A Joyful Perspective

The kitchen was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.

Quite frankly, I did just about every reasonable thing I could to prevent the situation, and when it happened, I struggled to ease it, but ultimate control was beyond me. The kitchen was still on fire, and it still wasn’t my fault. While The Sims is a game that gives the player a phenomenal amount of power and control over life, but I still couldn’t seem to suppress the flames in the kitchen.

My sim was a young adult just starting his career as a poor novelist. He made eight simoleons in a good week of writing, and spent his idle time reading worse fiction than his and learning to cook. The cook books were just barely in his budgetary reach, and I made certain I kept him very well stocked with cooking knowledge before I ever loosed him on a stove. He was cooking level six when I set him loose on Goopy Carbonara, a difficulty two dish. Over the months he poured over the cook books, I’d even gotten him enough money to upgrade the stove, so he’d have even less opportunity to bungle what should’ve been a rote practice for his now well-read and well-learned hands.

He set the kitchen on fire.

While I tried to suppress his panic and get him to actually start easing the flame – all while the fire alarm blared in shrill rage at the foolishness inferno – I marveled at how ridiculous the entire scenario was. Here I was, an omnipresent God with the ability to selectively make and unmake reality at my whims, paying special attention to an idiot and the house fire he was inevitably nurturing. Yet, I was still having fun.

There’s a weird amount of joy hidden in the passive hand of The Sims. This strange sense of comfort with playing in a digital dollhouse while a bad writer and inexplicably worse chef tries to burn his §10,000 house down over middling italian food. That there’s a world where reading cook books is of personal importance and writing books with titles like “Love, Sweet Throbbing Gondola” is of any significance help make the things of actual significance outside of the digital world feel less suffocating.

Games are great at escapism, giving the opportunity to get away from the crush of daily life, but they’re also great ways to illustrate things to ourselves that would otherwise be invisible to our own introspection. They give us outlets for our hopes and aspirations that we may not have consciously acknowledged ourselves. Although I took up cooking in 2015, my sims had been learning cooking in addition to writing since the late 2000s. Likewise, my sims had modded-in typewriters in the original The Sims before writing was even a career possibility, but it was one that I had gravitated to even before I knew that I personally loved the craft of writing.

My foolish, panicking sim was a good guideline for the person I wanted to become. A teenager making a guy with decent hair, business casual dress, and the extroversion that made him sociable enough at parties was what I ended up finding myself trying to become as I went from goofy teen to goofy adult.

Likewise, having the digital outlet be able to solve problems in fractions of the time helped build the confidence that actual reality could be less strangling as well. Although I couldn’t make the inevitable reality of homework deadlines and the need to become responsible any less pressing, The Sims showed me that any problem could be solved with a few days’ or weeks’ efforts, and that the steps to resolving my sim’s problems weren’t dissimilar to my own, just that mine seemed to take so much longer, and that the things I could do today would ripple out and resolve the problem that seemed never-ending to a more impatient, younger mind. I found joy in the solace that my stupid sims brought me.

Much like owning a pet, having the sim around made me feel like even when I wasn’t in direct control of the things that happened, I could still have control over the end goal. I could set an accomplishment as a goal, take steps to get there, and with enough patience and perseverance, it could be achieved. My younger self really needed that advice, and getting to see it play out over the space of an afternoon was something that really brought happiness along with the escapism. I found comfort in that.

As I get older, and a little bit wiser for the aging, I find the advising aspect of The Sims stops being at all significant in my life, but I still find joy in the passive experience. Getting to be a part of the sim’s life is a joyful thing for me, even if it is somewhat pointless and more than a little silly. Getting to go back and spend an afternoon with a ridiculous little creature that reads and writes books, spends his afternoons still in his pajamas clacking away at a computer, and occasionally sets appliances on fire brings a calmness to my life that is no less appreciable today than it was years ago when I needed the sense of scale as well.

It’s weird to say “It’s a joy to catch the kitchen on fire” in a completely earnest way, and hopefully doesn’t also paint me as an arsonist in the process, but I still quite like the joy I find when I’m able to spend some time with my sims. Even when they spark up new and exciting foolishness infernos.

Which still aren’t my fault, by the way.

Written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table under the “Joy” theme. If this is up your alley, go give the other pieces a read.

Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and lifelong appreciator of fire. Although he doesn’t consider himself an arsonist, nor has he ever intentionally set anything on fire, he does crash and burn occasionally on Twitter.