Ingrid Doell is a Winnipeg-based writer and photographer trying to navigate post-MA life with anxiety. She has been trying to avoid visits from the Grim Reaper due to cooking fires since the release of The Sims Deluxe Edition in 2002. Instagram:
I wake up sad, but I ignore the mood and continue with my day, taking care of my needs, going to work. When I return home, I file reports on my computer, cancelling the impulse to talk to my desk, as the reports will take longer if I do. I keep progressing, always a forward trajectory: I become charismatic, get promotions, work towards my aspiration by learning to play chess and keeping a half-built spaceship in my backyard. I am developing a friendship that might become more than that with a neighbour who constantly sports a tweed newsboy cap and a blue silk shirt. I’m playing The Sims 4 and my character is my first intentionally “insane” character.
Creating and playing with this Sim, Eve Burrows, was a new experience for me. The Sims, which is now in its fourth edition since its original release in 2000, is a game in which players create virtual people (Sims), build houses, and play out their lives: meeting needs, getting jobs, fulfilling aspirations, forming relationships, and having children. Although Sims have some autonomy, enabling them to care for themselves, in order for the Sims to have successful lives in the game players must take control. However, players do have some ability within the game to create different definitions of success. For some players, this may be to reach the top of one career or have the biggest house; for others it may be to have the smallest house possible, meet the Grim Reaper; or for their Sim to have a quiet life with their same-gender partner. Additionally, it is possible to play the game completely ignoring the game’s structure and instead building lives that may seem chaotic or lazy in mainstream society through the use of cheats or by leaving the Sims to fend for themselves. Players also use cheats and mods to alter the possibilities of the game. The most commonly used cheats give Sims large qualities of money, thus affording them all the privileges inherent in wealth. While gaining wealth is one of the versions of success that game promotes, using money cheats allows players to gain success in a way that mimics inheritance rather than the American Dream model of hard work and equal opportunity that the game’s main programming presents.
When creating a Sim, players choose traits in order to give the Sim a unique personality and interests. In The Sims 4, these traits are divided up into four categories: emotional, hobby, lifestyle, and social. These categories seem to be arbitrary in a way that is somewhat problematic. For instance, “gloomy” is an emotional trait while somehow “insane” is a lifestyle trait. Players assign Sims three traits picking from any of these categories; however, picking some traits do cancel others out. For example, the game will not allow you to make a Sim who is both good and evil or a loner and outgoing. While at first glance making a Sim active or a music lover may seem to be simply a personal choice, most, if not all, of the traits carry with them political weight as they carry with them inherent cultural values. Traits like creative or cheerful largely carry positive associations, but others like gloomy, noncommittal, or insane tend to feed into cultural stereotypes about who is productive and what healthy relationships to self and others look like.
Gloomy and Insane Sims
I tend to play The Sims the way I live my life: trying to maintain control and be as productive as possible (my sister makes fun of me for always making my Sim’s children do their extra credit homework). When I create Sims, I give them positive or neutral traits that will help them achieve success within the game. I found that playing with Eve, who is insane, gloomy, and ambitious did not change my gameplay substantially. She tended to switch emotional states more than my other Sims, but most of the actions associated with either being insane or gloomy could be cancelled or simply not chosen in the first place. For example, in the image below the coloured boxes under Eve’s face in the bottom left corner show that she is feeling uncomfortable; she is tired from a lack of sleep; happy because of a work promotion; tense because she needs to do something fun; sad because of having the gloomy trait. Sims, like humans, can experience multiple emotions at once and can also withstand not having their needs met for quite a while before crashing.
Playing as Eve forced me to think about how the game represents mental illness. As someone who has had depression for years and anxiety perhaps my entire life, I found The Sims 4’s representation of mental illness is at best inaccurate and at worst, it perpetuates dangerous stereotypes of mental illness. Gloominess, which I think is the game’s version of depression, randomly makes the Sim sad and unable to be cheered up by other Sims as well as making their breakups “devastating” rather than getting the regular “Break Up Blues.” Additionally, they occasionally worry about bills and can “Share Melancholy Thoughts” with other Sims. This reduces the complexity of a condition like depression into something simply and easily programmed into the game. It then becomes easier for the game to perpetuate harmful stereotypes such as the melancholic artist, which it perpetuates through making Gloomy Sims more creatively productive when sad. The game tells players, “Gloomy Sims get some of their best ideas when they’re Sad. Try painting or writing a story!”
While the Gloomy trait plays into more romantic depictions of mental illness, the Insane trait draws on stereotypes of people with mental illnesses being dangerous, unpredictable, and/or violent. For example, Insane Sims experience random emotions, talk to inanimate objects during other tasks, flirt with or talk to themselves, and occasionally cower and swat at the air (as seen in the image below). These actions imply that insane Sims see and hear things that are not real, that they are not rational, and are not governable by the normal rules of society. Although Sims almost never get physically violent without the player choosing mean actions repeatedly, the Insane trait is represented by a straitjacket, which implies through cultural associations that these Sims are a danger to themselves and others. The symbol of the straitjacket brings with it a long history of the mistreatment and abuse of people with mental illnesses, especially by the medical community (Fennell; Menzies et al.). It also draws on the way that mental illness has been taken up by media, such as horror movies, as dangerous, scary, and violent.
