Games are undeniably part of our lives today. Many of us grew up with a controller in our hands; games are at your fingertips on smartphones. While some might object that spending time playing a video game is a waste of time, there is another perspective. What if we could encourage players to think about the environment while they play?
Play can teach people to understand and care for the environment, and this opportunity extends to teaching children to think about the earth and sustainability in everyday decision-making. A popular game that illustrates enduring values and that might surprise you is The Sims 4. The Sims is a life simulation game with many expansion packs to add distinct social, economic and environmental challenges to the characters, called “sims”.
Awareness of the climate crisis is reshaping Sims gameplay and the way Sims live in their virtual world.
Simulate sustainable living with The Sims
The Sims, which was introduced in 2000, is for people who want to play with life’s choices, teach sims their skills, and build homes, businesses, and communities. With the new Eco Lifestyle Expansion PackSims players can also practice reducing their impact on the environment – first by changing their choices in-game, then applying those changes IRL (i.e. “in real life” for non-players).
In the Sims 4 base game, players are given several skills to practice that reflect a sustainable lifestyle. For example, they can practice gardening to grow food or handicraft to repair and upgrade SIM card devices. The bills that come in once a month reflect how players use simoleons, the world’s virtual money. By adding the Eco Lifestyle Pack, players get more challenges that build environmental awareness, expand their existing skills with new green choices, and track results with a new virtual carbon footprint tracker.
The game encourages players to think about the impact of their choices beyond the cost of bills on the careers, traits, and aspirations a sim may have to improve their world. Each neighborhood has an ecological and industrial footprint rating, and your sim’s household will positively or negatively impact that rating.
Immerse yourself in a sustainable virtual world
Players can develop a sustainability mindset by adjusting the small details and life choices they make for their sims. For example, a larger house will require more virtual heat and more simoleons to pay for it. The Eco Lifestyle expansion features four new simulation traits that change character options: Recycle Disciple, Freegan, Maker, and Green Fiend. While players cannot salvage their sims, they can search a sim’s trash for useful materials and use them to upgrade or create new items in a sim’s house.
A new Maker trait, which mimics real-life maker movement, encourages players to use a new “crafting” skill. This allows sims to craft furniture, candles, tables, chairs, and other items for their homes using repurposed items found in the virtual world. Players can also tap into older Sims skills, like “maneuverability”, to allow their sims to upgrade items to perform more sustainably and reduce the environmental impact of the character’s home.
Also new to the Eco Lifestyle pack is a new business opportunity for sims, insect farming, an industry that is now gaining traction in real life. Players can buy and breed beetles, grubs, or crickets, which their sim can convert into virtual goods, like dinner or clothing, or use to purchase new skills for a sim. Cricket flour, for example, can be used in a sim’s cooking or as a biofuel that generates energy and reduces the sim’s household footprint.
To reduce the impact of the neighborhood a sim lives in, players can place the sim in the civilian designer career. In this career, the sim can work to make a positive environmental difference by developing and sharing sustainable paths for their community. There’s never been a more convenient way to practice green behaviors.
Practicing sustainability skills virtually
The Eco Lifestyle Pack adds new items such as solar panels and wind turbines, providing information that helps players learn more about environmental impacts. The pack enhances the Build mode where players design their sims’ world. It offers information similar to what a consumer would find when purchasing the actual versions of the items a sim might purchase. For example, the power consumption of a new device is explained and the player can choose “working off-grid” products to set up a house in the desert online.
Players learn by playing the game instead of having to study. The result is the ability to make more informed choices by balancing durable features with product price and convenience. Imagine adding solar panels to a virtual house to generate the electricity needed for a new washing machine or home theater – it’s fun to play home design, but Sims Eco Lifestyle subtly teaches players how to reduce their environmental impact in the real world with confidence because they can try it online first.
Once players make a purchase, the environmental and financial results are visible in the details of a sim’s monthly bills. The choices in the game mirror those we make in everyday life. For example, the cost of electricity consumed by a 100-inch television or water used by an antique toilet goes directly to the bottom line of the simulation, showing the consequences of purchasing decisions. This is a motivation to buy sustainable products, because doing otherwise has a financial impact on a sim’s life.
Growing cultural influence of the game
A growing body of research shows that games can contribute to social awareness and off-game comfort. “Character-based practice in a role-playing environment can also impact the development of social-emotional skills of gamers in real life, as evidenced by feedback received in interviews with parents and students,” wrote Weimin Toh of the National Institute of Education at Nanying Technological University in Singapore, and David Kirschner of Georgia Gwinnet University in a March 2023 research dissertation.
Despite some bad rap games, science has shown that there are benefits for players. “Compelling video games are incredibly powerful vehicles for positive behavior change and social progress, and over the next few years we’re going to see more of that potential realized,” Nick Stanhope, founder of social design firm Shift Design writing. Stanhope also suggests that, given enough screen time, an active thought-promoting activity like gaming is much more beneficial to people than a passive activity like watching TV.
With an estimate 3.75 billion players and counting, there is a huge potential audience for games with a message, such as sustainable living. Supporting games with meaning and a positive influence can help make a difference in the way a large part of the population thinks. With the environment struggling, now is the time to expand sustainable messaging platforms and get people thinking about their impacts.
Games make you think
Play can help build awareness on many facets of everyday life, and eco-friendly games help players test their thinking before heading into adulthood or to the local Lowe’s or Home Depot to buy a new refrigerator. Sims Eco Lifestyle can get you thinking about the choices and monetary impact of making and using eco-friendly products and services.
Just like life, a game can demonstrate that small choices can result in lower bills and lighter environmental impact. Playing a sustainable simulation can help develop environmental mindfulness. It can help people of all ages experience choices for living the way they want on a limited budget, giving generations of gamers a head start on the life decisions that shape their long-term environmental impact. Look for games that encourage you to think in addition to having fun. The rewards for the real world could be huge.