We need to talk about The Sims: diary of a teenage psychopath

Given the chance to play god, why did we all torture and kill our subjects?

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Noah is helplessly swimming up and down the pool, becoming increasingly stressed. He’s confused; he’s sure he used steps to get in. Where have they gone? How can he possibly get out of this pool without a ladder? It’s not like he can just pull himself out, he thinks, really panicking now; he’s literally going to drown. How is nobody noticing this, he wonders. Will nobody find a fucking ladder?

He waves his arms and legs desperately, weirdly remaining in exactly the same spot. God, he’s tired. Exhausted actually, why on earth did he decide to swim before eating? What a stupid, uncharacteristic thing to do. God, what he’d give for some goopy carbonara. In a final burst of frantic energy, Noah thrashes his limbs ferociously, screaming for help, knowing the end is nigh. And then, it’s over. He sinks slowly, unmoving, into the water and disappears.

I sit back, job done. I’m 14 years old and I’ve just killed Noah. Yesterday I created him, tenderly styled his hair and picked out his outfits, named him after Ryan Gosling’s character in The Notebook – a film with which I have recently struck a deep affinity – put him through school, built him a career, built him a house – and today, well, today I have mercilessly killed him.

He didn’t do anything wrong, I was just bored. This is the story of how The Sims turned my friends into bored, teenage psychopaths.

In theory, The Sims sounds dull. Now on its fourth reincarnation, the first of which launched in 2000, the real-life simulation game sees players control the lives of virtual people on a day-to-day basis. In an industry dominated by first-person shooter games, The Sims, described as a “digital dollhouse”, stands out. It could easily be considered dull, slow paced or weirdly antiquated – and yet the franchise is the best-selling PC game of all time.

And in the summer of 2009, the summer that Sims 3 was released, our addiction was undeniable. Having long run out of things to do in Norfolk, we would spend those long six weeks lugging our laptops on buses to one another’s houses, where we’d sit in silence next to each other, building our own universes, playing god.

Each game would start the same: hours spent carefully crafting our Sims and their houses, selecting their life ambitions and establishing their family trees. Then you’d help them to grow up, get an education, develop close friendships and relationships, establish a career, take up hobbies, get married and have babies – you’d live their lives, basically.

Then you’d get bored, and the torture would start.

Marriages would break down as you repeatedly ordered your Sim to “flirt” with their husband’s friend, persisting right up until you could send him home just in time to catch his wife in bed, mid-WooHoo. Infants would be left screaming on the floor, ignored by unknowingly distracted parents. Sims would become embarrassed at having wet themselves after you cancelled their request to go to the toilet over and over again, or starve as you kept them too busy to go and make food.

But after a while ruining lives wouldn’t be enough anymore, and you’d start looking for inventive ways to end them. Entrapping a sim in a room by deleting the door was a popular method, as was starting a house fire or denying them food until they starved to death, and of course, the age-old favourite: drowning them – made harder by the fact that Sims 3 saw those pesky sims learn to crawl out a pool without a ladder, so you’d have to build a fence around it too.

Given the chance to play god, it took me about two days to start inflicting widespread suffering on my subjects. It seems perverse. But I’m not the only one: in 2016 Vice published an article headlined “Why Did We All Want to Kill Our Sims”, and earlier this year a YouGov survey found that four in ten players admitted to doing so, which, to be perfectly honest, must mean that six in ten players lied. 

Grand Theft Auto and its ilk get a bad rap; overly concerned parents have been accusing such video games of inciting violence for as long as they’ve existed. Every new release of a first-person shooter game is met with screamed headlines, even if they are just in the Express or the Mail, while studies frequently investigate a supposed correlation between children innocently playing such games and suddenly attacking their peers in the playground, or something.

But maybe these researchers and the parents of all the apparent twelve-year-old thugs need to turn their attention elsewhere. There are no teams of scientists looking into the link between kids entrapping their Sims in a small door-less room before burning them to death and violence. The Sims, the so-called “digital dollhouse”, the game that truly reveals sadistic tendencies, flies under the radar. 

This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.