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See how The Sims helped these players change their real lives

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The Sims isn’t like other video games. Instead of inviting players to explore faraway fantasy lands or fight in imagined battlefields, the world of The Sims hews closer to reality. Through avatars called “Sims,” players build homes, have careers, form relationships and try on gender identities — all while meeting their basic needs, like sleep and hunger.

Over 24 years, the game has evolved to include four main editions and dozens of expansion packs. Its latest edition has 88 million users, according to developer Maxis. There are even plans for a movie based on the cozy-quirky game.

All animations in this story are inspired by game overlays from Sims 4. They are not meant to serve as authentic duplications.

But for a subset of players, it’s not just a game. They’re using it to practice for their real lives. For these fans, the game has transformed into an incubator for ideas, lifestyles and feelings before they’re fully formed.

Here’s how nine people used The Sims to inspire their real lives.

Building a business

Kristen Thom turned to The Sims when she worried the space she and a friend found to start their used-book store in Nampa, Idaho, was too small.

Thom created a copy of the shop in her Sims universe. She measured the digital space block by block until it was as close as possible to the real-life layout. She loaded all the furniture, seating and bookshelves that she wanted in the shop. Everything fit.

“It was kind of like our validation step that our smaller space could bring forward what we wanted to,” she said. The real-life version turned out nearly identical.

Many Sims players say interior design is the most translatable element from the game to their own lives. For Madelyn House in Eastern Montana, The Sims let her mock up a colorful version of her future business. House now has two greenhouses — one in the small town where she lives and sells plants to customers, and one in The Sims, where she first designed her dream nursery.

“It sparked my imagination for different ideas,” she said of the 16 hours she spent building the digital greenhouse, moving plants and tables around and tweaking the layouts of trees and shrubs.

The virtual legwork paid off and her real-life plant business doubled its sales in two years.

Perhaps no one knows how to re-create virtual spaces in real life better than Kelsey Impicciche. She spends two to three hours per day playing The Sims, in a real-life home office she designed in the game.

She turned her hobby into a job in 2019 and makes a living as a Sims content creator, posting to her YouTube channel from the Los Angeles home she shares with her dog, Chewie, who also has a Sim version of himself.

Her real life and Sims life are often intertwined. Some days Impicciche will bake whatever her character made, or play 24 hours in the game then re-create the day entirely in real life for a video.

Creating community

Amira Virgil launched the online forum called The Black Simmer about eight years ago after playing the game for more than a decade. Her goal was to create a space where Black players could share photos of their Sims’ lives and discuss outfits, culture and anything they wanted without fear of the racism or microaggressions they say they often experienced in other online spaces. The community has since expanded and has tens of thousands of members across platforms.

The success of The Black Simmer inspired Virgil to pursue a career as a full-time professional video game streamer under the tag Xmiramira.

“The Sims is like a cozy game, so people think prejudice or ignorance don’t exist,” Virgil said. “Within the Sims community, those things definitely do exist.”

As a young Sims player, Virgil grew frustrated at the darker skin tone options in The Sims. They looked gray and ashy, she said, and didn’t reflect the Black and Brown skin tones she saw in her real life. Now, Virgil, 30, is the driving force behind the creation of an extended range of skin tones for Black characters in The Sims.

Virgil live-streams from her home. (KT Kanazawich for The Washington Post)

Shortly before launching The Black Simmer, Virgil created her first “melanin pack” with 55 skin tones that Sims players could use to customize their characters. It was so popular that she has released three versions of the pack, which also comes with makeup that looks good on dark skin.

In 2020, Electronic Arts, which publishes the game, released an update for Sims 4 with more than 100 new skin tones and said it was working with creators, including Virgil, to make the game more inclusive.

Virgil’s work has also led to real-life friendships. When she traveled abroad for the first time in 2018, she visited with a fellow Black Simmer whom she had known and created Sims content with online for years.

“Years ago, we didn’t have this,” she said of the community. “We didn’t have so many options and freedom of choice.”

From Simlish to English

Gaming is a common way people pick up on language, said Jonathon Reinhardt, a professor at the University of Arizona, who studies how language is learned through video games. Some classes even use The Sims and other games to teach it.

This was true for Carolina Lima, who first received the game on her 11th birthday in Brazil. Lima was so excited to start playing, she never attempted to change the game’s default language from English to Portuguese. At the time, she spoke little English, but she soon began picking up context clues in the English instructions.

She remembers when she clicked “make mac and cheese,” and watched her Sim stir up the familiar orange pasta dish.

“If I wanted to play, I had to figure out what the words are,” she said.

Lima continued playing like this for three years, googling new words as they popped up. The game began to help her in English classes. She now lives in Orlando and speaks English fluently.

Games can also help players learn colloquialisms. Growing up in Canada, twin brothers Allen and Barton Lu spoke a mix of Mandarin and English. In their downtime, the boys would immerse themselves in The Sims, picking up English slang and concepts they hadn’t encountered before. “It really just simulates what real life is, and that’s not always something you can get through a children’s or teen book,” Allen Lu said.

The Sims taught the duo what “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” meant, and that some people eat fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. It was also the first time they’d encountered the terms “social butterfly,” “party animal,” “mooch,” “stir crazy” and “kleptomaniac.”

“You get exposed to so many different tangible concepts that are actually useful to your life, unlike Duolingo,” Allen Lu said.

Embracing new hobbies

When Nick Alcazar picked up The Sims, he created a Sim to be a digital model of himself. It looked like him, dressed like him, even had the same personality traits as him.

Then he had the Sim-Nick go all-in on learning to paint. He leveled up his painting skill in the game. He made his Sims-self practice regularly.

“It just got me thinking,” Alcazar said, “‘well, if I can allocate that time to my Sim in the Sim World, why can’t I do that now?’”

So the real-life Nick bought acrylic paints. He created paintings of landscapes and his dogs and found the time to reconnect to an artistic hobby.

“When I’m playing The Sims and I’m making my Sims do productive things, it makes me want to do those same productive things,” he said. Soon after he started painting, his friends started requesting artwork.

Practicing to be a pet parent

Kurstin Kalisek and her partner knew they wanted to name their future cat Yogurt and that they wanted to rescue it from a shelter, but they still had several lingering cat-parent questions. Would they have enough time to give it? Should they get it a cat friend to play with?

Kalisek decided to test it out — in the world of The Sims. She created a digital Yogurt, a longhair white cat with big orange splotches.

Not long into playing, she found an issue — her human Sims family was having trouble keeping the cat Sim at its maximum happiness level. So she made it a dog friend. But their personalities did not mesh. So she got it another cat friend, and the two — Yogurt and Poptart — played happily together. Those happy Sims cats inspired Kalisek to adopt two cats together.

After realizing that bonded cats were the way to go, Kalisek and her partner started looking for pairs of cats at a shelter. A few months later, they found a longhair white cat with orange splotches and its sibling, a smaller brown cat — just like their Sims counterparts. In real life, they named the adopted cats Yogurt and Mochi.

Some pieces of The Sims will never translate to the real world — in the game, you can get abducted by aliens, give birth to 100 babies and visit with a vampire. But, mostly, the game is designed to simulate being a person, and some have found it makes them an even better one in their offline worlds.

Kalisek hasn’t checked on her Sims-cats since getting her real ones, but “I assume they’re doing fine,” she said.

About this story

Reporting by Rachel Lerman and Heather Kelly. Design and development by Emma Kumer. Design editing by Chloe Meister. Photo editing and research by Monique Woo. Editing by Karly Domb Sadof and Yun-Hee Kim. Screenshots of the gameplay were created, posed, and submitted by Simmers themselves.

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