By Emy Urban '18
Content warning: suicide
I have a confession to make: I’m twenty-one, and I still play The Sims. Perhaps more embarrassing, I didn’t start playing The Sims until college. The Sims is a computer game where players create a virtual person and simulate their life—from their personality and clothing to their jobs, love lives, and even deaths. Players can act as gods over entire towns, wreaking mayhem and chaos or enacting perfect harmony in their Sims’ lives. Many in our generation played it growing up, moving through the different editions as they were released, but when life got busy they eventually dropped it. I didn’t play it as a kid though, just when my own life got overwhelming as an adult.
My first semester at college was the first time in my life that I was not good at school. Like many at Wellesley, I floated through school as the “gifted” kid until faced with the reality of college and all of its academic and social expectations. So when The Sims went on sale for only $19.99 in November of my first year, I saw it as an opportunity to escape my insecurities and procrastinate.
It was a thrilling moment when the game booted up for the first time. I spent hours that first day painstakingly creating a Sim that was an idealized version of myself. My first Sim, Sebastian Quinn, played guitar and wore a leather jacket. He was an avid reader on top of being an excellent cook, and he worked out every day in his beautiful, multimillion-dollar mansion. It was exhilarating to have complete control over Sebastian, whose life was always perfectly in order, his “mood meter” always full. At the times when I was most stressed, I would return to my little world of The Sims, half-jokingly telling my friends, “If I can’t have my life together, at least Sebastian can.”
Then in November of 2016, my best friend and roommate of two years, Ginger, committed suicide.
I threw myself even further into The Sims. Every day, for hours on end, I would live inside idyllic Sunset Valley with Sebastian and his extended family. Their houses got bigger, they mastered more skills, and most importantly, they never died. I felt so powerless in the real world that out of desperation to be in control of death, I turned off my Sims’ ability to die, refusing to let go of the relationships I had carefully constructed. The Quinn family were my friends, my constant companions in a time when the only companion I wanted was gone and would never come back. While Ginger made a decision that I had no part in, my Sims couldn’t do or feel anything unless I told them to. They didn’t have brains with imbalanced chemicals or years of living with a mental illness, just virtual wishes that I could satisfy with a few clicks of my mouse. They couldn’t leave me, so I was never alone. My life was in shambles, but at least I still had my Sims—perfect, immortal simulations, preserved forever in a fantasy world.
But as griefless as my fabricated reality was, it was not enough. When Sims experience a death, their mood meters decrease for a week and then things return to normal. They never experience my waves of despair that roll in and out at will, months later. Or the pulses of joy I feel when surrounded by other people who loved her, sharing stories of our time together. Sebastian Quinn may have maxed out his skills collection, but he will never struggle through real-world conversations with family, friends, and professionals—the conversations that helped me process my grief. The hours I spent playing were intoxicating in their ability to make me forget my heartache, but they were an artificial and ultimately temporary release. Eventually, through the gentle but persistent coaxing of family and friends, I gave up on The Sims.
When the anniversary of Ginger’s death came around last year, I found myself itching to open The Sims again, wanting a brief respite from the pain and anger I felt. As technology critic Sherry Turkle writes, “technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.” And I longed to banish my vulnerability and despair with artificial control and happiness. Instead, I closed my laptop, called a friend, and took a walk outside. Just imperfect me living my uncontrollable life, with real, messy emotions that can’t be solved with a click of a mouse.
From March 2018 issue