The first decision when starting The Sims is which house to buy. Cue generational culture wars, but this game affordance immediately offers what is still a distant dream for many of today’s young people.
The popular life simulation game, which turns 20 this week, gives each player a start of 20,000 simoleons – the game’s virtual currency – to start a life. Users can choose to purchase anything from a four-bedroom already-designed townhouse to an empty plot of land for one to create a dream property from scratch.
In this world, renting isn’t an option – literally.
For a generation of fans, that acts as a dramatic contrast to real life, whereby rental prices have increased, and the property market is deemed as hostile or inaccessible to many.
The Resolution Foundation, a housing thinktank, reported in 2018 that up to a third of millennials will rent for the entire lives. Meanwhile, according to the most recent Labour Force Survey, the number of households being privately rented in England increased by 121 per cent in the 10 years after 1996.
With young people facing a disproportionally higher likelihood to rent than older generations, flocks of them are turning to The Sims to create a fantasy household that feels like their own.
‘Renting means your aesthetics are limited to pieces you can easily take with you and not bigger things like fixtures on the walls, window styles and paint jobs,’ 29-year-old Hadley Howlane told The Guardian, who lives with their parents, a grandparent and a brother.
She explains that the fear of difficult or unpleasant dealings with landlords led them to avoid doing anything major to their home environment.
But Howlane found a creative outlet in The Sime, where the two-bedroom house with a reasonably sized kitchen and room for gym equipment mirrors their dream house. The modesty is both humbling and sad – in reality, the house is nothing more than a digital echo of a house that still feels out of reach.
Rhiannon Williams, 23, has lived in four rented homes throughout the past five years – all of them being shared.
‘If I didn’t have others – especially a landlord – sharing the decision making, I could try things out and change the space more often… The Sims is definitely a medium I use to build those fantasies, and it’s perfect for the flexibility aspect because it’s so easy to make changes. I can try out a new sofa in moments rather than having two months of emails with my landlord to get approval!’ she explained.
Williams also craves stability and longevity, where she can create long-term design plans. She says that how she plays The Sims has been impacted by her real-life living situation, because she has control and can always go back to her creations.
A designer from the original Sims game, Roxy Wolosenko, said that’s exactly what the game’s creator, Will Wright, had wanted to create.
‘He was really interested in exploring how people felt in different kinds of spaces, and what makes people feel comfortable,’ she said.
The inspiration behind the multi-generational game was the architect and theorist Christopher Alexander, whose 1977 book ‘A Pattern Language’ endeavoured to teach people the fundaments of home design in an accessible way.
For two decades, The Sims has offered the joy of egalitarian design while also eliminating the risk of upsetting a housemate or landlord or skipping a meal just to afford it. The game offers a utopian world of home ownership, where everyone starts out with the same opportunities.
It’s really no wonder fans have drawn considerable comfort from creating homes that truly feels their own – even if it’s just a digital fantasy.