From ‘The Sims’ to ‘Animal Crossing’: how life simulation games provide an escape from reality

By Sam Wareing

Published May 28, 2022 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes

Remember those times in your childhood when you couldn’t wait to be a grown-up? You’d daydream about being independent, staying up as late as you wanted and eating all those snacks your parents wouldn’t buy for you. But then you hit adulthood and realised just how stressful everything is. Mortgages, bills, rent, a job: the list is endless. Everything just piles up and, as we all know, it can be a bit too much sometimes.

But what if I told you there was a way to adult and relax at the same time? Welcome to the pixelated world of life simulation, the video game genre that lets you live out your best life in cyberspace.

What are life sims?

Life simulations (or life sims) are a genre of video games that replicate the everyday activities performed in real life. From buying a house and raising a family to tending to a farm and going fishing, these games aim to provide all the different aspects of life but make them a relaxing experience. One of the best and most well-known examples is The Sims, a now-vast series of life sim games published by Electronic Arts (EA) where the player creates a character called a Sim, and proceeds to care for them, get them a job, build and furnish their house, and even help them raise a family.

All of these seemingly-mundane life tasks that we’d sigh heavily at in real life are magically transformed into tasks we can’t get enough of. But what makes them so fun? Let’s take a look, shall we?

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Living your best life

On the surface, life sims sound pretty dull. But don’t let that put you off, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Each activity is crafted to make even the most tedious of chores enjoyable. A perfect example is the fishing mechanic in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons. You simply throw your line out into a body of water, wait for one of the fish shadows to take a nibble and then reel it in. Such a simple way of presenting the idea yet it provides unlimited satisfaction. Coupled with the pun-heavy quips about each fish you trawl and the prospect of being able to add your catch to the in-game aquarium, it turns the time consuming and mostly-boring hobby of fishing into a delightful and exciting pastime, all without your real-life self not having to leave the comfort of your home. Or getting wet. Now, that’s what I call winning in life.

But that’s not all that life sims have to offer. A lot of the games out there allow you to have a stable job and even buy a house, something that a lot of young people are finding extremely difficult in this day and age. The Sims encourages you to find your Sim a job so they can keep up with expenses. This is made effortless by just sending your character to their job where their performance is based on their attributes—which you can upgrade as you progress through the game.

Meanwhile, Animal Crossing lets you buy a house from the get-go, although that does mean you’ll be in the village’s top business raccoon debt, Tom Nook. Unlike banks in the real world, however, Nook lets you pay back your loan whenever you’re able to, meaning no stressful final reminders falling onto your mat anytime soon.

All of these elements culminate into one thing: escapism. But how exactly do life sims help us evade the real world?

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Let’s get deep for a second

The problem with the real world is that everything you do has consequences. If you don’t show up to work, you get fired. If you don’t pay your rent, you lose your house. With life sims (and all video games, in general), the consequences of your actions can be changed—all you have to do is reset the game and try again. This makes life sims the ideal way to take a break from the pressure of the real world.

In February 2022, house prices in the UK rose to 10.9 per cent, up from 10.2 per cent in January 2022. This increase has meant that nearly a third of all 24 to 30-year-olds in the country are still living with their parents, or have had to move back home because they couldn’t afford to live on their own. Nearly all life sim games give you, or let you buy, a house that you can maintain, live in and decorate to your heart’s content. With the state of the housing market at the moment, this is the only way a lot of people are able to have a space to call their own.

But it’s not just owning a piece of virtual real estate that makes these games so enticing. They’re a way to mentally unwind too. ConcernedApe and Chucklefish’s Stardew Valley took the world by storm when it was released in 2016 and has since sold over 20 million copies across all platforms. The fantasy farming simulator sees you take up residence on your late grandfather’s farm after having enough of your soul-destroying office job. Once again, the game gives you your own house. but this time, you also have a farm to tend to. As you go about your day growing crops, making friends with the locals and exploring the surrounding environs, you will start to realise that there is a certain serenity in the freedom the game places before you. You could spend your day working on your farm, or you could head down to the beach for a spot of fishing. After a hard day’s work, you can walk to the local tavern and share a drink with the locals. Or not—it’s really up to you.

It’s this freedom and slow living that draws people in and lets them live almost a double life. One free of taxes and jobs and the general gloom of the world we currently reside in. In Stardew Valley, none of that matters. The mental release felt after spending a few hours in the game is immense, as blogger Kira Leigh discovered when coming face to face with one of the romanceable characters, Sebastian. “I was staring into a mirror,” she admitted.

By pursuing Sebastian’s character route and discovering how he suffered from a lot of the same things she was, it helped her reflect on her own life. “When he opened up to me, I was given a gift as well. The rare gift of being able to observe your life from the outside […] I was forced to actually think about this character’s situation. And that forced me to think about my own, too,” she wrote.

The moments of quiet reflection these games allow you to have can be more powerful than we realise. Sometimes all you need is a few hours of peace tending to your carrots or chatting with the pixelated locals to process what’s going on in your actual life.

Top 3 life sims to help you kick back and relax

If this article has opened your eyes to the fact that you need a bit of rest and relaxation in your own life, check out one of these delightful games. You never know, it might be just what you’re looking for:

1. ‘The Sims’ by EA

As one of the most well-known and popular life sim games, The Sims lets you essentially play god as you create your own character and then set about constructing their life as you see fit. Want them to go to university and become a scholar? No problem. How about joining a rock band and rocking out in the garage? The Sims has got you covered. There are also countless add-on packs for you to choose from, giving you the ultimate authority to customise your own experience the way you like it.

2. ‘Stardew Valley’ by ConcernedApe

Now onto an indie staple, Stardew Valley is all about living life in the slow lane. Farm, fish, mine and craft as you explore and discover the different shops, people and environs this gorgeous pixel art game has to offer. Build connections with the locals, attend town events and even get married to your favourite characters (if you spend enough time with them, that is). There is no end to the peace this game will bring you.

3. ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ by Nintendo

Released right at the beginning of the first COVID-19 lockdown, this game was a must-have in practically every household. After getting an invite to a deserted island getaway, you arrive and begin your new life there. Starting out with a meagre tent, you soon learn the ways of the island, craft items and equipment to make your stay more comfortable and welcome adorable animal villagers such as Joey the Duck and Fang the Wolf as friendly neighbours. The game doesn’t really have an end, so you can explore, relax and sculpt your new home as much as you like. Featuring a wonderful multiplayer system, the game also allows you to invite other players locally or from across the globe to visit your island and enjoy the tranquillity together.

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