20 years ago, The Sims gave millennials a dream life reality couldn't match
Commentary: We would happily learn Simlish if it meant achieving success without student loan debt.
Shelby BrownEditor II
Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
She received the Renau Writing Scholarship in 2016 from the University of Louisville's communication department.
It's hard to believe it's been 20 years since my sister and I tried to load the first Sims game onto our crusty old
desktop. It took forever. We sat side by side, passing the time by watching the loading bar creep forward. After what seemed like an eternity, it was time to play.
The Sims is a life simulation game from EA released in 2000 that has more than proved its staying power. Developers Maxis and
have steadily released multiple sequels, dozens of expansions, spin-offs, console and handheld versions. In 2016, The Sims landed a spot in the World Video Game Hall of Fame. The series surpassed $5 billion in lifetime sales last November.
But The Sims is more than a lucrative video game franchise -- it was a dream machine. The Sims gave millennial players access to a digital Eden, with the ability to invent and live out their wildest -- and I mean wildest -- lives. You can shoot off in a rocket as an astronaut, or join the circus. You can even go to college and graduate debt-free, choose a lucrative career in any field you like, own a house and a car, get married and have kids. Like I said, truly wild.
The digital promised land
Many millennials grew up expecting adulthood to look something like the aspirational and inclusive versions of life presented in The Sims. But we quickly learned that was not reality. Many members of our generation entered adulthood and the workforce in the midst of the Great Recession. It wasn't so easy to land your dream job and rise in your field when you were told to go to college, only to find that few jobs were actually available to those with liberal arts bachelor's degrees. And you were saddled with student loan debt.
Life in The Sims presents only possibilities. You can use cheats in the game to make things easier, but even without them, you can quickly level up your knowledge and get promoted to the top of your field -- with or without a college degree. On top of that, the wage gap for women and minorities is nonexistent.
Your Sim can still take the college route if you have The Sims 4: Discover University installed -- and doing so won't land you in six-digit debt. Once you graduate with your degree, the game offers a guarantee that you'll have an edge in the job field, leading to a higher salary, which lets you buy a bigger home, and so on.
In the real world, more millennials and members of Generation Z aren't going to college, according to a 2019 report from Market Watch. The average US household with student debt, as of 2018, owes over $47,600, according to NerdWallet.
Accessible, affordable medicine and readily available doctors are also a huge perk of living in The Sims' world. In reality, we often hear stories of young adults not going to the doctor because they don't have insurance or the cost of medication is just too high. The Sims lets you meet your basic needs with as little stress as possible.
The last 20 years have brought much progress in the real world when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, but there's still much progress to be made. From its start in 2000, The Sims had the option for players to pursue same-sex relationships without boxing the character into any gender stereotype. In our world, the US Supreme Court wouldn't legalize same-sex marriage for another 15 years.
The game's first premade LGBTQ+ couple, Dylan and Audrey Shear, made their debut in The Sims 3, along with their son Charlie. The Hecking and Ngata families were also LGBTQ+, introduced in later expansion packs through The Sims 4. The trailer for The Sims 4: Cats & Dogs expansion pack featured the wedding of Brent and Brant Hecking. The Sims 4: Island Living, which included the Ngata family, also introduced the first premade nonbinary Sim, Lia Huata.
In addition to the inclusivity, developers continued to add features that have broken gender stereotypes, as well as multiple skin tones and hair textures. A student with dreadlocks can finish their school day without a sham dress code calling their hair a "distraction." There are no "stop and frisk" laws in The Sims.
The game practices body positivity as well: No matter what your Sim looks like, the attraction factor between two characters is based on personality and shared interests instead of looks. Even though we've seen a burgeoning body positivity movement over the last year, there is still more work to do in the real world. Unless you opt for the Fame career path, your Sim isn't obsessively checking social media and comparing their bodies and lives to others. Another perk? Few -- if any -- sad shopping trips. Clothing sizes aren't a thing, and if they are, everyone's size is always in stock.
The Sims are also sexually healthy beings. Characters practice consent: No Sim can "woo hoo" (the game's version of sex) unless it is mutually agreed upon by both parties. The Sims 4 offers the option to keep Sims from getting pregnant until they choose the option to "try for a baby."
Bottom line? Twenty years later, The Sims still gives us the chance to live the idealized adult world that many of our parents experienced, in some aspects. Our generation has largely been denied the ability to work only one job and have the same kind of life, but we still strive for it. I'm ready to learn Simlish and move back to my 10-year-old self's digital dream home.
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