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‘The Sims’ 20th anniversary shows why the game has such staying power

If you look at my neighborhoods in The Sims 4, you might be able to tell what kind of mood I was in when I created all these families. There's the single-father vampire who adopted a flock of children to raise and send out into the world; the family of space aliens pretending to be human freelance writers; the "serial romantic" Sim's house; the House of Death (because we all have one, let's be real); and multiple attempts at The Sims 4 Legacy Challenge that I abandoned after forgetting what the families were doing.

Each household was made during different moments of my life over the past six years since The Sims 4's release. If you include the entire series, from when I first started playing in 2004, that makes about 16 years of digital household-making. Thinking about it now, on the 20th anniversary of The Sims, that makes each game something of a twisted, digital diary of my interests as I got older.

I could be playing it up a bit much, sure. Still, The Sims is a series that many players binge for hours, even days, focusing on a project or goal in the game before our interests burn out as quickly as it came. People have aptly described it as a "whirlwind romance" — something that sweeps you away before abruptly disappearing again. The urge to play comes and goes during various times of my life, often with months between each binge. Every time I start up the game and browse the households, I think back on why I made them, what my plans were, and what I was thinking. How that family of Sims started and how long it took for them to get to where they are now.

And then I create a new family.

What's the key that keeps people coming back? It's a question I think about now and then. Perhaps it's the regular release of expansions for the game. Electronic Arts (EA), the game's publisher, figured out very early on that users will eat up expansions for The Sims. It's come to an almost comical point now, with The Sims 4, as these additions have been subdivided into even smaller pieces as "Stuff Packs," "Game Packs," and "Expansion Packs."

Other publishers have tried different methods — subscriptions, DLC, loot boxes, season passes, etc. — to varying degrees of success. Some throw themselves into following the latest video game trend or rely on competitiveness to stay alive.

But The Sims is neither super competitive nor trendy. It's a goofy life simulator. It has a little bit of everything real life has: Raising (or failing to raise) kids, getting hired or fired at jobs, struggling with bills and budgets, starting a business, having affairs, and getting abducted by aliens. It's also flexible and not so attached to realism that magic or supernatural themes are completely out of place. Maybe that's the key.

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For me, playing The Sims is like daydreaming when you're supposed to be working. It's where "I wonder if I could've been a good veterinarian?" becomes "I wonder if this neat-freak Sim could be a veterinarian?" It turns "This is my favorite restaurant" into "I'm gonna make this Sim with no cooking skill whatsoever a chef at this restaurant."

It's playful and flexible and fun. Each play session is different from the last. It doesn't tell you how you're supposed to play the game. There are no rules.

For some players, that means they can dive deep into building homes and other architecture instead of ruining the lives of various families. Some people have created cozy little homes with interior decoration that one could only fantasize having. Others have made enormous mansions that even a Sim could barely afford, let alone someone in real life. Although The Sims is considered a 'life simulator,' there's nothing wrong with focusing on constructing buildings instead of virtual people. The original creator, Will Wright, first conceived of The Sims as a game that could simulate building homes from scratch as well as the daily activities of denizens.

The series has also maintained a level of freedom that other games have yet to provide. Same-sex relationships are but one example. Originally, according to The New Yorker in 2014, same-sex relationships were enabled in The Sims due to a mix-up within the developing company, Maxis. When two female Sims had fallen in love and kissed during a demonstration of the game in 1999, the developers fully expected the game to be killed. It wasn't. The game was praised, and the option of having same-sex relationships in The Sims is just as much a staple of the game as creating custom Sims. In contrast, some other developers seem to struggle with LGBTQ+ inclusion in video games — either by turning these characters into a joke, creating inaccurate or offensive portrayals, or caving to homophobia-fueled backlash.

Since their initial mistake, Maxis has embraced the game's openness to the LGBTQ+ community. Beginning with The Sims 4, players can further customize each Sim's gender and appearance. Users can toggle whether female or male-presenting Sims can become pregnant and whether they stand or sit to use the bathroom. All of the clothing, makeup, and hairstyles in the game are now available to any gender (though players can still only choose between male or female) you choose for your Sim. It's a sign that, even now, the developers behind The Sims strive to keep choice and flexibility within the game wherever they can; and they'll break down long-standing 'rules' when necessary.

I didn't jump into the series until The Sims 2 in 2004. I don't remember how I got the game or why I got it, yet it has sunk its hooks into me for the past 16 years with a wallet-breaking number of new versions and expansions. As someone who enjoys more action-based games — back then, I was really into Fable — a game like The Sims is an outlier. But it's an enjoyable one that continues to grab my attention now and then, like a cicada emerging from its long slumber. Like a thought that comes and goes.

No matter when I hop back into The Sims, it always proves to be entertaining as hell. And it's nice to see a Sim sigh in weariness after a long day of mood and relationship management. It makes me chuckle with sympathy. I feel that, too, little Sim. I feel that, too.