Then, Minichiello moved to Seattle. After staying in an Airbnb for two weeks, he found a studio apartment and moved in. “It was really hard for me to find the motivation to furnish it and get my life started,” Minichiello says. “I was procrastinating like crazy. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to start. So, rather than get my life situated, I went right back to The Sims.”
But, when returning to his playthrough, Minichiello had a lightbulb moment.
“It was there, sitting in my unfurnished studio apartment with no pots, pans, plates, silverware, or furniture, that I realized how much time I was wasting trying to recreate the ‘ideal’ life within my Sim’s world, when I should start treating my real life like a game.
“The Sims made ‘happiness’ easy for me to comprehend. All I had to do was ‘gamify’ my life and pretend that I also had energy meters and progress bars in my daily life. As long as I continue to read and study, while making sure all my stats are in the green, then good things are bound to happen.”
“I was starting to realize that I was putting a ton of time and energy into making my Sims character happy and successful, when I should probably spend that time and energy on myself.”
And, sure enough, they did. Minichiello says his mood changed (he was much more positive), he furnished his apartment (including buying cookware and utensils), he cooked healthy meals instead of ordering Chipotle from UberEats every day, he got up earlier in the mornings, and he started going for runs to explore the city.
“I was starting to feel inspired … it was an awesome domino effect that I had never really felt before.”
He spent more time outside reading, which in turn put him more in touch with nature, and led to a new hobby: hiking. “I was so overwhelmed by moving across the country by myself that I didn’t realize how close I actually was to getting back on track.”
Minichiello is a “wonderful example” of how transfer of knowledge can happen between our in-game play and IRL lives, according to Rachel Kowert, research director at Take This, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health resources for the gaming community, who also studies the relationship between games and cultural and social norms.
“That’s really cool,“ Kowert said on a video call. “I don’t know if a lot of people do that—but gamification is very effective in behavior change, so maybe The Sims needs to make an app that helps people get their lives together.”
As Kowert alluded, not everyone will get the same mindfulness from their play in The Sims right away—making the connection between their in-game actions and what they want or need IRL, like Minichiello and myself.
“I think you have to be very self-aware and reflective,” she says. “The average person, I’m not sure they’d make that connection … I think it would click if it was pointed out to them.”
This exact thing happened to Kowert herself during our call. When I asked her if there’s a connection between players’ real hobbies or wants and the skills they choose to focus on in-game, she noted that she always maximizes her Sims’ fitness. “In my idealized version of myself, that’s what I would be,” she says, adding that she’d love to be super fit and run a marathon, and that’s probably why she gravitates toward doing it in The Sims.
“I’ve never thought about that before,” she said, before likening players’ personalization of their Sims to a projective personality test—a psychological test in which the participant responds to ambiguous stimuli and thereby reveals their hidden desires and emotions.
If that’s the case, what do our in-game actions and choices really say about us?
No, Killing Your Sims Does Not Mean You’re a Serial Killer
Jeannie Schmidlapp likes to kill her Sims. Well, more accurately, she likes to collect ghosts. It “started off innocently enough with a legacy challenge in The Sims 2,” in which you would score a point for every color of ghost you had on your property, with different colors denoting different causes of death. Then, it escalated. Does that mean she wants to be a serial killer IRL? Well, no, not really—but more on that in a bit.