Torun, POLAND – The Sims 4, one of the most popular video games in recent years, released an environment-themed expansion pack — the first one in the history of the title.
The Sims in short
The Sims, produced by the American company Electronic Arts, is a well-established series of simulation games and has remained one of the most popular titles globally, for 20 years since the release of the first rendition. As technology – and consumers’ expectations – evolve, every few years the game receives a new look and slightly different options to play with.
Players create virtual households composed of characters called Sims, and lead them through their virtual lives set in virtual neighborhoods. The players control most aspects of their Sims’ lives – what they look like, what job they get, whether they start a family or not, and where they live.
Many people love The Sims particularly for the building mode – the opportunity to build custom houses with endless possibilities for creative mix-and-match. There is also a huge appeal in the storytelling capacity of the gameplay – you can create a character and give them a unique life story, and continue their legacy through generations of Sims to come.
The Sims products are divided into the “base game” and a few kinds of add-ons, which must be bought separately. There are Expansion Packs, Game Packs, and Stuff Packs. They all differ in price and add various amounts of new options to the game.
Expansion Packs cost the most and add the most new content. They bring in a new neighborhood for the Sims to live in, usually a few new careers, and often unique possibilities, such as going to university, doing magic, or living on a tropical island.
One of the greatest perks of the game is that there are seemingly no rules — you can live your Sim’s life in any way you want, leading them from rags to riches or to utter ruin, depending on your mood.
That is The Sims in short. Now that we all know how the game works, let’s dig into some virtual eco dirt.
The Sims go eco
In early May, producers confirmed that the next The Sims 4 Expansion Pack would be called Eco Lifestyle, revolve around environmentally-friendly activities and come out on June 5th.
Significantly, with this premiere, the Pack became the first ever add-on in the entire history of the series to make explicit reference to environmental issues. Simultaneously, it is perhaps the only ‘eco-themed’ title of such exposure on the game market worldwide.
Some might, understandably, see this as being long overdue. You would have to take my word for it, but the night before the Pack was announced I was wondering whether The Sims would ever release a climate change Expansion Pack (I also considered an add-on neighborhood set in a post-apocalyptic world, but am not sure whether these two were part of the same or separate thoughts). Concerns about environmental change are for some of us a natural part of our daily lives, and it would only be natural if it were part of our Sims’ lives, too.
When I first read the Eco Lifestyle’s announcement, I imagined the kind of comments it might get from the more radically wired members of the environmentalist movement. First, there’s that of the eco-label, which does nothing but attracts customers; then, accusations of greenwashing, as the gaming industry is still responsible for huge amounts of e-waste like discarded electronic devices, including gaming hardware.
I was surprised that within a week of the premiere, I had seen none of that, apart from one Twitter thread, which I will talk about later. So either most potential critics considered it to do more good than harm and left it alone, or they are too busy saving the environment to be thinking about silly computer games.
Following a trend or pushing an agenda?
When it comes to critique, you can always count on the YouTube comments section. I treat them less as representative of the public’s opinion and more as an assortment of different perspectives.
(I dare say that occasional ventures into the depths of YouTube comments help me expand the limits of my consciousness; as you read them, you recognize that something can make sense despite simultaneously not adhering to any rules of logic whatsoever).
One commenter argued that The Sims seems to have started “pushing an agenda” and become “some kind of good behaviour simulation”, and said that he sees no future for the game in “following trendy themes and millennial lifestyle.”
That is some stuff to unpack. There is truth in saying that an ‘eco-lifestyle’ has become a trendy theme these days, and that many millennials – though not only them – did engage with that fashion. I could not doubt that for one second.
Whether the game’s trying to push an agenda, too, can be argued both ways, but the “good behaviour simulation” remark is simply off target.
From what I see, The Sims 4 Eco Lifestyle is precisely what the game has always strived to be – a simulation. The Pack introduces a simple causal relationship, which works more or less on the following premise: If you do the work to keep your environment clean, it will be clean. If you don’t, it won’t.
There are actually a few different ways in which your Sims can care for the environment. They can collect rainwater and install wind turbines, use recycled materials and energy-efficient household devices, or vote for Neighborhood Action Plans, which may encourage self-sufficiency, like developing gardening and DIY skills, or give financial rewards to Sims who get their electricity from renewable sources.
However they choose to do it, the reward the Sims ultimately get – for either “good” or “bad behavior” – is reflected in the Eco Footprint of their neighborhood – my favorite new feature of the gameplay.
The Eco Footprint has impact on the visual aspect of the neighborhood, giving it a layer of smog when the Footprint is “Industrial” or bright sun rays and Aurora Borealis at night when the Footprint is “Green.”
What I found more significant than the visuals, though, was the Footprint’s impact on the Sims themselves. Before I managed to up my neighborhood’s status to “Neutral” – something between “Industrial” and “Green” – my Sims (and me) were continuously irritated by the never-ending coughing caused by the pollution suspended in the air.
Now, if you ask me, that is a proper real-life simulation – where fitting a household with a trash-burning furnaces sends all the neighbors into fits of cough.
Will The Sims save the world?
Eco Lifestyle seems to have hit spot-on two recommendations for the game industry from the 2019 UN Environment Report “Playing for the Planet:” to “include a ‘green nudge’ in every game,” and “pledge for the planet.”
In the run-up to the premiere, The Sims posted on their social media a template tagged #EcoLifestylePledge, encouraging followers to “make a difference” and pledge actions that would positively impact the environment.
The critics of nudging and pledging might say that neither of these actually guarantees long-term behavior change. However, we must not forget that The Sims is first of all a commercial game made for entertainment. It is not issued by the UN or any government, and is not funded by any relevant organization.
The angry Twitter thread I mentioned earlier targeted the financial aspect of the new Expansion Pack release. A few people agreed that they would only pay the full price (about $40), or not even that, if Electronic Arts were donating the money to environmental organizations.
“… none of the profits go to actual environmental efforts,” a comment reads, “…they’re trying to profit off of an actual global crisis because it seems trendy.”
I am nothing if not an optimist, but I would struggle to believe that a company which for 30-odd years has published commercial games would now turn into a charity. Although commercial companies do make donations to non-profit organizations, the main job producers had here was to bring the world of environmental activism closer to those players for whom this world still seems distant. A person who is indifferent towards environmental pollution is not likely to donate $40 to the World Wildlife Fund. They are, on the other hand, likely to spend it on a computer game that they already value and enjoy.
Eco Lifestyle has some educational features without verging into the (somewhat stigmatized) genre of educational games. To have someone spend $40 and have fun playing a game they would play either way, and learn something useful along the way, sounds better to me than have someone spend $40 and have fun playing a game without learning anything.
The tweet I want to end with describes The Sims as “more than a game… but an instrument of change.”
It sounds perhaps overly optimistic. It would be naive to expect that thousands of people all of a sudden start guerrilla gardening or install rooftop wind farms just because they played a computer game.
But who says that it can’t happen?
One of the greatest issues surrounding environmental damage is people denying it’s happening, or that it has a real impact on our lives. Climate change news get shrugged off as yet another one of the ills of today that we can’t do anything about. Altering the small part of people’s everyday realities, which might include playing the game, is the ‘nudge’ the UN proposed.
More people must be aware that change is happening and that change is needed, and if a computer game fulfils the objective, that is no less of a success. It might be regarded a small success, but its size does not determine the scale of the outcome – the effects might be great.
The Sims will not save our real-life world all by themselves. However, they are a great place to start.
Joanna Koter is a Correspondent with Youth Journalism International.
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