These times like to offer us a frustrating lesson in limits. No one likes to feel powerless, yet time and time again, recent events have left us feeling that way. Try as we might to keep healthy, rally behind the movements we believe in, and maintain some sense of normalcy, we cannot, in totality, control the people around us nor the natural world–be it forest fires or viruses.
I believe it’s imperative, however, to always do what we can to make things better. I also believe, perhaps just as firmly, it’s important to remain gentle with ourselves, and take actions to cope and self-preserve during what every email I’ve gotten for the past nine months refers to as “unprecedented times.” One way I’ve done this is by playing simulation games– life simulation games in particular.
Simulation games stretch across a huge category of games, containing titles like Pokemon Snap and Reel Fishing to Trauma Center and NBA 2K21. Just about any game replicating real-world activities qualifies as a sim, but there are some more distinct categories like sports, vehicle and dating sims. Prior to 1999, the majority of games I played were action-adventure games and platformers. Partially because I was, you know, six years old, and also because so many were made at the time. But everything changed for me when I found Harvest Moon: Back to Nature.
To this day, I cannot tell you what made a farming simulator so appealing to a labor-adverse girl living in the English suburbs, though I speculate the allure of choice and romancing pretty women did some of the heavy lifting there. What I can tell you though, was despite its niche, I was utterly obsessed with Harvest Moon–obsessed to the point of having a designated spiral-bound notebook filled with pages upon pages of notes about the game that was only retired when my mom purchased the strategy guide for me. While I got my start in good ol’ Mineral Town, a big move to a small street in a small town was right around the corner–and it was a move that would dramatically change how I viewed games.
Prior to The Sims release back in 2000, I believed there were two fairly distinct categories of games: narrative-driven games and, for lack of a better term, “game-y games”–titles driven by mechanics and objectives rather than characters or plot. Now, if we were to place The Sims into one of child me’s highly academic classifications, its sandbox elements and lack of plot would land it straight in the “game-y games” pile. But what makes The Sims so compelling is just how easily the player can challenge that. While The Sims lacks an established story, compelling characters or, hell, an ending, the very nature of the game allows players to construct all these elements themselves. I had no idea how important, exciting, and therapeutic that was for me until I dug in.
In The Sims, you are given the opportunity to craft lives and stories as dramatic or dull as you desire. Whether you wish to create the perfect nuclear family, flit about town playing Don Juan, or take control of a young widow enjoying the estate her late husband left behind, you’re given the tools and creative control to do so. But the game quickly became more than merely a creative exercise for me. As I look back at the types of families I created, more often than not I opted out of the cheat codes and love triangles and dedicated my time to creating simple, loving families–families I felt were unlike my own.
The early 2000s were a particularly tumultuous time for me: my sister was born extraordinarily premature and disabled, and my parents got divorced after years of my witnessing fighting and infidelity. My fractured family moved repeatedly, and this was all punctuated with the beginning of America’s war on terror, which impacted my military father who would go on to serve in Iraq. In the midst of chaos, my mundane sim families became a small comfort. A reminder that despite everything, I could still keep something from falling apart. I used The Sims to tell the stories I wanted to hear.
To a lesser extent, I still use plenty of games to do this and I know I’m not alone. Life sims, as well as games that borrow these concepts, such as choice-driven RPGs or sandbox survival games, have only grown in popularity in recent years. We’re now ten expansions deep in The Sims 4 and Stardew Valley remains a runaway success that perfectly captures and expands upon the ideas that made the Harvest Moon series great, and that still sees loving tweaks from its developer years after its 2016 release. While the amount of power we have over these game’s narratives varies, we depend on simulation games to offer some semblance of control and the promise of choice, and these qualities are even more important during times when we feel we have none. During times like now.
Which is why Animal Crossing New: Horizons came at such a wildly opportune time for so many. I won’t venture into conspiracy theories here, nor do I think timing is solely responsible for the game’s success: I have little doubt Animal Crossing: New Horizons would have sold plenty of copies if released during a more ordinary year, but I have even less of a doubt that these strange times did help contribute to its frankly staggering sales. A mere five months after its release, New Horizons firmly established itself as the second best selling game on Nintendo Switch, surpassing both Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild–the latter of which was the console’s launch title. And I don’t believe the reason for Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ popularity was quite as simple as “it was something to do.” I think it runs a bit deeper.
For many, New Horizons provided levity, routine, and control in a time where it’s desperately craved. During a time when some of us are unsure of when we’ll be able to set foot on a school campus again, the smallest sliver of solace can be found in knowing the fruit you picked off those digital trees will grow back again in three days, ready for you to pick and sell once more. Whereas our world has abandoned routine, you can create your own when you’re living the island life. Just like all the games mentioned above in the genre’s long tradition, Animal Crossing: New Horizons gave us the ability to create and interact with a world in a way that is meaningful to us. It is free of disasters and disease and provides us a place to smile and dream. Sure, it’s not a cure or an escape, but it inspires a feeling worth holding close right now. Just as The Sims allows us to create the stories we wish to hear, Animal Crossing lets us create a world as sweet and simple as we wish ours could be.
In a time when so much is uncertain, life simulation games provide us with both entertainment and some semblance of control, but they’re much more than a small comfort or mindless distraction–they’re a method of carrying on living life in a world free of consequence and uncontrollable variables. Whether being cooped up has left us longing for the extraordinary, or perhaps the sorely missed mundane, these games allow us to live out these fantasies, be it as a smooth-talking sim, slime-slaying farmer, or cherubic do-gooder surrounded by snarky critters. They also serve as a vessel for self-exploration in a unique way, acting as a sort of interactive journal where self-discovery occurs through the stories and worlds we create, which is perhaps their most powerful quality right now. Where there is a lack of story, there exists a space to write your own. In our current standstill, there’s solace in finding a way to keep the ink flowing.