The Sims: Suburban Rhapsody

The popular computer game The Sims features sprawling tract homes, rabid consumerism and bickering families. How did The Sims creator Will Wright get it so right?

By Clive Thompson, published November 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Lisa Anne Craig knew she was in trouble when the social worker knocked on her door.

Halfway through her first pregnancy, Craig decided to take a high-tech approach to parenthood. She bought a copy of The Sims, the hugely popular computer game that lets you create and direct a household and a family—building a suburban home, finding jobs for the parents and scrambling to keep everyone happy and healthy. She fired it up, selecting a young professional couple with a newborn. Hey, it was a game. How hard could it be?

Whoops. "You know what? The babies cry a lot in that game," she says. "So it's crying while I'm trying to juggle everything else, like getting the parents to work and making sure they clean the house." After a few hours of domestic chaos, her virtual baby was whisked away by a digital caseworker. "I was devastated! I was sure that I wouldn't be able to handle a real baby," Craig says with a laugh. She kept playing though, and by the time her actual baby arrived, she felt like a pro. "My family thought I was nuts, but I swear it got me through the pregnancy," she says.

At first glance, The Sims is an unlikely hit. It doesn't shred your dendrites with cutting-edge 3-D graphics. You don't blast aliens with plasma guns, drive high-speed race cars or get to play basketball against the Knicks. Yet in 2003 it became the best-selling computer game in history, with more than 29 million fanatic players. It's popular not just with twitchy teenage boys but among people who typically never touch the stuff: women, professionals—even forty- and fifty-somethings.

Maybe that's because playing The Sims is almost exactly like coping with everyday suburban life. To begin, you build a home, choosing details down to the pattern of tiles on the kitchen floor and the shape of the backyard pool. Then you help your Sims along as they stumble along through existence.

Unlike nearly every other game, there's no winning or losing. You're just trying to keep your Sims happy and entertained. And as Lisa Anne Craig found out, although you may be the puppet master, the Sims play by their own rules. Leave a bunch of Sims teenagers unsupervised for a while as they try to make pizza? They just might burn the house down. Forget to send them to the bathroom? Eventually, they'll pee on the floor. Perhaps most eerily, your Sims have emotions: Their "happiness meter" will drop if they get hungry, or if you don't give them someone to fall in love with. Neglect them too much? They'll die.

These lifelike stakes give The Sims a genuinely existential edge, and therein lies the allure of the game. By toying with a virtual version of ordinary life, you can grapple with a very real question: What makes a person happy?

To understand the appeal of The Sims, it helps to understand a bit about Will Wright, the game's creator and co-founder of the game company Maxis. Wright is widely known as the philosopher king of the computer-game world, equally at home in the library as in the arcade. His games may be mass-market hits, but they're based on some very brainy theories about behavior, economics and humanistic psychology.

Wright's intellectual path is about as eclectic as possible: He attended three different colleges but never graduated, sampling courses from computer science, architecture and mechanical engineering to aviation.

One of the first games he designed, SimAnt, was inspired by evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson's famous studies of ant colonies. Wright became fascinated by Wilson's explorations of "emergent complexity"—the idea that individual creatures operating with very simple goals can collectively produce incredibly complex behaviors. In the game, SimAnt players assemble an anthill and then marvel as it seems to grow a mind of its own. "Each ant is only doing a few simple things, but when you put tons of them together you suddenly have these really surprising results," he notes, including unusually complex ways of gathering and moving resources around.

When Wright began designing The Sims in the late '90s, though, he faced a more challenging task: How do you get virtual people to act the way real ones do? Ants are relatively easy to simulate, since their behavior isn't too complicated. But what are the fundamental building blocks of human behavior?

Wright boned up on psychologist Abraham Maslow's Motivation and Personality, including his famous theory of the hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued in the '40s and '50s that human behavior could best be explained as a quest to satisfy primal needs such as hunger and safety before addressing demands such as love or self-actualization. The Sims are programmed this way, which is why they seem so true to life. For example, your Sim won't enjoy a movie if she's hungry. Aesthetic appreciation of a movie is a higher-order pleasure—and she can't do it if her stomach is growling.

That means that you, the player, must learn and obey the rules that govern Sim life, many of which are hauntingly familiar. "You want to buy them a washer-dryer?" Wright asks. "OK, but you might not have enough money left over for a phone. So what's more important, communication with your friends, or saving time cleaning?" he laughs. "It lays bare all these ethics of everyday life. What you shop for implies these moral choices."

The game also incorporates the ideas of physicist-turned-economist David Friedman. In his book Hidden Order, Friedman argued that our everyday lives are a series of quasi-economic choices. In the grocery store, for example, we pick which line to stand in based on a calculus of anticipated time and hassle: "If we decide to move over to a line that seems to be moving faster," Wright notes, "we have to give up our spot in our current line. So it's a sacrifice hoping to get something out of it." To replicate these little mental trade-offs, Wright gave a Sim the ability to decide between, say, sleeping late (which will make him feel more rested) or cleaning up (which might make him feel happier about his house).

In Wright's hands, theories like Friedman's have fashioned a game that allows you to play out your fantasies, relive your life or rejigger your identity. Ever wonder what would happen if you had seven kids? Or if you were living in a huge frat house? Try it out—set up a Sim with that lifestyle and turn it loose. In one sense, The Sims is a private laboratory to experiment with the forbidden "what-ifs" of your existence. It may be the first form of high-tech self-gnosis: mass therapy disguised as a computer game.

