The Sims has always been an aspirational, dream-fulfilling game. In The Sims, you can have the nuclear family you always wanted, the five-bed, three-bath house you can’t afford, and perfect clothes, hair, and body. You can be an actress, astronaut or famous author whose fans will faint when you walk into the room. It’s an alternate, happier universe, free from discrimination and political strife.
Hence my amazement when in May, The Sims 4 team announced their newest expansion pack, which seemingly makes climate change canon in the game’s universe. I’ve played every iteration of The Sims since I was eight and, as much as I appreciate the escape it provides, I was excited to see the game take on an issue I care so much about.
Yet as I started playing the new “Eco Lifestyle” pack, it became clear to me that like much of mainstream Western environmentalism, The Sims is more focused on selling a lifestyle than real change. We should be concerned that this could be the first introduction to environmentalism for many of the more than 30 million people who play The Sims.
Like every Sims expansion pack, Eco Lifestyle comes with a new neighbourhood. In this case it’s Evergreen Harbour, a portside, industrial town with shabby, mundane homes. With the new pack, your lifestyle decisions impact the world around you, raising or lowering your neighbourhood’s eco footprint. As a neighbourhood becomes more green it transforms — the litter and smog disappear, the boring houses and apartment buildings take on the contemporary feel of glass and wood, the roofs sprout green grass. When the trailer for this pack was released, Sims players jokingly referred to it as the gentrification pack.
Growing up around Vancouver, I immediately recognized this aesthetic and its accompanying lifestyle. So, in the spirit of the new pack, I created a Sim with a septum piercing and trendy, sustainable-looking clothes. I made her house a haphazard stack of shipping containers with solar panels lining the roof; a rainwater collection tank in the yard. She would brew her own kombucha from the strawberries in her garden and make her own candles from soybean wax, which she would then sell at the local craft market. I also made her a “recycle disciple,” a new personality trait that comes with the game.
This is the same eco lifestyle I see marketed to me when I scroll through Instagram posts from thin, white influencers raving about their new ecologically-responsible clothes and swimsuits, or when I’m listening to a podcast and the hosts take an ad break to talk about a “sustainable” comforter and “natural and green” skincare brand before remarking at how amazing it is that “these brands are doing something for the Earth.”
A lifestyle is something you can purchase. You can’t buy a whole new economic system, but you can buy bamboo leggings and a vertical garden for your apartment. Through the marketing of a sustainable — and trendy — lifestyle, environmentalism is expertly folded back into capitalism, rendering it an aesthetically-pleasing but empty shell of its radical, anti-capitalist potential.
As such, the new Eco Lifestyle pack reveals how environmentalism has been integrated into the mainstream. For many, environmentalism centres around personal consumer decisions — buying sustainable clothes or choosing an electric car — that can fit comfortably within capitalism, as opposed to communal efforts that call for immediate, systemic change, like the protests and legal action against the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion and other fossil fuel projects.
The Sims’ decision to name the new pack “Eco Lifestyle” is in itself particularly revealing: it’s not the “Climate Change,” “Overthrow Capitalism” or even “Sustainable Living” pack. It’s about a lifestyle.
The philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls this “ecological bullshit”: we’re encouraged to take small, personal actions like sorting out our recycling or buying fair trade coffee to fight environmental destruction when, in Canada, upstream oil and gas production is consistently the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, pushing our carbon footprints to be the highest of all G20 countries.
In The Sims and real life, many of us are able to live out an ideological fantasy in which consumption can fix this problem — because we consume well, we feel absolved of responsibility as we show off our aesthetically-pleasing eco lifestyle to others. One Sims YouTuber tried as hard as she could to make the new Sims world polluted by filling every lot with industrial generators and fireplaces, but her eco footprint never strayed below neutral.
What The Sims and a lot of us are missing is serious reflection on the consequences of inaction. Tellingly, the words “climate change” never appear in all the marketing for the Eco Lifestyle pack. It’s implied by the existence of solar panels, wind turbines and the ability to vote for green initiatives, but the real, catastrophic problem facing our world is obfuscated.
There’s smog, acid rain and litter on the ground, but there aren’t devastating droughts and floods. Your sim can’t die in a wildfire or see their town disappear under rising sea levels. Sometimes they just get kind of sad because their neighbourhood isn’t green, and that’s about the worst that can happen.
The exclusion of climate change itself lets The Sims paper over the incommensurability between capitalism and environmentalism, allowing players to enjoy the conspicuous consumption of an eco lifestyle without the pesky 250,000 deaths per year projected to come from climate change.
The game shows us what mainstream environmentalism has become — if The Sims is a mirror then we need to take a hard look at ourselves, and heed the warning. In The Sims there aren’t any real consequences to inaction, but if we keep focusing on eco lifestyles in real life, there will be.