I read an article based on a study once that said in order to increase productivity in a stagnating work environment, you’re supposed to change something—anything—at least once every nine weeks. It could be the addition of a houseplant, a new furniture pattern, or some new pictures in the hall. But the line of thinking is that a difference in your immediate surroundings will break up the repetition and fight off boredom, leading to improved moods and heightened motivation.
As a writer who works from home, I’ve had that on my mind lately. My husband and I have had our condo for three years and most of our furniture for almost 12, and we never changed a thing about either. I’ve never owned a home before this; when I was younger, any boredom I had with my living space would be remedied by the inevitable move to another apartment once the lease was up. But this time I’m staring down the responsibility of a 30 year mortgage and realizing that this is it. Unless I want to go through the agonizing process of selling and buying another house on the competitive Seattle market, I have to live with it.
And since I’m just now coming around to that magic seven year itch part of the homeowner relationship, I figure it’s time to actually remodel and redecorate my house and get something that reflects our tastes. It’s a lot of work but I’m hoping my experience with floorplanning in The Sims will help. I’ve been thinking I might measure the walls so I know how much space I have to work with, and then translate the units to the those in the building mode of The Sims 4. That way I can come up with a new look virtually, without having to navigate around my exhausting physical limitations or go through the expensive and time consuming process of shipping and returns. The Sims 3 in particular has so many different items, I could easily put together something for every room in the house, without having to spend more than a few bucks in the Sims Store. It’s a safe way to work some things out.
They say that as we grow older, the character defining effects of our life become like living room furniture, shifting and moving at our whim, always subject to reinvention and reconceptualizing until everything feels comfortable. For me lately, that has meant that previously forgotten memories are finally coming out of storage and being integrated into the decor scheme of my life. When I first played The Sims, I was a teenager, and my parents had kicked me out for what would be the first of three times. A neighborhood friend and her parents agreed to take me in for a few months, and I began to act out almost immediately, waking up in the middle of the night and sneaking over to the family computer to play The Sims. It was the original game of course, and there were no expansions out yet. It was, for all intents and purposes, just a domestic simulator. But since my own family couldn’t afford a PC and computer games, and I’d never known what it was like to have money for things like pools or new dishes, it was freeing in more ways than one.
Interested as I was in creating the “perfect” house for the perfect family, I took to it like a fish to water. It wasn’t just a videogame, it was a way to plan for the life I didn’t have. I could build the perfect floor plan, and purchase furniture and decor exactly to my tastes and not really have to worry about things like money. There weren’t obstacles like unemployment or bad health standing in my way. And it wasn’t so much that I was trying to prepare myself for adulthood, or work out my preferences, but rather I was dreaming of a life without limitations. Where there were resources when you needed them, and you had enough cash in the bank to do frivolous things like indulge in self expression. There was an image of normalcy that I saw on the pages of JC Penney or Good Housekeeping, and I thought if I could just achieve that, then that would mean everything was okay. I could craft all the trimmings of what stability and domesticity look like, and it would mean that I had escaped the poverty and the abuse of my upbringing. It would mean that after a childhood of standing on the outside looking in, I’d have found a place to belong. And if I could just hide behind those images, no one would ever know anything had ever been wrong.
That’s a lot, of course, to project onto a videogame, but then, escapism is the principal tenant of virtual reality. And it’s funny that the very thing that makes me hate The Sims 4 now is what made me love the series in the first place. I still indulge in the frivolity of upper middle class life—a world I married into—to forget what helplessness and longing are like. It’s like sometimes I spend money just to feel safe and remind myself that I don’t have to be afraid anymore, that my life is no longer defined by the drain and the ache of constant need.
But maybe my disillusionment with The Sims 4 means I finally got what I set out to achieve. I guess when I said it was a game for those dreaming of a life that could be, I didn’t realize I still meant me.
I still haven’t even decided if I’m redecorating. I could really use a refresher on my work-at-home environment but the poor kid in me still thinks it’s ridiculous to purchase anything new if the old one still works just fine. And my furniture isn’t threadbare, horrifically stained, or falling apart. I could get by with these things for another 10 years.
For now, though, I think I’ll go through some of the store items for The Sims 4, and dream a little bit.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.