by W. L. Bolm

When I was 19 or 20, I bought The Sims. I was in a bad marriage and hundreds of miles away from any family; the game was a way for me to escape for hours into a digital universe where I could build mansions and lead fictional characters through their lives, at a time when I felt isolated and very lonely.

To say I put hours into this game was an understatement. I was working as a cashier at a Piggly Wiggly in Jacksonville, North Carolina. My husband was in the Marines, and when he wasn’t overseas, he was gone most of the day. Sometimes he would disappear for days with no warning and no explanation when he got back. So, I escaped into a game where I had ultimate control.

I played the game as it was meant to be played. Then I built a murder house full of intricate traps (or sometimes just pulled the ladder out of the pool when someone was swimming) and filled it with ghosts. I tried to reconstruct my favorite houses and families from movies. And then I discovered modding.

I’m fuzzy on the details now; I haven’t played The Sims on PC in at least a decade, but there were tons of Sims mods online in the early 2000s. I uploaded Sims skins (that changed the appearance of the Sims in the game) so that I had a cast of my favorite movie and TV show characters living together. My favorite skins were from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More with Feeling” episode. I filled their houses with custom furniture I found online and manipulated their emotions to recreate the relationships they had in the show.

The Sims is set up so that you have to balance out your Sims’ needs. Little meters show whether they need to go to the bathroom or need social interaction or entertainment. Other metrics indicators show up when they are interacting with each other, so you can, at a rudimentary level, monitor their social interactions and whether or not they’re getting along. With Sims who aren’t friends, or aren’t romantic, or actively don’t like each other, you can game the system and take steps to force a friendship or a romance.

I got Tara and Willow together in that game with an intensity that probably should have given me a clue about my bisexuality.

Around the same time I was obsessively living in the world of The Sims, I was also going to therapy for the first time in my life. I was prescribed medications for depression and social anxiety. And, through the course of talking to a professional psychologist on an ongoing basis, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

When I was diagnosed, I felt like I was thrown off-center. However, I had spent my entire childhood feeling different, like something was wrong. I was a weird kid. My mother was anti-doctor and very much anti-psychologist, so I suffered through my life feeling like I lacked character, that my problems connecting with people and finding the world overwhelming were from a failing on my part.

Being told I had common markers of Asperger’s Syndrome was a relief. The synchronicity of my diagnosis and my obsession over The Sims led to my first real steps towards building self care and socialization strategies.

I had always been a hyper-focused child who could cross stitch, or read, or work on puzzles for hours without stopping, ignoring my own needs to complete the task I was working on. As I worked on balancing my Sims’ needs, I started paying more attention to my own. I would get up and get food more often, or go to the bathroom, or take a shower.

When I was talking to people, I began to try to find indicators of their level of enjoyment of our interactions, instead of talking about my own interests obsessively. If I thought a conversation wasn’t going well, I would bow out and try to figure out what went wrong so I could come back with a different approach, like listening to someone else talk about their favorite television show instead of going on about mine.

While all of this might seem like Being Human 101, I grew up in a family where I often had to push down my needs to make others happy. I had to navigate family members’ alcoholism and codependency. I spent about 90 percent of my life in my room, with books and daydreams and video games, trying my best to be invisible and low maintenance. As I started to monitor the needs that correlated with those I saw measured every day on my computer screen, I started the trial and error that would eventually lead to greater health and happiness in my life.

I would love to say that therapy led me to the tools I needed to live my best life, but in truth, playing The Sims and taking meds that balanced out my brain chemistry did so much more. These days, I am happy, with healthy boundaries and a self care toolset that I can reach into every day to keep me going. I’m not sure I would be where I am if I hadn’t seen a pixelated character wandering around their house, their bladder, hygiene, and environment meters visually showing me how happiness and health are tied to a continuously changing set of variables that I can control and, more importantly, experiment with.

I grew up playing video games; I bought The Sims because I loved playing Sim City as a kid. The Sims was unlike any game I’d played up to that point, and I haven’t learned as much from another game before or since. It’s easy for game companies to build games they know will be a hit, but the truth is that setting out into the uncharted, away from what’s safe and known, can send untold ripples out into the world and offer players more than just an escape.