The first thing most people do when playing the game is re-create themselves, says Wright, and they often learn something in the process. He once got a letter from the parents of an adopted Romanian boy, orphaned at age 9 or 10. The child seemed depressed—even traumatized—and wouldn't talk about his background. "Then they got him The Sims," recalls Wright. "And he ended up replaying his childhood in the game for them. He created a version of his [biological] family and showed them what had happened. [The game] became a tool for self-expression."

"It gives you a model for a realistic environment," agrees Henry Jenkins, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert in video gaming. "You can program your Sim to look and sound like your last girlfriend and figure out why your last relationship fell flat." Some psychologists say their patients actually discuss their Sims games on the couch, an updated version of the classic therapeutic technique of playing with dolls. "When The Sims works well, it's kind of like a projective test. You can really see a lot of their psyche spilling out into their games," says John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey who specializes in cyberculture. "I spoke to one teenager who created a version of herself and her boyfriend. Then she created another version of herself—an evil version—to try to steal her boyfriend. She wanted to see what it's like to be evil."

In fact, nefarious behavior may be the best part of the game. In real life, you wouldn't dream of doing nasty things to your friends and family. But in The Sims, the lid blows off your id. In hundreds of fan Web sites devoted to the game, players gleefully describe the wicked ways they've killed their Sims—such as putting them in the pool, then removing all the ladders and waiting to see how long it takes them to drown. As in fiction and art, of course, tragedy can be powerfully cathartic. "People really love to explore 'failure states,'" Wright says. "In fact, the failure states are really much more interesting than the success states."

The strongest draw of The Sims, though, may be the way it allows you to indulge your acquisitive streak. Wright knew that buying stuff for your Sim household—designer clothes or wide-screen plasma TVs—would be a major part of self-expression, just as it is in real life. But possessions also suck up time, as documented by sociologist John Robinson, a scholar of "time studies"—how much time the average American spends on routine activities. Robinson discovered strange truths about our lives, like the fact that we might spend half an hour in total each day getting from place to place in the house; he also found that we spend 154 minutes watching television and 20 minutes on child care.

As players build increasingly lavish homes, they find that the high life can be more of a hassle than it's worth. "Your Sim winds up spending all his time just navigating the place," Wright says, laughing. "Sure, you've got the pool table in the west wing—but you've got to get there." Players buy their Sims more and more gadgets and toys, but reality bites back. "They want the dishwasher because they think it'll save them time. But if a player loads their house down too much, soon they find the stuff breaks and needs maintenance," Wright says. "Suddenly, these things you wanted so much all became time bombs, when you originally bought them as time-savers."

Nonetheless, most long-term players say designing Sim households is the chief delight of the game. "I don't really even play with the families anymore. I just focus on the design. I spent a couple of days setting up a Moroccan-style house, complete with a courtyard and a market," says Andrea Grimison, a woman in Germany who spends a few hours a day playing the game. "Now, this is a place I'd like to live!" She set up a Web site to share her work, and now thousands of fans download her concepts every month.

By putting interior design at the heart of his game, Wright took a page from influential architect Christopher Alexander. The psychologically astute Alexander argues that ordinary people innately grasp how environments and urban planning affect us; it's why young couples often argue heatedly about what neighborhood or city to live in. "We intuitively understand the need for privacy or our affinity for light," Wright notes. "[Alexander] was always saying that you don't need a professional—you can do this yourself. He became kind of the anti-architect."

While reading Alexander, Wright discovered a curious fact: Home-design software sells millions of copies a year. Wright figured it was hardly likely that so many people were actually embarking on massive remodeling projects; in reality, they probably just wanted to play with architecture. The Sims, Wright deduced, could be a laboratory for understanding not only our personalities, but also our personal spaces.

In the process of designing the ultimate split-level, players sometimes learn a few things about their own lives. Grimison tried creating a virtual replica of her own house. When she finished it, something weird happened: Her Sims didn't like it. "It was because my bathroom doesn't have windows since it's in the middle of the house. And my Sims always want light in all the rooms or they won't be happy." Lisa Anne Craig had a similar epiphany, but in reverse. "I actually used The Sims when I was painting the house. I couldn't decide what color to paint it, so I made a model of our house and I tried out various colors. Unfortunately, we picked a periwinkle. It's very Florida," she jokes, "but now I kind of hate it."

The Sims is still nothing like real life in some very important ways: there are no taxes, children never grow into adults and there aren't any tightly packed cities such as Chicago or New York. But the virtual citizens will soon be taking another great leap toward real life. Electronic Arts, Maxis' parent company, plans to launch The Sims 2. This sequel has the same basic plot but with a few intriguing refinements: In the new game, Sims will age and die. What's more, the events of their youth will leave them with psychological baggage as they get older. "If your Sims have particularly happy childhoods—or unhappy ones—you'll be able to see the way that's going to impact them later in life. You can see how they kind of ricochet on into the future," Wright says. He suspects it'll turn the game into an even more precise emulation of our existence—a spreadsheet for life." He's probably right. We'll play it, millions more of us, poking and prodding our virtual selves to see what happens.