Behind Trees: Hiding and Finding Yourself in The Sims
In middle school, my AOL away message should have said: “Off playing the Sims; probably killing an effigy of you.” Because I was.
The Sims was my favorite computer game and I played it almost every day. In it, you built painstakingly detailed houses and filled them with people you created and controlled completely. I steered my Sims toward fulfilling careers, digital love, and cooking better chili con carne. I’d always been a storyteller, so I adored the narrative-building aspect of the game, and the graphics were stunning. The game’s lighting changed with the time of day and the furniture was dipped in rich textures—groundbreaking in 2001. I found sanctuary in The Sims every time I needed to offload rage or pick out fabulous topiaries. At age twelve, that was most of my time.
The game wasn’t easy, but it was logical. If I woke my Sims up at the right time and put them in a good mood they’d do well at work. After days of that, they’d get promoted and make more money. Then I could buy them a hot tub and they’d be so, so much happier. Through a long, careful march I could build them a happy life.
Outside of The Sims, I was more comfortable watching life than shaping it. If I played with the intricate social dynamics around me, I knew I’d knock things over and call attention to myself. I’d be the blushing person holding the last Jenga block over a ruined pile.
I wasn’t comfortable interacting with my peers, especially the popular ones. But I was comfortable performing for them. So I used the Sims’s full range of blonde hair and tube dresses, frosted tips and ripped jeans to build the popular kids into my Sims’s storylines. I used the “Rosebud; ;” cheat code to become an instant millionaire and built a neon-colored porn palace that any Real World cast would be proud of. There, the cool Sims sat around eating chips, listening to hip-hop, and trying to get pregnant—the American teenage dream. Each morning in art class, I told everyone who their Sim had kissed or married, how their Sim got fired or wore really slutty clothing. I made the stories funny and dramatic. It worked. They started listening.
I came up with other performances. One day a popular girl handed me her used gum as a joke. I said “thanks” and started chewing it. I took care of all their gum after that. I carried their trays and lunch boxes. I joined track—anything to be closer. I played Jester to their royal family. I would never wear the Crown, but I might avoid serfdom. By affiliating with them, I could borrow their safety.
I didn’t know I was gay. I didn’t know what “gay” was—none of us did, really. We were too deep in a small town, too far in the Appalachian Mountains, to know any gay people. But we knew it was a horrifying thing to be associated with, a tar-and-feather type of evil found in the bigger cities or somewhere on the internet, as terrifying as it was mysterious. I worried that my fear toward gayness felt distinct. It felt personal.
I was jealous of other boys. They were ogling Tara Reid, pretending to be older than they really were, seeing how many times they could pass Victoria’s Secret in the mall. I was in my basement, two eyes beaming out of a blanket, turning hours into intricate houses and landscapes and storylines. I cycled through clothes and haircuts, trying to make a Sim that would look like me when I grew up. But I couldn’t picture that possibility.
As I became increasingly jealous of the boys, I got angrier. This was complex because I spent the days worshipping them. I hated that they undressed and redressed casually in the locker room—like they belonged there—while I measured every step like an imposter one glance away from capture. They gave each other flipping, slapping handshakes that you could only master by not caring if you mastered them. They talked easily and reclined into the calm of brotherhood, while I was constantly nervous. Every degree of maleness they easily adopted proved how defective I was.
Being afraid of my friends was exhausting. I became an angry god. The Sims wasn’t very violent. You could kill Sims, but it was cartoonish—which is all I could handle anyway. I discovered several ways to end my frienemies:
Electrocution: If I had a Sim try to fix a TV while standing in a puddle of water they could get electrocuted. It was a lot of setup but worth the jolts.
Drowning: If I put a Sim in the pool and deleted the ladder they would swim until they became exhausted and drowned. This was the easiest way to kill a Sim, but some proved more buoyant than others.
Fire: Through a glitch, I could place an area rug under the hearth of a fireplace. Then, when a Sim lit the hearth, the rug and everything touching it would go up in flame. And if I wanted to see natural selection play out, I could make the rugs into a labyrinth of fire, but it was pretty depressing if all the Sims escaped. Fire was the fastest way to kill Sims, but it took the house with them.
Starvation: I could trap a Sim in a room by deleting the door. After a few days they’d fill it with their puddles and keep falling asleep. If I added a pet parrot to the room, then they wouldn’t be able to drift off. This didn’t make them starve faster, but did increase their yelling—which felt important to me at the time. Starvation was the longest, cruelest method and I only used it once or twice.
The track season and school year progressed. By telling stories and learning how to be funny I clawed out my place in the social hierarchy, but my feeling of otherness was constant and kept me on edge. Having a digital porn palace and revenge cathedral would have covered the needs of most middle schoolers. But even after all those hours of creating and destroying, none of my storylines applied to me.
I selected a lot in the back of the neighborhood and surrounded it with trees. I made two Sims, Nate and Joseph, and started their storyline before I realized its significance. They flourished. Nate became a doctor and Joseph’s paintings really took off. Their combined efforts meant that every day the house improved—a stove that cooked better food, kitchen cabinets with wood straight from the rainforest, and eventually a hot tub with sixteen massaging jets. I was shocked it worked. I was elated. Joseph even kind of looked like me.
Each piece of furniture was upgraded steadily until I hit an impasse with their beds. Nate and Joseph had the nicest single beds available. The only better models were king-sized and their bedroom wasn’t big enough for two. I got up and locked the computer room door. The next step was a line I couldn’t uncross. But I told myself that The Sims was “just a game.” I bought the king bed and, for the first time in my life, saw two men happily slip into it.
I couldn’t really tell what the Sims did as they slept. But it looked like Nate stretched his arm out, and Joseph rolled closer. I watched for a very long time before finally going to bed.
The school year was coming to an end, and with it, track season. My mother, the tireless hostess, invited the entire team to our house for the end-of-season banquet. Naturally they wanted to see the Sims game I’d been broadcasting for the year. We packed into the computer room, barely enough space for us and the excitement. They weren’t interested in the revenge temple’s stark gloom, unaware that its yard of tombstones glittered with their names. But the porn palace garnered the expected enthusiasm. Each person took turns having their Sim run through the dirty, garish rooms, making out with other Sims while we giggled and cheered. We were almost through the entire lineup when someone noticed there was a house hidden behind the trees.
I became glass, too frozen in my horror to do anything. They clicked into the house and combed the rooms like thieves, staring at the perfect couches, the matching wallpaper, and the little reading nook in the kitchen. No one spoke. They saw Joseph and Nate making dinner together, unaware of being watched by strangers. They found the bed. Everyone seemed uncomfortable. “Weird,” someone threw into the silence. We heard the polite footsteps of arriving parents upstairs. Everyone shuffled out.
I panicked. I had gone too far. My mind kept playing the same sentence with no ending: “It isn’t…” “It isn’t…” They all said goodbye with generic, polite smiles like everyone in Tennessee.
I waited until my parents were asleep before going back to the computer room. Nate and Joseph had just finished dinner and were reading together on a sofa in their bedroom. I made Joseph light the fire. Nate looked up, and then was gone. In under a minute, I couldn’t tell which pile of gray cartoon ashes had been the king size bed.