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What I Learned from “The Sims”

For almost two years, I worked for Maxis, a division of EA, on various Sims games including an expansion pack for The Sims 1, game text for Sims 2, and game production and design for various console and handheld titles like The Urbz. In a way, it was a dream I never had, come true – as a child, I never really considered the possibility that I might one day have the opportunity to work for the creators of my favorite PC game, SimCity. (I still remember that red copy-protection leaflet fondly…)

Even prior to beginning my time at Maxis, I was a big Sims fan, with lots of strategy guides to help me totally understand the fascinating system under the hood. Over time, I found that the lessons I was learning from the game have paid off or demonstrated themselves to be true in real life. Let me share some of the better gems with you:

1) Beds are the Best Investment You’ll Ever Make

When playing the Sims, you quickly find that your Sims’ energy level is the most precious resource of all. There are other ‘motives’, like bathroom, hunger, social need, and fun… but those are easily refilled on a short-term basis. Energy, on the other hand, continues a slow march towards zero – the only respite is sitting or coffee, but both are mere band-aids.

But cheap beds don’t fill your energy level all the way – shortening the amount of time your Sim can putter around without weeping, passing out or dying of exhaustion. If you try and cheap out on your bed, your Sim will get caught in an endless loop of drinking coffee to stay awake and running to the bathroom. Rather like real life, in its own strange way. I learned to always buy the cheapest expensive bed that could fill that meter all the way up. And this lesson stuck with me when the time came to purchase a new mattress after a move. We were not swimming in cash, so $900 for a mattress seemed like a monumental investment compared to the Ikea option or something a little less comfortable. But that mattress still keeps me comfy, and I have yet to get caught in an endless coffee/bathroom loop.

2) Housekeepers are the Second Best Investment You’ll Ever Make

Sims are rather slobby when it comes right down to it; rare is the Sim that naturally cleans up after themselves without being directed. Over the course of a day, Sims can get caught up in an endless cat-and-mouse game with dirty dishes and discarded books… or you can call the maid service and hire them for $10 an hour. Compared to what the Sims eventually make, this is a pittance and your Sims end up worlds happier tending to their other needs while the maid takes care of the house.

This is a lesson I learned quickly, but since my family never hired any housecleaning help it was a bit of a psychological barrier for me to cross (What do I do while they’re cleaning? Do I need to pre-clean?) It wasn’t until this past April that I finally took the step I’d been meaning to take for years, and hired a cleaning service to send two women out to my place for 4 hours of deep spring cleaning. Oh, it was glorious. My sink changed color. The trashcans are cleaner!

And if you listen to any talks on work/life balance, this is one of the first pieces of advice you inevitably receive. Let others do the things they’re specialized at for you, and keep your own time for the things you’re best at. Somehow, I never picture these talks when calling the cleaning service – I still picture the Sims phone pie menu.

3) Wainscotting Isn’t An Ewan McGregor Movie

Thanks to ages pouring through the significant Sims build catalogs, I’ve been able to learn about “useful” interior decorating concepts like wainscotting, and can even use them in an intelligent sentence periodically. Which is good, because I quickly went from a mere user of those items to a catalog text author, writing the text for dozens upon dozens of walls, floors, and furniture pieces. Sadly, this did not actually make me any better at interior decorating, but I bought a pre-decorated condo to sidestep THAT problem.

4) People Are Constantly Forgetting About You

It’s not malicious, of course. But that dastardly Friendship meter is constantly ticking down. If you can’t get your friends to come over, you’ll have to resort to the phone to bump that score up before you simply fall out of their lives. They’ve got better things to do. Now, the Sims was originally created in another place and time (long, long ago in 1999) before the Internet was really a thing, so those early games can’t possibly model what effect prolonged Words with Friends games have on lasting friendships.

The one thing I did disagree with was the fact that all friendships were treated the same, regardless of length. It’s been my experience that once friendships cross a certain point, they are timeless and stop “aging out” – no matter how long life keeps you separated, you can always pick up where you left off.

(Fun trivia fact: when Sims 2 first shipped, it shipped with a bit of a bug. Friends can come to visit – and if there’s a new baby in the house they will almost certainly play with it since it “advertises” very highly to beckon Sims to play. HOWEVER. If a Sim is playing with a baby when another motive of theirs fails (like hunger, bathroom, or energy), the game instructed them to leave your house as normal… without putting the baby back. And once the baby left the lot, it was gone forever. Ouch. Just another reason to keep the food and drink well at hand when friends are around.)

5) Only You Can Prevent Kitchen Fires

This one’s a simple one. The lower your cooking skill, and the cheaper your oven, the more likely it is that your oven will burst into flames. This, naturally, causes your Sim to start FREAKING OUT, dancing in place while flailing their limbs about with a little speech bubble over their heads with an icon of the fire in it. Based on personal experience, this is exactly as much as the human brain is capable of when presented with actual (OMGHOTCAKES!) fire.

So if you don’t have a smoke detector, which summons the fire department, you’re left to hope someone else in the house is closer to a phone than they are to the fire (since as soon as they see the fire, they will join the CRAZY FIRE DANCE!!!). Lesson learned: smoke detectors are your friends, even when they go off all the time because you’re cooking something steamy.

However, I choose to interpret this as “people with limited cooking skills shouldn’t cook”, especially since I once had a wok erupt into a 4-foot column of flame. Seriously. So I just stick to eating out or ordering from a personal chef. I’d rather not spend another two years cleaning traces of flour out of crevices of my kitchen.

