This Day In History: February 4

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On February 4, 2000, the revolutionary computer game The Sims debuts in North America. Electronic Arts does not have particularly high hopes for its new sandbox game, the brainchild of SimCity designer Will Wright, but The Sims will earn universal critical acclaim, spawning a franchise that remains immensely popular more than two decades later.

SimCity, released in 1989, was an early example of a “God game,” in which the player was not simply a participant, but in control of the game’s universe. Wright began work on what would become The Sims after the success of SimCity and after the loss of his house in the deadly Oakland fire of 1991. Wright’s experience of finding a new home and filling it with new possessions influenced the development of the game, as did the urban design book A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander. A skeptic of consumerism, Wright also included a number of veiled critiques of consumer culture in The Sims and its successors.

Originally conceiving the game as a virtual dollhouse that would allow players to experiment with designing a home, the production team became increasingly interested in modeling human behaviors and relationships. The result was an open-ended “sandbox” style game that mimicked real life: The player controls every aspect of life for a Sim or family of Sims, with no ultimate goal but a never-ending series of tasks to accomplish in order to keep the Sim’s life on track. The game could only end if every Sim in the household died in an accident—aging and death from natural causes did not feature in the franchise until The Sims 2.

The godlike control and lack of an ending made the game endlessly playable, a recipe for success in the gaming industry. Despite this advantage, EA considered the project a distraction and put little effort into marketing it. Nevertheless, The Sims created buzz when it demoed at E3 in 1999. During a demonstration featuring a mostly scripted in-game wedding, two female Sim wedding guests spontaneously struck up a conversation and shared a passionate kiss, shocking the audience and turning the game from a sideshow into a headline-grabber.

When The Sims was released for PC the following February, it was a hit, becoming the best-selling computer game of 2000 and 2001. The original Sims spawned several best-selling expansion packs, and the title was updated in 2004, 2009 and 2014. The game’s widespread popularity made it a cultural touchstone for millennials, and more than two decades after its release The Sims remains one of the best-selling computer games of all time.

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