“Sims” creators on Twitch and YouTube put the game through its paces, building complex houses and trying absurd challenges like having as many babies as possible or subjecting their Sims to Kafka-esque psychological tortures (all in good fun, of course). Some pioneering “Sims” creators even role play on Instagram, displaying picture-perfect Sim lives for their other Sim friends to praise and envy.
But “The Sims” is also a haven for neurodiverse players, some of whom grew up with the game and continue to revisit it well into adulthood. “The Sims” is an open-world game, meaning there is no right or wrong way to experience it. Whether one wants to speed-run the apocalypse or just help their little Sims do some laundry, there are no expectations that aren’t set by the player themselves. For some with autism, ADHD or other conditions, that means they can tailor the game to be whatever they want: a place of comfort in a confusing world, a social road map of sorts, an alternate reality where they are in control, or just a lifelong special interest.
The notion that “The Sims” offers a neater, easier version of our own world is built into the game’s DNA. Game creator Will Wright lost his home in California’s 1991 Oakland-Berkeley firestorm. While rebuilding, he was moved to consider what life was really made of. A series of needs to be met? Items to own? People to love?
“I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior. I also love any game that allows me to build and create. The Sims combined both of these,” she tells CNN.
Of course, you don’t need to be neurodiverse to find comfort in low-stakes, come-as-you-are games like “The Sims.” But for people like Ashcroft, structured social interactions and the ability to create different situations act almost like a laboratory for real life.
“I can play in different ways depending on my mood. Sims have their own emotions for me to discover and I can play out different situations in a safe environment. Neurodiverse players can explore relationship dynamics that don’t come naturally to us,” she says.
“One thing that makes ‘The Sims’ so special is, it’s not ‘punishing,’ he tells CNN. “It’s a very good oasis, so to speak. My daily life asks so much from me, and I just get to sit down and do whatever the heck I want with those little people.”
Benji says he gets the most satisfaction out of the game by setting goals for his Sims and mapping out what their story is going to be like. And while, as a highly social person, he doesn’t identify as much with the emotional aspects of the game, there have been times when he’s felt surprisingly seen.
“At one point, the developers introduced a new trait — now a Sim could be an ‘overachiever.’ So when I applied that trait to one of my Sims, he would get bored and restless when his life became dormant. When he took on challenging tasks, he was so happy and fulfilled. And I thought, ‘Wow. I’ve never related so much to a Sim in my life.'”
People with autism and ADHD aren’t the only ones who find satisfaction from inhabiting a world of their own design. As communities have naturally formed around “The Sims” and its many expansions and modifications, other marginalized identities have recognized a similar value. Some LGBTQ “Sims” players say the game helped them on the path to living their true selves. (“Sims” characters have always been able to pursue romantic relationships with any other adult Sim, regardless of gender.)
Over the years, EA has released several updates that allow people to fully customize their appearance, race, cultural identity, gender identity and sexuality. Benji, who is from Sao Paulo, Brazil, says he’s noticed occasional updates that include cultures outside the US, like music from international artists recorded in Simlish, the Sims’ language.
This inclusion underscores the very reason neurodivergent players keep booting up “The Sims,” year after year, through all stages of life. When the world doesn’t seem built for you, it’s a relief to be able to build one yourself.