The Sims: Can Gaming Teach Environmental Responsibility?

Games are an undeniable part of our lives today. Many of us grew up with a controller in our hands; games are at our fingertips on smartphones. While some might object that spending time playing a computer game is a waste of time, there’s another perspective. What if we could encourage gamers to think about the environment as they play?

Gaming can teach people to understand and care for the environment, and that opportunity extends to teaching kids to think about the earth and sustainability in daily decision-making One popular game that illustrates sustainable values and 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, which are known as “sims.”

Awareness about the climate crisis is reshaping The Sims gameplay and the way sims live in their virtual world.

Simulating Sustainable Living With The Sims

The Sims, which was introduced in 2000, appeals to people who want to play with life’s choices, teach their sims skills, and build homes, businesses, and communities. With the new Eco Lifestyle expansion pack, Sims players can also practice reducing their environmental impact – first by changing their in-game choices, then by applying those changes IRL (that’s “in real life” for non-gamers).

In the base Sims 4 game, players receive several skills to practice that reflect a sustainable lifestyle. For example, they can practice gardening to grow food or handiness to repair and upgrade the sim’s devices. Bills that come 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, extend their existing skills with new green choices, and track the 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 to careers, traits, and aspirations a sim can have to improve their world. Each neighborhood has a rating of eco-friendly and industrial footprints, and your sim’s household will impact this rating in a positive or negative way.

Dive Into a Sustainable Virtual World

Players can develop a sustainability mindset as they adjust 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 offers four new sim traits that change the character’s options: Recycle Disciple, Freegan, Maker, and Green Fiend. While players can’t have their sims recycle, they can search a sim’s trash for useful materials and use them to upgrade or create new items in a sim’s home.

A new Maker trait, which mimics the maker movement in real life, encourages gamers to use a new “fabrication” skill. This enables sims to make furniture, candles, tables, chairs, and other items for their home using repurposed items found in the virtual world. Players can also tap into older skills from The Sims, like “handiness,” to enable their sims to upgrade items to perform more sustainably and reduce the environmental impact of the character’s household.

Recycle Disciple screenshot from The Sims
“Recycle Disciple” is one of the Eco Lifestyle pack’s traits found in the Create a Sim tools. It adds new characteristics to a sim. Players can add more traits to their sims as they get older.
Green Fiend screenshot from The Sims
Set your environmental preferences. The “Green Fiend” trait lets a sim autonomously perform tasks that improve their environment when being played by the gamer.

Also new in the Eco Lifestyle pack is a new business opportunity for sims, insect farming, an industry now gaining traction in real life. Players can purchase and raise 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 power and reduces the sim household’s footprint.

To reduce the impact of the neighborhood a sim lives in, players can place the sim in the Civil 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 like solar panels and wind turbines, providing information that helps players learn about environmental impacts. The pack enhances the Build mode in which players design their sims’ world. It offers information similar to what a consumer would find when shopping for the real versions of the items a sim might buy. For example, a new appliance’s power consumption is explained and the player can choose “functional off-the-grid” products to set up a house in the online wilderness.

Gamers learn by playing the game instead of being forced to study. The result is the ability to make more informed choices when balancing sustainable traits with the price and convenience of products. Imagine adding solar panels for a virtual home to generate the electricity needed by a new washing machine or home cinema — it’s fun to play at home design, but Sims Eco Lifestyle subtly teaches players to make real-world reductions in their environmental impact confidently because they get to try them out first online.

Immersive Bend screenshot from The Sims
An example of the power rating provided when buying household items using the Eco Lifestyle pack.
Old Time Antique Toilet screenshot from The Sims
Some items function off the virtual grid, which allows sims’ homes to operate independently of the virtual cities’ grids. It might be good practice for real-world decisions.

Once players make a purchase, the environmental and financial results are visible in the breakdown of a sim’s monthly bills. Choices in the game mirror the ones we make in daily life. For example, the cost of electricity that a 100-inch TV consumes, or the water an antique toilet uses, goes straight to the sim’s bottom line, showing the consequences of buying decisions. It’s a motivator to buy sustainable products, as doing otherwise impacts a sim’s life financially.

Gaming’s Growing Cultural Influence

An increasing volume of research shows games can contribute to out-of-game social awareness and comfort. “Character-based practice in a role-playing game environment can also have an impact on the players’ development of social-emotional skills in their real lives, as evidenced by feedback received from 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 paper.

Despite the bad rap games get from some, science has shown there are benefits to gamers. “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 this potential realized,” Nick Stanhope, founder of the social design firm Shift Design wrote. Stanhope also suggests that, given enough screen time, an active thought-promoting activity like gaming is far more beneficial to people than a passive activity like watching television.

With an estimated 3.75 billion gamers and counting, there’s a huge potential audience for games with a message, such as sustainable living. Supporting games with meaning and positive influence can help make a difference in how a large part of the population thinks. With the environment in trouble, now is the time to expand the platforms for sustainable messages and get people thinking about their impacts.

Games Make You Think

Gaming can help develop awareness about many facets of daily life, and environmentally minded games help players test their thinking before heading into adulthood or to the local Lowe’s or Home Depot to buy a new fridge. Sims Eco Lifestyle can make you think about choices and the monetary impact of making and using green products and services.

Much like life, a game can demonstrate that small choices can add up to reduced bills and a lighter environmental impact. Playing a sustainable sim can help develop environmental mindfulness. It can help people at any age experiment with choices to live the way they choose on a budget, giving game-playing generations a leg up 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 might be huge.