Seinfeld has often been called “a show about nothing,” and even fans wondered how it could be so successful with so little substance. Its protagonists are a group of friends who gripe about their work, personal lives, and inability to get soup while largely trying to coast through life without dealing with any particularly weighty issues. Despite living in one of the biggest cities in the world, the show often focused on the title character’s interaction with his weird neighbors Newman and Kramer, making Seinfeld’s world seem small and petty.
Likewise, critics of The Sims wonder what people see in the series, which lets players build and control a household. Considering that going to work, making meals, cleaning the house, and socializing are part of most people’s everyday lives, why would they want to spend their time doing those things when they could be playing a game that lets them spend their time as a superhero or a wizard? The truth is that The Sims isn’t actually any better an approximation of real life than Seinfeld. With its focus on your characters’ home lives and quirky neighbors, the game is a way for players to build their own sitcoms.
The Sims lets you create any living situation you’d like, from the classic married couple with a few kids, to adult siblings living together, to a house of attractive young adults striking it out on their own. Much of the drama comes from how your Sims interact, and the game is packed with potential conflicts between housemates. They get upset when someone’s hogging the bathroom and grossed out when people leave out dirty dishes.
As with many sitcoms, money either isn’t an issue at all or it comes up constantly. Many of the premade families are fabulously wealthy, living in well-decorated mansions where at least one household member has a great job. But if you make your own house, your characters are all starting unemployed. There’s no explanation for how they got the down payment on a stately suburban home, but the starting jobs don’t pay much and your Sims are all going to want different things. The conflict between whether to get a new TV, a bar, or a pool seems ripe for network TV.
But a good relationship with their relatives and a constant stream of new material possessions only goes so far. Your Sims are often looking to meet new people and your neighbors are more than happy to introduce themselves. This was especially true in the first edition of the game, when Sims could only leave the house to go to work. When your family moved in, a steady stream of people would show up at your doorway looking to introduce themselves.
Those neighbors become extremely important parts of your characters’ lives. Like Kramer, they’re happy to make themselves at home in your abode—watching TV, raiding the fridge, swimming in your pool, and even continuing to hang out after you go to sleep unless you explicitly tell them to get out. They’ll sometimes break your stuff, expressing their displeasure in a burst of Simlish that probably translates into, “Did I do that?” Sometimes they’ll ring your doorbell when you’re sleeping or at work. They’re supporting characters looking for their screen time.
Later versions of the game brought along public locations, and those settings quickly become as familiar as Friends’ Central Perk or How I Met Your Mother’s MacLaren’s Pub. They’re always convenient to visit and you can count on seeing people you know hanging out there. The employees are happy to chat and the prices never change. The neighborhood provides the reliable static base that makes a sitcom so comforting.
The Sims, like most sitcoms, is fundamentally about relationships. Your neighbors will become your friends, enemies, and romantic partners. They might be less prone to just knock on your door in later game editions, but they still are more than happy to chat with you for hours on the sidewalk, even when they’ve just met you. That sort of easy friendliness doesn’t exist in the real world, but it’s perfect for a sitcom where a bond might develop and die within the course of a single episode.
The game’s makers seem aware of what they’ve built and have populated the game with characters based on actual sitcoms. The Goths, who have appeared in every edition of the game, are a clear reference to The Addams Family. The Sims 3 had Gobias Koffi, who was inspired by Arrested Development’s Tobias Funke, complete with the custom trait “never nude.” Others families seem simply sitcom-ready, packaged with relationships to their neighbors that aren’t any more explained than Seinfeld’s enmity with Newman.
There isn’t much deep meaning to be found in The Sims. You might build your own “very special episode” if a character burns himself to death trying to cook mac and cheese, but for the most part, your life in the neighborhood of The Sims is mundane. But even though it might be a game about nothing, there’s a lot of fun to be found in those weird interactions that make up the characters’ days.
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