5) Apostrophe Abuse Doesn’t Make You Cool

The first title I shipped with Maxis was called “The Sims Makin’ Magic”. This followed such titles as “The Sims Livin’ Large” and was followed by “The Sims Bustin’ Out”. It might have been cute once or twice, but the continued habit of dropping “G” left and right made me wonder if perhaps we were in a Sesame Street episode where the letter G has gone missing due to some misunderstanding with Oscar the Grouch.

A related corollary to this principle: coolness is not disproportionately weighted at the back end of the alphabet. Littering a game title or a game’s text with too many “x”, “y”, and “z” replacements is like walking around in Hammer pants and NKOTB shirts at a Linkin Park concert. It’s not going to fool anyone. Sales won’t be any better or worse; you’ll just gain the constant sound of me hitting my head against my desk every time I read a marketing release. Only You Can Prevent Bad Spellin’. AGH! I learned it by watching them!

6) Everyone’s A Little Bit Lethal

Only a little, though. Well, most people. My little brother, for one, LOVED to kill Sims. Totally normal adult, but as a kid I’d catch him building giant pools, waiting for the Sims to enter, and selling all the ladders – which eventually leads to the Sims getting exhausted and dying. Another popular pasttime was building a kitchen with many stoves and no smoke detectors, making a Sim cook food, then selling the doors to the kitchen leaving the room sealed. But that’s a much healthier way to get that out of your system than hurting actual living things – decades prior my brother probably would have been outside with a magnifying glass trying to set ants on fire.

7) Chandler Platz is the Brother I Never Had

One little cool thing about working at Maxis is that with a little finagling, you could get your first and last names added to the random generation pool used for neighbors, visitors and so on. I’m a geek, so I asked, and “Cheryl” and “Platz” went into the pool. But as the two pools are handled separately, they almost never appear together. I just thought it’d be neat to run into the first Platz in the game – after all, it’s not a common last name (though a common word in German).

But what mystified me was that the reports from friends didn’t just come back with “Platz”. No, a *specific* combination – a shadowy Sim called “Chandler Platz” – was making appearances in multiple unrelated games played by friends on different PCs. You can either chalk this up to a slightly broken random number generator, or you can jump to the conclusion that Chandler Platz is a long-lost relative trying to communicate with us via the digital medium of the Sims.

8 ) Imaginary Friends Are Creepy (unless they’re Snuffleupagus)

One of the concepts introduced by the Sims 2 was a new consequence of perilously low social motive. In essence, this meant your Sim was desperately lonely and extremely lacking in recent social contact. Sims 2 gave the ailing Sim temporary respite – in the form of a creepy one-eyed man-sized pink bunny to talk to. But Social Bunny, the “Harvey” of our generation, only appears to the ailing Sim. (You can verify this by switching to another Sim’s perspective – Social Bunny disappears.) As this sad scene unfolds, other Sims watch the one-sided conversation and (I assume) get very judgemental.

(Fun trivia fact: I just looked up a Wiki article on the Social Bunny, and discovered that they can talk amongst themselves. This rabbithole runs deep.)

As for me, I just couldn’t get over the one eye. At first, I was super excited – more bunnies for everyone! Why did we have to go creepy? But a look back into Sims lore reminds me of the Tragic Clown, the Social Bunny’s predecessor. I’d pretty much take a one-eyed bunny over a morose clown any day of the week – yet another personal revelation enabled by the Sims.

9) Fame Is In The Eye of The Beholder

This is another one that I can chalk up to working on the games as opposed to playing them. I wasn’t officially assigned to The Sims 2 team, but apparently someone was so enamored with my writing for “The Sims Makin’ Magic” that they asked my boss if I could pitch in with game text for the main PC title. I was happy to contribute, since I knew Sims 2 would live on long past Makin’ Magic. I ended up writing text for many, many objects and several complete career tracks – I think it was something ridiculous like 50,000 words all told. Over time, I’ve forgotten some of the objects I wrote, but I remember getting punchy at some point and writing things like the “Absolutely Nothing Special” lamp. My personal sentimental favorite piece of writing was what I created for a small kid’s chair shaped like a panda, which I dubbed ‘Mr. Bearlybutts’. For his description, I wrote a poem:

“In Happy Land there is a bear
That loves to hug a derriere.
Mr. Bearlybutts is your true friend.
Sit on him with your rear end!”

It may not be genius, but I was endlessly amused that this shipped with the game. Years later, I was in a show with a dozen children in Seattle. One of them, a little boy around 9 years old, found out that I worked on games and basically decided we were going to get married. He folllowed me around like my shadow. On one day backstage, he asked me about what I did for the Sims. “Well, on some of the games I did stuff like game design, but the game you probably know, Sims 2, has a bunch of my writing in it.” His eyes lit up. “Really? What did you write?” At the time, all I could remember: “…I wrote text like the name and description for the Mr. Bearlybutts chair.”

A reverent silence, then: “I CAN’T BELIEVE I KNOW THE PERSON WHO WROTE MR. BEARLYBUTTS!”

Though I don’t know if the child had even seen that object, it certainly felt like I had arrived for that brief 30-second moment.


If you have your own Sims lessons to share, please add them to the comments. I’d love to see how the game is secretly helping our generation cope with the challenges of everyday life. It WAS research after all. 😉

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