The exciting part about the Sims is to slowly build your house, invent characters and define life goals for them. I remember enjoying inventing infinite life scenarios, conceive love stories, friendships but also fights between the different Sims.
This famous life simulation video game released in 2000 is one of the most successful games ever created for PC (Thang, 2008 and Sacco, 2011). During my adolescence, I strongly felt attached to this video game and enjoyed to play long hours on the computer. It was the first time I felt obsessed by a video game. So, where did this obsession come from?
It is possible that I first felt satisfied by the entertaining and creative aspects of The Sims. However, I believe that what contributed to make me feel addicted to this video game, is the idea of evasion in a world with no limits, where I could feel in control and in perfect harmony with my identity. This paper will analyze how the consumption of the Sims reflects the development of my self-esteem from my early-adolescence until today.
The apparition of desire
“I was 11 years old when I first heard about The Sims. I still remember feeling this sensation of excitement inside my stomach while I was imagining myself creating virtual characters and designing homes for them. I started wanting the game so bad! I decided to ask this game for Christmas and waited for 9 months until I could finally receive it and play the game.”
According to Belk, Ger, and Askegaard, the difference between desire and utilitarian needs is reflected by the use of passionate words that translate deep emotions about the object of consumption. By saying words such as “sensation of excitement”, “started wanting this so bad”, “waited for 9 months”, I clearly illustrate my deep desire of playing The Sims.
Desire constitutes the link between the social world and individuals. Consumers tend to desire goods that can enhance the connection between themselves and the social world (Belk, Ger and Askegaard, 2003). My object of desire: playing The Sims can therefore be considerate as a solution to make me feel more socially accepted.
Who I am versus who I want to be
2.1 Cultural change and self-esteem
“Since I was born, I lived in 7 different countries and in 3 different continents. I spent my entire adolescence living in Barcelona, Spain. When we moved there, it was the 5th country in 10 years, after Turkey, Panama, Chile and France. I was happy with my friends in France when my parents told me we had to move to Spain. I felt sad and frustrated to leave my friends once again. When I arrived in Barcelona, I had to integrate myself in groups of early-adolescents that knew each other since they were 3 years old.”
Living abroad can sometimes make it complex for a child to establish a clear cultural identity. Multicultural people may at some points have troubles to find groups in which they feel accepted and understood (Carvalho Hoersting, 2009). This explains the fact that, when I first arrived in Barcelona, I experienced difficulty in finding the right group of friends in which I would feel comfortable. Although I was able to speak Spanish, I didn’t know how to speak Catalan, the second official language in Barcelona. The fact that I couldn’t understand everyone and that people from my class constantly noticed my South American accent in Spanish made me feel uncomfortable and unsecure at school. “Language barrier can lead to misunderstandings, unintended conflict and feelings of alienation among those involved”, explains Jacob Stover.
At the same time, our move to Barcelona corresponded to my entrance in the early-adolescence stage of life. Social identity effects during adolescence are important, especially when they derive from peer identity. If adolescent do not strongly feel part of a group, they might have troubles to cope with developmental problems, to find their identity and increase their self-esteem (Tanti, Stukas, Halloran and Foddy, 2012). This change of socio-cultural environment therefore directly affected my self-esteem as I didn’t feel part of the new group.
According to Hampton, my self-esteem is directly linked to my satisfaction with my identity. However it is also conditioned by the perceived respect and esteem from other people. A lack of self-esteem will produce “feelings of inferiority, of weakness and of helplessness” (Maslow, 1943).
2.2 The theory of self-discrepancy
During my adolescence, I felt uncomfortable and unsecure at school. My timidity and lack of confidence made other people abuse my kindness. They knew I would say nothing so they played with my limits. I felt furious and thought it was really unfair. At the same time, I couldn’t find a way to tell them what I really thought and started noticing a gap between my real me -the non-shy person with my family- and the other me at middle school – extremely shy and incapable of having balanced friendships. While playing The Sims I was able to control personalities, characters and situations. It was a way to escape from the real world for a few hours.
According to Shankar, humans perform different “roles” in life (e.g. a person will have a different attitude with his siblings than with his partner). People are there constantly confronted to “multiple selves”. The fact that I was acting differently with my friends and with my family clearly illustrates the “multiple selves” theory. Higgins distinguishes three different kinds of facets of the self. Two of them are relevant for the psychological interpretation of my consumer behaviour. First of all, there is what he calls the “actual selves”, which corresponds to:
The type of person someone believes he/she is. In my case, the non-shy person in my family environment.
The type of person someone thinks others perceive him/her. In my case: the extremely shy and passive person in the social environment at school.
