When the UK went into lockdown on March 23, rather than reading yet more first-hand reports from another country, I did what any inquisitive person with nowhere to go and an indefinite number of free hours ahead of them would do: I downloaded The Sims 4.
For those who have yet to experience this best-selling franchise, The Sims is a life-simulation game that gives players an addictive opportunity to play god. You create characters, each with their own unique motives, personalities and interests (customised or selected at random), place them in households, and watch as they interact with each other and their environment. Depending on your personal gaming style, you can direct their movements or let them act autonomously. You can help your Sims develop their careers, skills and relationships, or you can just wait and see what happens.
Throughout the game, Sims’ basic needs – bladder, hunger, energy, social, hygiene and fun – are measured by six bars in the lower right corner of the screen. When the needs are being met, the bars are green. When the needs aren’t being met – if they haven’t showered in a few days, say, or haven’t spoken to another Sim in a while – the bars turn yellow and eventually red. Unmet needs (as well as outside factors like general temperament) affect a Sim’s minute-to-minute mood, which can range from happy to sad to angry.
Over the long Easter weekend, while others were virtually communing with family and friends, I immersed myself in the world of The Sims instead. I wanted to see how the characters I created would cope under similar constraints to the ones we were under, to try and predict what an extended lockdown might do to our wellbeing. The great thing about The Sims being that you can live life on fast-forward.
I set out to run a few households with my Sims confined to their homes for two months in-game time to see how they responded to such restricted conditions. How would they behave, I wondered, nourished with only the crumbs of social interaction? How long would it take for them to succumb to loneliness and boredom?
After furnishing their homes with the essentials – fridges, computers, TVs, books and creative supplies – I lured my Sims inside and locked the doors behind them. In keeping with draconian restrictions on non-essential movement seen in Italy, France and, until recently, Spain, there would be no going to work, no outdoor exercise, no parties, no conversations with passing neighbours. With the exception of nudging them to repair major appliances (an action Sims can’t take autonomously), I left them to their own devices and watched, monitoring their behaviour, their moods and their needs.
My original plan was to observe a couple, a group of four housemates, and a single person. But it turned out I wouldn’t need to create a separate household to watch a Sim suffer through lockdown alone.
I started my experiment with Simera, an unemployed computer whiz, and her wife Simone, a stylish wannabe entertainer. Things started well enough in their one-bedroom bungalow, where early days were filled with shared meals, long conversations and make-out sessions on the sofa. Their need bars were consistently in the green, and their moods generally oscillated between happy, flirty and fine.
But things quickly took a dark turn. Already a night owl, Simone’s sleeping patterns slowly became more erratic until, on day seven, I received an achievement badge for her first 24 hours without sleep. On day nine, she was fired from her job as a C-Lister after missing too many shifts. She stopped eating, though there was always food available in their self-replenishing fridge. The next day, with her energy and hunger bars at zero, she died of starvation, and the Grim Reaper – in clear violation of social distancing protocol – turned up to whisk her body away.
After that, Simera spent her days socialising online, trolling forums and chatting with friends – a move endorsed by the World Health Organisation, which has advised people in isolation due to the coronavirus outbreak to “stay connected (to your social networks) via telephone, email, social media or video conference” when physical social contact is limited. These virtual interactions kept her social needs met even after weeks of solitude.
In my other household, shared by four friends, the computer was almost exclusively used for gaming. When the housemates, apparent adherents to the cult of productivity, weren’t levelling up their cooking skills, practicing guitar, doing sit-ups or making clay sculptures, they got their social fix by talking to one another. Whether those conversations were positive or offensive made little difference. Their social bars stayed green.
I saw echoes of myself in both the housemates’ jovial bonding and Simera’s unending computer sessions. My own house’s movie nights, BBQs, badminton matches and makeshift group therapy sessions have provided so much of the comfort, fun and intimacy I crave; but so too have my lengthy Zoom and Houseparty calls with friends and family, and the usual conversations happening in messaging apps and social media DMs.
Watching the gang tuck into fish tacos at 07:00, I truly thought things were going to work out for my remaining Sims, even if Simera did develop a full-blown internet addiction. But then the pesky issue of money came up.
On Day 32, with Simera no longer able to keep up with her bills (359 simoleons a week!) due to her lack of income, her electricity was turned off. Suddenly, she was truly isolated. At first, it looked like it could be a good thing. Without the internet to distract her, Simera finally picked up a book and started learning the guitar, levelling up four times before the two months were through. But when she wasn’t reading or practicing, she was spending hours a day crying in bed, or standing in front of the mirror delivering half-hearted pep talks. From her stats, she was having fun and full of energy, but without the social element, her mood remained “very sad” for four weeks straight.
My other household came to an even darker end when their savings dried up. Within a week of the power and water being turned off, three of my four Sims stopped sleeping and eating, and they too died of starvation. The only one to survive lockdown was Brandon, a mean-spirited art-lover with a blonde goatee, who wandered the house in soiled pyjamas for 18 more days, occasionally visited by the mischievous ghosts of his housemates.
It would be trite to draw direct parallels between the demoralising decay of my virtual households and reality, but these simulations did, in their over-the-top way, highlight that social isolation is exponentially more stressful – and its effects more strongly felt – when you aren’t able to cover your basic living costs.
That’s not to say our social needs aren’t important – far from it. What my Sims’ scenarios showed was that, in a real lockdown situation, our social connections will have to do more than just fill a need for companionship. This lockdown will only be bearable if we have people to help us ensure all our needs are being met.
I learned this just days after this lockdown started, when I had to self-isolate in my room for seven days after showing coronavirus symptoms. When I was sick, it was my housemates who provided the meals, medicine and brews, along with round-the-clock WhatsApp banter, that kept my health and spirits up.
My Sims would have been so much better off if they’d had a strong network of people looking out for them – checking in to make sure they were getting enough sleep and eating properly, or offering them money during times of need.
Thankfully, The Sims is just a game – in the real world, coronavirus has brought out the best in us, with people across the country volunteering to deliver food to the house-bound, donate essentials to the at-risk and write letters to the lonely and disconnected. You can’t simulate that.
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