The Sims 2

On the PC. 

I debated writing about this, but seeing as how I’m in the midst of one of my periodic Sims binges, it seemed somehow dishonest not to write about it. But part of me thinks it’s a little shameful: I’m a 27-year-old woman with a job and a husband and a great life in a wonderful city, and I become obsessed with the imaginary lives of little pixelated people in my PC.

The interesting thing about the Sims 2 computer game and all its various expansion packs is that it’s not really a game, per se. It offers no overarching goal, no rules, no framework, just a kind of electronic toy box. You micromanage the lives of little people—Sims—sending them to school, finding them jobs, building them houses, buying them furniture, and hooking them up with partners so they can create more Sims, a Sim circle of life with the baby Sims growing into childhood and adolescence and adulthood and finally dying off to make room for the next generation. Along the way, they can train pets or plant a garden or start a business. They can lead happy, fulfilling lives or lives full of disappointment and torment.

Presiding over the often-mundane daily activities of imaginary people ought to be boring, but in fact it’s sort of addicting. Yes, I burn myself out eventually, but I always return to my little people after a month or two. The initial appeal lies, perhaps, in the enormous control you wield over the Sims’ lives (I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that I first began toying with The Sims 2 during a time when my life’s path seemed murky and uncertain), but the game offers more than the cheap thrill of playing god. Its openness invites creativity—not necessarily anything profound but a quiet happiness, the feeling of possibility you get from building a sand castle or playing with finger paints as a child.

I play with the Sims in much the same way I played with toys as a kid. When I was eight or nine, for example, my brother, Michael, had two toy Playmobile ships with dozens of little Playmobile people to man them. Left to his own devices, he would use them to conduct elaborate naval battles. When I joined him, however, I demanded more of a plot, so I would name all the little people and assign them personalities and extensive backstories—so extensive, in fact, that I had to list their names and aliases and occupations in a special notebook and draw out their family trees and research the details of their personal histories. Could a girl serve as cabin boy? What might an escaped slave from Haiti be named? What disease should befall the doomed captain? Michael would itching to start playing already, and I would be happily immersed in my notebooks, choosing good saint names for all the siblings of the devout Irish-Catholic first mate.

Nearly two decades later, The Sims 2 lets me temporarily regress, accommodating my style of obsessive-compulsive play with basic genealogical charts and storytelling tools, just as it accommodates people who want to focus on building houses (architecture tools) or creating little movies (cinematic tools) or just finding new ways to kill off their Sims (more than a dozen possibilities!).

The charming, quirky animation and distinct faces help make the Sims personable, but ultimately, you probably get out of the game what you put into it. Without an imaginative leap, The Sims 2 would be unbearably tedious —just a lot of pointing and clicking—but once you start spinning melodramatic family sagas, pondering how a particular Sim might decorate her bedroom, and (if you’re me) researching the naming trends and traditions of cultures around the world, that silly electronic toy box easily sucks away several hours in the blink of a pexilated eye.