The video game’s new expansion pack, which allows game characters to get famous on social media, seems to be making fun of someone.
Often, the appeal in playing The Sims is watching humanoids navigate barely exaggerated scenarios inspired by your own life: finding a job, finding love, and, with luck, living to see old age. Major game-play additions—“expansion packs”—can propel the game ever closer to real life, in all of its monotony. Get to Work, released in 2015, extends game play from the home to the office and allows Sims to open their own businesses. City Living, from 2016, allows you to hunt for an apartment in the big city. 2017’s Cats & Dogs and 2018’s Seasons let Sims experience animal companionship and weather, respectively. Sims 4: Get Famous, released in November, introduces social media and influencers to play with another aspect of modern human existence: the managerial upkeep of identity.
When you install Get Famous, all of the Sims in your game are endowed with their own public image, which is a two-part composite of their reputation and celebrity level, both measured in stars. Fame is a choice here, and Sims may “quit the spotlight” if they so choose. My Sim, Caterina Doherty (no relation to the baroness), began her life as a young adult, a zero-star Unknown with a neutral reputation. She chose to remain in the public eye, of course—I specifically created her so that she could become wildly famous.
This latest expansion pack is not the first time that the franchise has played with the idea of fame. I remember chasing celebrity in 2003’s The Sims: Superstar, which allows you to turn Anybodys into A-listers and incorporates the likenesses of real-life stars, such as Andy Warhol and a “Dirrty”-era Christina Aguilera, and also 2012’s The Sims 3: Showtime. Both games channelled fame through the usual showbiz disciplines: singing, acting, or otherwise performing onstage or on camera. Although celebrities in Showtime can greet other Sims with an “Ever heard of me?” and, in the more cynical Superstar, suffer nervous breakdowns that get reported in the tabloids, the games made chasing fame seem like an honest living.
In the years since Showtime, though, the nature of celebrity has changed: movie stars are on television, television is online, and online is everywhere that meets the eye. But the game incorporates those changes without judgement. “Our goal isn’t really to parody them,” said Grant Rodiek, a senior producer at Maxis, the studio behind The Sims, speaking to the Verge about the new in-game Sim influencers. “Really what we do in the game is generally lighthearted . . . We present this as a serious career, a real career, a real way to go about making a living.” It should be noted that getting rich, available as a rewarded objective since Sims 2, is much easier than becoming famous; any Sim that goes to work and spends thriftily can be affluent before old age.
The usual Sims pathways remain in Get Famous—actor, musician, author, stylist—but now characters can also accrue fame in their free time or even without formal employment. In the spirit of things, I made Caterina a full-time social-media influencer. A bright-green “+Fame” qualifier allows users to nudge their Sims’ celebrity level by directing their Sims to post social-media status updates or upload photos to Simstogram. There’s no Simified SoundCloud or YouTube, but Sims can produce music tracks, upload vlogs and product reviews, and collect daily royalties according to viewership. I found myself drawn to those glowing bonuses like a dumb moth, choosing the weighted options every time they appeared. Between writing a column (which doesn’t affect fame scores) and writing a blog post (which boosts fame scores), I chose the latter; I shilled every snapshot doubly to Simstogram and the press; every amateur painting went for whatever an art dealer was willing to pay. Get Famous makes two types of in-game drones available for purchase with Sims money, and Sims can upload pre-recorded drone footage or stream live, quickly gaining bursts of new followers. Were the device not limited by what felt like a brief battery life, I would have bid my Sims to live-stream everything for the sake of exposure. You cannot, I’ve discovered, take drone footage of Sims mid-“woohoo,” the game’s euphemism for sex.
Still, I was unpleasantly surprised at just how much of a grind the game’s “path to stardom” was. Getting famous takes forever, and, obviously, it is more fun to be famous than it is to get famous. As Caterina spent her time interviewing strangers, improving her writing skills, and blogging for attention—advancing from Rag Reviewer to Culture Columnist—something told me that I’d been there before. In one work dilemma called Freelance Op-Ed, a Sim must submit either a “hard-hitting exposé” or a “fluff piece” to, as we’re told, “THE premier culture review zine.” With journalistic gumption, I directed Caterina to chose the exposé, only to receive a decline in “hygiene” and “work performance,” though the game notified me that the decision “leaves her feeling empowered.” I had been there before.
Once you achieve it, the best and most amusing parts of Sims celebrity are safely conventional. There are paparazzi. Fans will surround your Sim in public places, asking for autographs and selfies. Trash-digging “stans”—fans who take their devotion too far—can be chased away or allowed inside a Sim’s home, where they might pilfer a household possession. Fan mail, on the other hand, made me queasy. “Do u realize that u sound hot all the time ??? ♥♥” read one anonymous letter. “You make me smile when i don’t want to & you give me hope when everything is falling apart. i love you ♥” read another. Eventually, the letters started to feel patronizing. When I directed my Sim to upload a picture to Simstogram, I was greeted by several notifications of varying effusiveness. “BEST IMAGE EVER” read one such affirmation. “They can’t wait for your next one.” The game seems to be making fun of someone, and, if it isn’t parodying celebrities, then all that’s left for it to parody is us.
As for Caterina, I made an honest two-star celebrity out of her before boredom took over. Then I did what any smart social climber would do: I found a more famous person to latch onto. Caterina met a musician so famous that he glowed, convinced him to move in with her, seduced him away from his wife and son, and wed him in a shotgun marriage, giving birth to twin boys shortly thereafter. Still, Caterina died a mere B-lister, two stars away from the global superstardom for which she’d been brought to life. But there’s always hope for the next generation. In Get Famous, even children give it a go. Her sons, Baron and Laird, were young enough to still have homework but not too young to count themselves one-star celebrities.