Then, there is the “ideal self” which corresponds to the image of what a person wants to be. In The Sims, there was always a virtual representation of myself somewhere in the game. According to Higgins’ theory, it represented my ideal self on a totally free of limits environment: the virtual Sims world.
When the different representations of the self become contradictory, and when it is possible to notice a discrepancy between the facets of the self, a person might start feeling unsatisfied, disappointed or “frustrated from unfulfilled desires” (Higgins, 1987). Higgins explains that self-discrepancy provokes emotional or motivational problem regarding the person’s identity. The author claims that people that notice such a discrepancy tend to desire to reduce or remove this gap. The fact that I noticed a gap between my two “actual selves” and that I tried to escape through the imagination of my “ideal self” reflects the wish to resolve the conflicts between my “multiple selves”. Below we will see how The Sims allowed me to resolve my inner-conflicts during my adolescence.
2.3 Playing with my identity: Player-avatar identification
“With the Sims 2, released in 2004, players could actually see their Sims grow through six different life stages (baby, child, teenager, young adult, adult, old person) and finally die. The concept of virtual life became more similar to real life and I began feeling more identified to the Sims I created. For instance, there always was a girl somewhere that represented me. My “virtual me” had a similar physical appearance, a perfect family and lots of friends while with the rest of the neighbours I experimented extravagant personalities, created mean people, aliens, rich, poor, fun, intellectual people, and so many others. I believe I indentified myself to many other characters as well. When one of the Sims I created started to become a “superstar”, I felt excited and happy. When a Sims who represented all I appreciate in a real person was in virtual trouble, I got annoyed and tried to save him from the bad situation.”
Figure : Life-stages on the Sims 2. Source: The Sims official website
According to the Higgins’ self-discrepancy theory, my “multiple selves” during the adolescence clearly interfered in the construction of my identity. The Sims allowed me to create and then play with several representations of personalities and therefore deal with my social identity crisis. Shankar, Elliott and Fitchett explain that in our post-modern society, identity crisis are generally solved “by using the symbolic meaning of brands, leisure and lifestyle pursuits”. Video games allow adolescents to cope with their identity within a virtual world (Dong Li, Kien Liau and Khoo, 2012).
In my situation, the symbolic of playing the video game The Sims was reflected by “the possibility of evasion from the real world” and “creating and controlling virtual entities”. I chose to ask the game for Christmas because it had a specific personal signification: it would provide me a sensation of control on entities but also the feeling of freedom in my behaviour. In other words, it would make me feel better with myself during a few hours and therefore feel better about my identity. Playing video games is indeed an experience that provides opportunities for the players to explore aspects of their identity that might not be advantageous in the real world (Kernis and Goldman, cited by Dong Li, Kien Liau and Khoo, 2012).
Dong Li, Kien Liau, Khoo, define avatars as “the animated ¬gures of players, which are usually humanoid in appearance. Game players could control the avatar to ‘move around, pick up, put down and manipulate objects, talk to each other, and gesture”’. Sims characters perfectly correspond to this description. They can therefore be considered as avatars. In my introspection, I explain that I used to represent myself as with a similar looking avatar that “had always the perfect family and lots of friends”. People usually tend to identify themselves with media characters that reflect positive concepts (Dong Li, Kien Liau and Khoo, 2012). My “virtual me” indeed represents my “ideal me” as part of my “multiple selves” explained previously. However, I also used to represent myself with many other characters that didn’t necessarily look like me. If an avatar is virtually confronted to different situations, it is the player behind that will experiment different kind of real emotions (Dong Li, Kien Liau and Khoo, 2012). By feeling emotions such as excitement, happiness and irritation, I am indirectly experiencing situations and the correspondent emotions.
Von Feiltizen and Linné identified in 1975 two different types of identification (Dong Li, Kien Liau and Khoo, 2012).
Wishful identification: for example, the player wants to be like a Sims (extreme social recognition of the Sims superstar, social life of the “virtual me”)
Similarity identification: for example the player shares characteristics with the Sims (physical appearance of my “virtual me”, Sims that needs help)
The identification with video game avatars contributes to the development of players’ identity with self-concept representations (Dong Li, Kien Liau and Khoo, 2012). “Virtual worlds allow us an ‘unparalleled opportunity to play with one’s identity and lets us try on new personalities” (Absolom, 2011). Moreover, Stora argues that alter egos such as the Sims characters provide opportunities to be someone else and understand how to serenely deal with new situations in the real life.
Finally, The Sims is a video game where the environment is represented in a very realistic way and that can become a tool of self-expression (Thompson, 2003). Playing The Sims was therefore a way to better understand myself and slowly resolve my identity conflicts while acquiring confidence in my real life.
