When I remember my adolescence, I think of oily skin, tears in toilet cubicles and a very badly cut fringe – all of the small, inconsequential details that once felt like the very fabric of life.
But more than anything, I think of The Sims.
I first discovered the real life simulation game – which turns 20 today – on a rainy trip to HMV when I was nine years old, during the early noughties. I was after a game that didn’t have stressful boss characters or level-ups, something similar to RollerCoaster Tycoon.
From the very first time I played, I was hooked.
The game play is so simple: create people, move into a house and just live ‘life’. Get a job, earn money, date people. Every action lulls you into the comfort of the basic human routine, while you’re simultaneously creating your own soap opera through the relationships you make and break.
I’ve always become far too invested in my Sims’ lives. I once kept the same family going for about three years, growing them generation by generation and creating photo albums using screenshots.
At age 13, when my parents made the mistake of buying me a computer for my bedroom to help with ‘homework’, the addiction really intensified.
I once stayed up for 24 hours – too focused on furnishing my pixelated home in leopard print sofas to sleep. The next day, I fainted in the Tesco salad aisle, coming around to the smell of beetroots and my mum’s panicked shouts. I wasn’t allowed to play the game for two weeks after that.
As I grew older and started facing very real versions of life’s milestones, I expected to grow out of The Sims – except I didn’t.
My twenties were really difficult; I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and depression aged 22, and when everything was overwhelming and burnout was on the horizon, playing The Sims was as instantly comforting as climbing into freshly washed bed sheets.
It’s the version of life we all wish we could live, but don’t. I can own a house, fall in love with fictional characters like Sirius Black and have a baby without the worry of extortionate childcare costs (just buy a birthday cake to make them grow up quicker).
Because the worries in the game are so small, like a broken bath tub or a rejected kiss, it makes me feel calm and in control. And if it all gets too messy, I can just return to the main menu without saving and pretend it never happened.
That’s why I believe The Sims is still so popular – it’s like living life without consequences.
All the things that feel impossible are also suddenly achievable; drowning your sworn enemies in the swimming pool (although I probably shouldn’t mention that) or recreating the dogs that I grew up with, like Jazmine the black Cocker Spaniel.
It’s comforting to be able to resurrect parts of life that you miss or want but can’t have, even if they are behind a computer screen.
I’ll be 30 in September and still play The Sims 2: Pets (the best version of the game in my opinion) at least twice a week for around two hours. I have to limit myself, otherwise I’d never stop.
My favourite character is always myself. Like me, this Sim has blonde hair, wears 60s style florals and knee-high white boots, but has green skin, like an alien from a Barbarella-style planet.
We also have the same traits; quiet, organised and creative. However, while her aspirations are to have a family, I’m just happy having a cat.
I’ll admit, I’m pretty jealous of Sim Amber, who always has good hair – while mine is too thin and frizzy – and who works as a successful author. Oh, and she’s currently married to Joaquin Phoenix (this changes depending on my revolving crushes, much to my real life boyfriend’s dismay).
But in a way, she also makes me feel more confident – like maybe I could experience an existence free from OCD and anxiety one day, too.
My sister shares my obsession. About once a month, we take it in turns to host Sims nights.
A bundle of blankets are thrown onto the floor, pizza is ordered and laptops are assembled.
It’s an opportunity to put reality, with all its weighted decisions and uncertainties, on hold for a moment and focus on the simplicity of creating and completing action sequences: make food, use toilet, shower, sleep.
As I watch my Sims’ moods improve, I can feel my own character identifier (the plumbob crystal above their head) glowing green once again.
I’ll still be playing the game in another 20 years from now, I’m sure.
My Sim will stay the same, but perhaps wear more knitwear and get into gardening. She’ll be a tether to a cosy, ageless version of life.