What do you get when you mix the board-game “Life,” “Cards Against Humanity” and an HGTV home improvement show? The EA (Electronic Arts) gaming masterpiece The Sims 3. Whether it’s becoming a home renovation guru and designing the kitchen of your dreams (granite countertops and all) or throwing morality out the window to live out your wildest fantasies (like doing-the-dirty with the grim reaper or — more morbidly — drowning your Sims in a pool), “The Sims 3” has a little bit of something for everyone.
The franchise’s motto, “Play with life,” perfectly encapsulates the very nature of the game: As you guide your character, or Sim, through their life, the opportunities (if grave-robbing is an “opportunity”) are limitless, providing an individualized experience for each player. It’s up to you to make what you will of the game. But beyond the boundless creativity and anarchic freedom of the game, there lies a level of control afforded to the player that is not accessible in reality, making The Sims 3 the perfect platform to channel high levels of stress and anxiety. After all, when life throws you into a metaphorical shredder, what’s a better way to regain a sense of control than by assuming the role of a virtual god in “The Sims 3”?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always struggled with high anxiety. Anything from being indecisive about what I want for dinner, to crossing the street as the light flashes red, to having to say “no” to people (I’m a people-pleaser) can trigger a bout of gut-wrenching anxiety. Growing up in New York City certainly didn’t help either. I’m almost always in a constant state of apprehension, so most of the time it’s simple enough to gulp down the characteristic wave of nausea and bite my nails to nubs in lieu of panic attack. But sometimes the anxiety proves too intense to clamp down. Cue the crushing weight on my chest that feels like the breath has been knocked out of me, the bile that bubbles up my throat, the burning, blinding tears. As a young girl, home alone in the midst of a panic attack and no one to come calm and me down, I had to find a way to help myself. So, I got creative. My answer? “The Sims 3.”
I can still remember blowing (literal) dust off my neglected iMac 2007, waiting what felt like eons to boot up the game, listening to the rumble of the fans struggling to keep the system from overheating. My monstrous desktop always seemed like the dinosaur of the digital age, big and clunky even when it was still new. More often than not, I would have to coax the computer to play nice, restarting that useless hunk of junk and crossing my fingers that the oh-so-familiar green diamond would pop up on screen — usually accompanied by a full-volume blast of “The Sims 3”’s opening theme song.
Playing the game, I would — and occasionally still do — spend hours with the customization tools. Sometimes I would simply recreate familiar figures — friends, family, pop culture icons — and other times I would let my imagination run wild, like when I made my green, kleptomaniac vampire named Steve. The Create-A-Sim, or the character design, function of the game allows the player to customize nearly every aspect of their Sim, from their voices to their clothing and even their personality traits. The level of character detail allowed me to lose myself in the game, helping me take my mind off my anxiety. The ability to build and design homes, or lots, in the game is also an activity I relished in. Not only could I express my own artistic ability, but wasting away the afternoon doing something as simple as designing the pattern of the drapes in my Sim’s home was downright relaxing. “The Sims 3” has a unique mind-numbing effect; unlike other games, I don’t need to think in order to play, and most of the time overthinking is my big, fat problem.
Not only does “The Sims 3” simulate a deep level of relaxation, but playing the game also allows me to feel like I’m in control. Panic attacks and regular bouts of anxiety are self-perpetuating problems: They are inspired by a perceived lack of control, followed by the subsequent emotional rollercoaster so debilitating that you then lose what little control you might have had –– a vicious cycle.
However, in “The Sims 3,” the player has control over almost every aspect of the game –– I have control over the entire in-game world. I can stop time or speed it up within the game, control every action of my Sim, influence the weather and the lives of other computer generated and controlled characters and even age or make immortal any character. I can use cheats or game-mods to surpass what few in-game boundaries there are. Now, I can admit that this can come off as a little bit power-hungry and controlling. But in all honesty, that’s because I am — that’s what my anxiety drives me to be. Sure, I would love to prop my feet up, grab a drink with a fancy umbrella in it and watch a YouTube video of a beach in Fiji while deadlines, responsibilities and my problems sail overhead. But my personal reality is that I’m doomed to suffer through life as a ball of perpetual stress. So I do what I can and indulge in what I’m able to afford in order to stay afloat.
“The Sims 3” not only acts as a safe, reliable medium for me to channel my anxiety, but the game also simulates the control and security I need and desire to contend with my anxiety. From my own experience, using something so simple — some would say childish — as a video game has prompted me to reevaluate how video games are marketed to audiences, and for what purpose they’re produced. A game like “The Sims 3” is meant to provide entertainment — I highly doubt any of the developers considered the game as a possible form of therapy for players with high anxiety when they initially created the game. But what if the experiences video games are intended to simulate didn’t simply imitate life or distract from it, but rather help the players process and contend with their own lives?
So often video games are written off as being unhealthy, addictive, pointless, childish — and some games are justly described as such. But that doesn’t have to be the reputation of the industry. Recently, arguments have been made for the role video games could play in education, bringing subjects like history to life with virtual reality or in-game educational lessons or activities. So why can’t video games be developed and used to help people of all ages (gamers or not) process and deal with mental and emotional issues? In an age when technology is being integrated into nearly every aspect of our lives, it’s only logical to think that mental and emotional health and digital innovation may one day intersect.
So, the next time you feel like the world is crashing down around you, try taking a page from my book: Take a breath, take a break and maybe boot-up a decade-old 2007 iMac and go build some “Fixer Upper”-worthy kitchens that HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines would be proud of.