My self-confidence reflected through the consumption of the Sims: The theory of the locus of control
3.1 Internal control versus external control: Who is responsible for my situation?
“Psychological situations are a function of both the nature of external events and people’s interpretations of those events” (Higgins, 1987). People’s emotional situation therefore depends on the way they interpret the reality. This allows a better understanding of the theory of the Locus of Control, designed by Julian B. Rotter in 1954:
According to Rotter, the Locus of Control is a psychological concept that illustrates the extent to which individuals interpret what influences events, situations and their own behaviour in life. Some individuals believe in an internal control (they are responsible for their behaviour and their destiny) while others believe in an external control (luck, fate or powerful entities are responsible for their destiny) (Rotter and Mulry, 1965).
During my adolescence, I used to think that I was unlucky, that people around me had bad intentions and that if I was feeling insecure it was because of this new environment and the people I had to study with. According to the theory of the Locus of control, I used to belong to the “externals” category of people. I believed in an external control that was responsible for my situation as I was convinced that my problems were conditioned independently of my actions.
Figure : The Locus of Control theory. Simplified representation.
At the same time, this theory states that external people are less able to cope with life than external people: “an external locus of control has been associated with hopelessness and depression” (Rotter and Mulry, 1965). Rotter and Mulry explain that internal people are indeed more willing to improve their life conditions as they believe in their personal strengths.
3.2 The sensation of controlling destiny by playing the Sims
“In this game there’s no winner and no looser. It’s all about the challenges and goals. Sometimes the game sets them for you: the Sims needs affection, comfort, professional ambition. Sometimes you set the challenges: “I want my Sims to be hated”, “I want him to become rich”, “I want him to fall in love with this one”, etc. I felt excited by the control I could have on the game. The fact that I could see small little Sims living their virtual life, control and manage their existence from above made me feel powerful”.
“Lacking control is often associated with fear, depression, or withdrawal behaviour. It is natural for individuals to attempt to re-establish control when their sense of control fades” (Quan, Feng, Yang, 2011). The lack of control regarding my social situation during my adolescence caused feelings of frustration, sadness and self-reject from the group. According to Quan, Feng and Yang, when a person desires to re-establish control, he/she will try to find alternative solutions that could provide control and compensate this dissatisfaction. The fact that The Sims brings to its players a possible virtual control on characters, architectures and virtual situations helped me to compensate the lack of control I was noticing in my social life at school.
The sensation of control provokes positive events and therefore happy feelings, with a facilitation of emotional adaption (Quan, Feng, Yang, 2011). By making me feel happier and in situation of control, this video game provoked an illusion of being internal in the locus of control theory, thus a better appreciation of my-self.
3.3 Today’s satisfaction with my identity
“I started feeling more confident at 16 years-old, after a summer trip to the United States, where I met a new group of people from my age that made me trust in myself. We all got along very well with each other and I understood that, if they could see me happy and outgoing, I could make my situation change at high school. The next year, I changed my attitude at school, and I slowly gained everybody’s respect in my class. I realised that I had the power to change people’s attitude starting with mine, and therefore understood that we create our own luck. Today, I understand who I am and tend to control my life with the achievement of personal goals”.
Self-esteem and confidence are directly linked by the feeling of control on a situation (Gestion, 2006). By believing that I am responsible from my own luck and for my destiny, I started to really become what Rotter calls an internal individual. According to the theory of the locus of control, today I believe in my personal strengths as being the reason of my happiness. I finally found a way to erase self-discrepancy in my identity and feel confident in social contexts.
It is interesting to consider that I stopped playing the Sims as soon as I felt better with myself:
“I stopped playing the game when I turned 16. The game just disappeared from my life even if I still feel attached to it in a certain way. Last summer, for instance, I downloaded the free Sims app on my Iphone and played the game for a few hours. The nostalgia felt while I was playing the videogame made me feel joyful at first, but I quickly felt bored. I tried again on the computer version a few days later as my other young brother asked me to play with him, but I felt tired of it after a few minutes. I wasn’t patient enough to play. The feeling wasn’t the same anymore.
At 16 years-old, I understood that I could control my behaviour and improve my social situation. The lack of control on my life disappeared, with the need of playing The Sims. This video game was a temporary solution that helped me cope with my momentary low self-esteem and need of control on my life.
As we saw on the first part of the paper, the video game The Sims allowed me to play with my different identities, slowly feel more confident in the real life, and satisfy my needs of control on my life at a stage where individuals are often confronted to a critical identity crisis
Most of all, this consumption experience illustrates my self-confidence at different stages of my life. When I was confronted to a very low self-esteem, I felt a higher desire to escape and found indirect solutions to my problems by playing the game. On the contrary, when I finally felt socially confident and good with myself, I stopped feeling the need of playing The Sims. The consumption experience of this game is an interesting reflection of my moments of confidence and happiness in life.
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