lying on the ground in two uneven halves, my face contorted in grotesque pain. I’ve evidently forgotten to disable the Extreme Violence mod where it had been set to high frequency after the initial excitement with Don and Vanessa, but it’s too late to go back now; the eerie low notes denoting the Grim Reaper’s arrival is beginning to play.
With wide, disbelieving eyes, I watch as the Grim Reaper fiddles around on his iPad before heading over to my body with grave intent. In a twisted parody of my own actions, he brandishes his weapon and slices through the air, effectively cleaving my Sim-self’s soul from her body in one fell swoop. Moments later, a “GAME OVER!” display emerges on my screen, informing me that, though the last Sim in my household had died, I can always create more.
Despite the breakthrough I had only moments before, I consider it. True, using the Sims as a coping mechanism had not proven healthy, and the cycle would only break if I broke it; no college-aged god would stop me from further ruining my eyesight by playing for a few hours yet. On the other hand, I could try to recreate the experiment more masterfully, download even more mods to heighten the immersion, thus ensuring my variables are as close to real life as possible, and then maybe, just maybe, my life might finally start falling into line.
In one quick, fluid movement, so as not to give myself time to hesitate, I shut my laptop down and collapse into bed. I was dealing with Tantalus’ fruit here; no matter how far and how high I reached, I would never be satisfied. I would always find excuses to continue the experiment, to stretch out my stay in paradise as long as possible — yet even the notion of Sims-as-paradise seemed to be put in question.
As it turned out, the Sims, like life, was rather complicated. You could not prepare for it the way you would for a midterm; it found ways of surprising you, throwing curveballs — and occasionally chainsaws — your way. Either you ducked or got hit, but either way, the choice was your own.
I stare up at the ceiling, mulling this over. A few feet away, there is the soft but distinct sound of fabric rustling as my roommate shifts onto her side, facing my direction. A moment’s silence ensues, long enough that I think it must’ve been a movement made in sleep, before she finally speaks.
“Do you know how loud your laptop fans are?”