My career as an architect started with The Sims™

It started with virtual death traps and ended with a degree in architecture. Sharon Lam reflects on the real impact of the fake world within The Sims.

Architects, theme park designers, and minesweepers have one thing in common: they all have a gateway to computer games. Maybe these professions should thank game designers for promoting their field, that’s not always the case (although with recent hits like Goat Simulator anything is possible). But does a professional minesweeper translate into a high-level explosives handler? Are virtual roller coaster moguls today’s theme park designers? With a master’s degree, a few years of work experience, and hundreds of hours spent on The Sims, has being a Sims addict made me better at architecture?

The first time I played The Sims was during my spare time in computer class. The game itself needs no introduction – the ‘virtual dollhouse’ was released in 2001 and the power to control Sims from where they pooped to how they died , proved to be a success, and the game is now in its fourth iteration. Having been a seasoned kid of character-driven plushies and roofless Lego houses, The Sims directly fueled my passion for being a recreational god-maker. I quickly found that 15 minutes a week was not enough. I asked my dad to take me with him the next time he went to see “his guy”, i.e. a guy on a subway that went down to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur every weekend to peddling Stephen Chow VCDs and hot computer software like Windows 2000, Clipart Packages, and to my delight, The Sims.

Two Singapore dollars later, I had home access to the Sims world. My first days of Simming were difficult. Unlike the households at school which all mysteriously had thousands and thousands of Simoleans, all of my Sims were broke. I spent all of my precious computer time trying to improve their charisma and mechanical skills while they yelled at me for food. By the time my mom yelled at me to get off the computer, I had barely given them any furniture.

Finally, an older girl on the school bus put me out of my misery by talking to me about cheat codes in an incredulous tone with lots of ‘duh’, performing this act of charity with all the superiority that comes from having three years older than an 11 year old girl and I’m sure the accompanying ego boost was big enough to carry her through her days. Anyway, I now had the secret to “rosebud!;!;!;!” passed on to me, and I was in a whole new world. I could do and build anything I wanted.

My initial designs were within the Universal Architecture Style of The Sims 1. And by that architectural style, I mean Death Chambers squarely. Swimming pools without ladders, doorless hallways filled with flammable carpets and dozens of fireplaces, small little cabins trapping those unlucky enough to wander onto the property. When my friends arrived, we would do speed races, timing our Baby Gs who could kill a Sim the fastest (fire-based methods always won).

A fiery death in Sims 1. Image: Youtube

While the murder may have taken away the possibility of any architectural wonders, there are aspects of the game that I believe have genuine architectural merit. The game itself was originally designed as a architectural simulator, and the final gameplay involved constantly zooming in and out and rotating between four isometric views. It’s my scientifically unverified hunch that this has imprinted on my mind a better ability to visualize things from all angles. And in architecture where, like a serial liar or an extorting medium, you have to do a lot of precise imagining of things unseen, this skill is indispensable.

When I wasn’t killing Sims, I spent most of my time just in buy/build mode, the part of the game where time freezes. and the now iconic orchestral music plays as you create homes for those lucky enough to live. Here, I was able to indulge in the satisfaction of dressing, not with a tangled-haired Barbie, but with earth and space, a small step in architectural and interior design. Unlike Lego, I could change the color of the floor and walls with one click and place the furniture I wanted in as many rooms as I wanted. And all of that was for now, I was finally ready to go back to live mode. At the sight of a Sim walking into a room that wasn’t there before, I’d feel like my job was done, and I’d write off my Pocky with the satisfaction of a major real estate developer. Many years later, I would feel a similar satisfaction walking through a site that was starting to look like the design I had been working on on my computer. For the first time ever, walls that weren’t there before were now there, as I clicked on them. I had become that Sim myself.

A superb example of Sims architecture. Picture: Youtube

After The Sims 1, I tried The Sims 2, but really got back into the game with The Sims 3. There is now 360 degree rotation and you can zoom in to your Sim’s face. The buy/build mode is much more advanced and there are hundreds of creators sharing custom content online, including recreations of real buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Waterfall. The days when the depressing realization that working in architecture is just another job where you make a wealthy person more comfortable (directly, through a nice new house, or indirectly, through more profit) is particularly frontal , the Sims remains a good escape. The design itch can be scratched without thinking about construction waste or how the price of a client’s Italian bathroom tiles might pay for an entire higher degree.

Along with buy/build mode, Sims themselves are now more advanced, able to have personality traits and notably, can even get out of pools without ladders – they simply push themselves with their arms like real humans do. One can still build walls around these pools, though, and perhaps as a testament to the architecture’s enduring relevance, Sims still can’t walk through walls.

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