“I want to cheat on him and set him on fire”: why are we sadistic towards our Sims?

Since 2000, scores of The Sims players have enjoyed brutally murdering their creations. Why?

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There are 5,200 results if you search the words “Sims torture chamber” on YouTube.

Among these are videos of virtual people locked in rooms with mirrored walls, trapped in skydiving simulators with blocked exits, and – of course – flailing in swimming pools from which, after the removal of the ladder, the Sim cannot escape.

“PLEASE NOTE THAT I WOULD NORMALLY NEVER DO THIS KIND OF STUFF WITH MY SIMS!! I ONLY GOT BORED OF THE SIMS 1!!!” reveals a disclaimer on one video created by the unnervingly-named user StarSweetieSqueaker, who forced eight Sims to wet themselves before setting them alight in a single room decorated with circus wallpaper.


Eight sleep-deprived Sims set alight in a windowless room, via YouTube

StarSweetieSqueaker is probably not a deranged psychopath living out sick, twisted fantasies of murder and torture. They are, most likely, an ordinary person – or at least, an ordinary The Sims player.

Sandra Donselaar runs the tutorial website sims-online.com and reveals that the page “The Sims 4 Death Guide, Killing your Sims” is the second most-visited this month (the first being the cheats page). “The total unique pageviews for this guide are 287,222 and 90 per cent of them landed on this page by searching through Google,” she says.

It is clear, then, that many people enjoy murdering their Sims. The question is: why?

“When people are immersed in virtual environments, a phenomenon called the disinhibition effect may be evoked,” says Berni Good, the founder of Cyber Psychologist, a team of academics specialising in the psychology of the gamer. “In this state, people do not perceive any authority and even if their names are clearly apparent they perceive anonymity. Thus, the normal social interactions people have face-to-face fall to the wayside and people may act in virtual worlds in a way they would not in the real world.”


A Sim being electrocuted, via Imgur

Adam, a 16-year-old student who wishes to be identified only by his first name, explains his motivations for acting sadistically in The Sims. Last month, he adopted a Sim child, locked him in a glass room in the garden, forced him to watch a pool party going on around him, and slowly starved him to death.

“I guess my motivations were boredom and a desire to play the game outside of conventional play styles,” he says. “I suppose it was also a way to relieve some anger that I had been feeling that day, if I recall correctly. Just a harmless way of taking it out on something . . . It didn't have any effect on a real person, and I'm certainly not going to torture a kid in real life because I did it in a computer game.”

Good notes that this behaviour can be psychologically beneficial. “Taking out one's aggression out in videogames may be a safe way to deal with difficult thoughts and allows the player to have elements of control that they could not display in the real world,” she says.


Five identical Sim toddlers left to die, via YouTube

I understand Adam’s motivations. After purchasing a copy of Sims 4 last week, I played for an hour, found an in-game boyfriend, engaged in some titillating WooHoo and then grew bored with the traditional way of playing the game. That is how I found myself, without a single trace of emotion, uttering the words: “I want to cheat on him and set him on fire.”

But is this a worrying insight into my psyche? Are all humans fundamentally bad? Does the way we play The Sims prove that none of us can be trusted with power?

“There is a concern about social learning theory, ‘I see I do’,” says Good, referring to the age-old debate about whether violent video games inspire children to act violently in the real world. “But the research does not suggest those people playing violent games are any more violent in the real world than those not participating in this kind of play.”

I personally believe that murder in the The Sims is enjoyable because it differs from murder in games that are intended to be violent. When you stab someone in Grand Theft Auto or mutilate someone in Skyrim, you are fulfilling the gameplay and advancing with the game as was intended. When you force someone to swim themselves to death in The Sims, you are simultaneously breaking the rules, getting creative, and exploring the boundaries of the game. These same experiences are gained with many other nostalgic simulator games intended for children, including Theme Hospital and Rollercoaster Tycoon.


Sims, dressed as hot dogs, being forced to work in a sweatshop creating art, via Imgur

Ben Brock, a 27-year-old who works in publishing, experienced this while playing a game called Zoo Tycoon as a child. Brock discovered that he could make his zoo visitors be mauled by animals, and he could click on an individual to read their thoughts. “They would actually repeatedly think to themselves, ‘Oh no! I'm being mauled by Bengal Tiger 7!' if such a thing happened to them,” he says.

Since the visitors couldn’t actually die, Brock enjoyed watching them running around and screaming, and trapping them when they tried to escape. “God, I should probably be locked up,” he says.

Brock agrees with my thesis that it isn’t so much about the violence as it is about experimenting with the game, saying he was never a “gamer” or into outwardly violent games. “Videogames, even open-ended ones, often feel so restrictive – there's only so many buttons you can press – so playing them against the grain feels very freeing,” he says.

Good concurs. “It’s about people having autonomy and choice when playing games. Autonomy is a basic psychological need that feeds into motivation and happiness, whereby in the real world people have many obligations. In video gameplay being the master of one’s own destiny without constraints can be very compelling,” she says.

Yet although Sim murder and/or torture isn’t usually a sign of anything pathological, sometimes it can be.

A woman in her mid-twenties, who wishes to be identified only by the pseudonym “Eve”, tells me she was diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder and has scored 33/40 on the psychopathy test PCL-R. “I think my real-life diagnosis ties into how I play games somewhat,” she says. “My reasons for creating my Sim torture chamber were partially as a way to vent and partially as a way to entertain myself. If I had a particularly annoying encounter that day, I'd blow off steam by creating a Sim of the person who wronged me and putting them through hell. These days I use therapy to vent my desire to harm and kill, but games are still a great outlet.

“The thing is, if I could run the same experiments on real people without any chance of being caught, I absolutely would.”

But only 1 per cent of the population are psychopaths, whereas thousands of The Sims players enjoy murdering their creations. The fact that drowning your Sim by removing the pool ladder has become a trope and a meme in its own right proves this.


A hot dog ghost, via Imgur

For the most part, then, killing our Sims doesn’t make us bad people – though, I suppose, nor does it make us good. While I built four walls around my virtual neighbour and enclosed her in there with multiple plates of rotten food and an unflushed toilet, other players were acting more innocently.

“I consistently switched a Sim to wear their swimming trunks every time a fellow Sim visited,” says Dan Bougourd, a 34-year-old business intelligence analyst, when I ask about his experiences playing the game as a child. “I'm not sure what I was thinking, but I made myself smile with the regularity with which I did it. I fear he may have found it difficult to form relationships.” 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh