Credit: Becca Luke

Living in a virtual world

By Sophie Kernachan

With lockdown changing our version of normality, Sophie Kernachan explores how we could experience normality in video games.

It’s fair to say that since the beginning of quarantine, my game accounts have seen more action than they have in a long time. I’m not alone in that, with Statista showing a record peak in concurrent Steam players, sitting at 20.3 million. Games from my Steam library that I hadn’t touched in months finally saw the light of day: I got around to playing all of the free monthly games vegetating on my PlayStation 4, and I fell back into the bottomless pit of social isolation that is World of Warcraft. At the height of the pandemic, the video game industry saw a boom, with Activision reporting an active network of 407m players, and Electronic Arts seeing their net income double to $418m based on revenue. This is unsurprising given the escapist and interactive nature of games. What better than infinite worlds to engage and immerse yourself in to ease the reality of a deadly pandemic?

In a situation very unlike anything most of us have experienced before, escapism was more than necessary to many. The Office For National Statistics in the UK stated that 49.6% of adults reported high anxiety and stress levels, so it’s understandable that many would find comfort in the immersion of video games, with their interactive nature making the seemingly endless days stuck indoors melt away. It gave people a chance to try new games and indulge in new worlds less stressful than our own, myself included. In amongst the more grounded scenarios of raiding Orgrimmar and indulging in the systematic massacre of Companion Cubes, comes the ultimate escapist fantasy for me: The Sims 4. A three-storey house with a pool, an infinite stream of money, and drinking heavily in the houses of people I’d never met in my life. I’d never played The Sims 4 before quarantine, and what a time I had with it. There was a certain morbid thrill in starving a character in his own locked bedroom and having his bitter spirit leave his dirty dishes in the kitchen in an act of petty vengeance. But alongside playing a malevolent God to your poor Sims, you also partake in a daily grind eerily similar to that of our everyday lives; wake up at 7, go to work for the day, come home exhausted, and sleep as the bin in the kitchen practically begs you to empty it, with those forgotten plates attracting even more flies. 

Due to quarantining for three months, it would only make sense that life simulator games such as The Sims 4 would become more popular. As an article from the BBC states: “We don’t have that normal life anymore, it’s nice to see it even if it’s in a game form.” Compared to other games which have seen soaring popularity such as Call of Duty and Animal Crossing, The Sims 4 is a very solitary game. Where games such as Animal Crossing allow for you to play with friends and visit their islands, in The Sims 4 you find yourself building your own house, grinding your own daily grind, with no ability to hop over to your mate’s house and immerse yourselves in each other’s virtual worlds. 

Some people have even begun to live vicariously through life-simulator games such as The Sims 4, according to The Express. The article suggests some players are moving away from the more tyrannical, outlandish elements of the game and focus more on its realistic elements; something that separates The Sims 4 from many of its popular counterparts. It is rare that the slog of everyday life can be so cathartic. In a way, it could be perceived as being rather lonely. In a real-world usually so mundane, and with many fantastical interactive worlds to explore in video games, it might seem a bit odd at first glance that many would flock to recreate the reality that usually seems such a grind.

With a routine so solitary, is living vicariously through these games more detrimental than initially thought? When put into the context of the exceptional circumstances we have faced over the past few months, living vicariously through The Sims 4 is just as reasonable as anyone’s immersion in any other game. Given the circumstances, the game is, in its own way, a power fantasy. It is a fantasy of normality: going to university, interacting with other people, and building relationships from the ground up until your flustered Sims finally accept the demand that they Woohoo. It’s as much an immersive power fantasy as games in other genres such as Call of Duty or Doom Eternal. Doom Eternal gave me the fantasy of mowing through demons in a constant shower of blood and gore, while The Sims gave me the fantasy of controlling when I could go out, who I could visit, and where I could travel to: things that hit all too close to home. It’s a way to immerse myself in the comfort lacking from the real world.  


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