Philosophy Lessons from The Sims

By Julia Stern ’22

I was in fifth grade when I first encountered the seedlings of “simulation theory;” our resident Catholic-school football player put forth the brilliant question: “Are we all in someone’s Xbox?” and I’ve maintained the dread of prepubescent existentialism ever since. It’s amusing that video games were, for many members of Gen Z, a preliminary and accidental introduction to the possibility of a simulated reality. In the same year, after my first exposure to The Sims at my best friend’s house, my parents gifted me a holiday edition of The Sims 3 that included a luxury furniture add-on and a family development pack. I immediately jumped into gameplay.

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Evolution of The Sims franchise

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Sims franchise is its simple premise. The player creates a customized character, a Sim, and proceeds to live a normal life: working, going to school, getting married, buying a house, dying of old age, etc., and gameplay rarely extends beyond the limits of the real-world. You live in a city of other generated Sims, each with a unique personality and backstory, but only the game controls the characters outside of your household. You may think it sounds boring, and I would whole-heartedly agree; it’s absolutely boring in the grand spectrum of video games. In the realm of philosophy, however, the concept behind The Sims is fascinating, as it’s the closest thing we have to the widespread use of simulations that mimic real-life. What happens when a fifth-grader has power over simulated characters in a simulated world? 

I will present a brief chronology of my Sims experience. I began the game with a conventionally-attractive and perfect couple, I gave them 100,000 simoleons using easy cheats, I bought them a wonderfully-constructed houseboat, I threw them a few equally-perfect kids. The next game I did the same thing. And again. And again. Eventually I became a bit bored with my Sims success paradigm, so I would throw a few curveballs. Who knows? Maybe the dad was fired from his job. The kid had an “Evil” trait. Their stainless-steel oven caught on fire.

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The Sims 4 can get pretty crazy!

And as time went on, in every new Sims game that I played, I would add a few more challenges, and a few more challenges, until my approach to the Sims looked nothing like my very first game. My current Sim married a millionaire politician, divorced him shortly after, and now scrapes by with two part-time jobs, barely making rent on her one bedroom apartment. I never really conceptualized this pattern on my own; I only followed which gameplay was most enjoyable to me. 

However, a few months ago, while I was mindlessly scrolling through the deep recesses of the internet (ie. Reddit), I came across a particular thought experiment created by Alan Watts, a 20th century spiritual philosopher. Watts essentially proposed this: imagine you dream a whole life every night — after you have fulfilled all of your greatest fantasies, it would get old! And now you would want a surprise, something that you couldn’t control. After many full lives, growing more and more random, Watts concluded that “You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.” Through a simple thought experiment, Watts has essentially vindicated the existence of human suffering – or, at the minimum, he’s given some digestible reading for the highs and lows of life. Watts is a very smart guy, and his thought experiment is 100 times more sophisticated than my ramblings about video games, but doesn’t his conclusion seem awfully similar to my subconscious approach to the Sims?

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Alan Watts looking his part as a 20th-century spiritual philosopher

Of course, like (I assume) many readers right now, I see the many shortcomings of both Watts’ experiment and my comparison to The Sims, most notably the electronic existence of Sims and their inability to experience physical suffering (or so we think?). However, my goal is not to make some revolutionary statement on the nature of human existence and spirituality. I only hope to show that many lofty, verbose philosophical ideas come from one fundamental basis of human inquisitiveness, and when boiled down, they become both digestible and applicable to 21st-century life. There are many greater implications to Watts conclusion, involving the nature of suffering and Buddhism and quantum physics, but whether Watts was correct or not, I have gained intellectual access to this line of reasoning, all by playing an embarrassing amount of The Sims. 

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