The Asylum Challenge
While The Sims is a single-player game, it has a large online community including online games, shared galleries of creations, dedicated YouTube channels, and user-created custom content. In many ways, The Sims 4 is an exaggerated version of human life where players can live out their own personal utopias, dystopias, or mundane lives as they see fit. For many players, the ability to create chaos is one of the drawing factors of the game. One of the most popular applications of the Insane trait amongst the online community is the Asylum Challenge, which involves creating a full household of eight Sims with the insane trait and only controlling one of them. Additionally, there cannot be enough furniture and appliances to meet all the Sims’ needs at once. In order to complete the challenge, the Sim the player is controlling must complete a number of aspirations. In the Sims forums, member simswithcheese describes the backstory to the challenge:
“You have been committed to a run down mental health facility against your will. In order to prove that you are fit to rejoin society and earn your freedom, you must achieve the goals your psychiatrist has set for you – your aspiration. The catch? You need to achieve your goals as quickly as possible, while keeping 7 other patients, who you don’t know and are out of your control, alive and as happy as possible. Add to that budget cutbacks leading to a lack of decent furniture and limited supplies, and your task gets harder.”
Like the game’s use of the straitjacket, simswithcheese’s description of the challenge draws on the cultural imagination surrounding mental illness. Particularly in the phrase “prove that you are fit to rejoin society and earn your freedom,” which Others mental illness as being separate in the asylum from the sane society around it, literally and metaphorically. However, they also draw on contemporary problems in the mental health care system through the use of budget cutbacks to explain the lack of resources central to the challenge. It is worth noting that while this challenge was created by the gaming community in forums and can be played in The Sims 4, it is not part of the game’s programming. Because the challenge is not part of the game, it might be possible to play it in a way that subverts the problematic depictions of mental illness inherent to it; however, it is unlikely that most players would do that.
The most popular depiction of the Asylum Challenge is the forty-five part series posted by TheEnglishSimmer on YouTube. The first video in the series has been viewed 1.8 million times, and starting in January 2018, TheEnglishSimmer started a second asylum challenge. The introduction of this video explores the historic setting of the asylum and invokes horror tropes by slowly zooming into a Victorian mansion at night while playing suspenseful music. Horror films about asylums and Mad Doctors rely on reviving a historical mistreatment of mentally ill or disabled patients either through living patients or ghosts who haunt the asylum or hospital (Nelson). As Kris Nelson argues, asylum horror “tropes rely on a collective acceptance that these horrors are a thing of the past – and what they do is reinforce this acceptance, making it harder and harder for survivors of these present-day horrors to be taken seriously.”
While the rest of the video is in TheEnglishSimmer’s usual upbeat tone, and the second challenge brings attention to the problematic core of the challenge, she continues to replicate societal ideas and misconceptions about mental illness. She repeatedly refers to the Sims in the asylum as crazy, finally dehumanizing them in a quick slip of the tongue when she declares the end of the challenge means they can “become a human again.” Though she does correct this to mean “a normal person of the community,” her correction creates a divide between “normal” or neurotypical people and people who are mentally ill or neurodivergent.
Life and Gameplay Intersect
What I found most interesting about this series was the comments section. Most of the comments were fairly typical for a Let’s Play video, but there were some comments that questioned whether the challenge was a good representation of mental illness, although none of them seemed to actually call out TheEnglishSimmer directly. Additionally, there were a few comments in which viewers detailed and compared their experiences of being in psych wards. For example, commenter tenedria explains:
“I’ve been into a mental ward for about 2 days before (I was suicidal, not insane). Most people in there are just fine. They either are there while they are being tested for medications to fix their problem (ex: some medications can stop hallucinations) or they are in treatment.”
These comments disrupted the ongoing argument in comments that defended the challenge as “just a game” by recontextualizing it within everyday life experiences; however many of them, like tenedria, still perpetuated stigma by comparing their experiences of mental illness to others using stereotypes and ableist language—tenedria also explains it “wasn’t as weird” as expected and that the biggest complaint they had regarding their experience was that they felt “locked up” and disliked not being able to be alone.
The Sims games are often praised for the diversity made possible in their character creation, particularly in gender and sexuality, but also increasingly in age, race, and body type. However, The Sims 4 continues to perpetuate negative stereotypes around mental illness through traits like Gloomy and Insane traits, which makes it easy for assumed normate/sane players to view mental illness simply ways to make their gameplay chaotic, interesting, or funny. The game is a way that players can play out fantasy lives—whether idyllic or catastrophic. For me, a realistic version of life will always contain mental illness. In the catastrophic version of this life, mental illness will prevent me from living fully and complexly in an inaccessible and sanist culture, while in a utopic version of this life I, like Eve, will be able to manage my mental illness and find fulfilling relationships and work. Although unlike Eve, I probably will not finish building the spaceship in my backyard and fall in love with an alien. It is, after all, a fantasy.
Fennell, Phil. Treatment Without Consent: Law, Psychiatry, and the Treatment of Mentally Disordered People since 1845. New York: Routledge, 2002. Web.
Maxis and The Sims Studio. The Sims 4. Electronic Arts, 2014. Computer software.
Menzies, Robert J., et al. Mad Matters: a Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies. Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 2013.
Nelson, Kris. “3 Ways Popular Horror Movie Tropes Are Ableist.” Everyday Feminism, Everyday Feminism, 20 Nov. 2015,
simswithcheese. “The Sims 4 Asylum Challenge.” The Sims Forums, Electronic Arts Inc., 18 Sept. 2017.
tenedria. Comment on “The Asylum Challenge: Sims 4 | Part 1 | Enter the Asylum.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 May 2015.
TheEnglishSimmer, director. The Asylum Challenge: Sims 4 | Part 1 | Enter the Asylum. YouTube, YouTube, 16 May 2015.