Gentrification is now a thing in video games. The Sims 4 Eco Lifestyle brings urban innovations like renewable energy, vertical farming and participatory planning to the virtual world.
Since it was first released in 2000, The Sims is a life simulation video game that has conquered the gaming world. In the game, the player creates virtual characters called Sims, builds houses for them to live in, and plays through all stages of their lives. Every expansion pack brings new worlds with new features, challenges, and items for the Sims to discover. Now in its fourth generation, the latest expansion pack, The Sims 4 Eco Lifestyle, was released in early April — perfectly timed for gamers across the globe to escape to the virtual world during the quarantine.
Eco Lifestyle introduces the world of Evergreen Harbour, a coastal town that is long past its peak but has great potential to evolve into a sustainable home for its residents. Players can explore three neighbourhoods, each set in a different stage of air pollution — industrial, neutral, or green. The harbour area, for instance, begins as a neighbourhood with scattered trash on the sidewalks, poor air quality that makes the Sims cough heavily, and polluted sewage plants.
However, depending on the building materials and appliances purchased by the player for their Sim’s home, the eco-footprint and environment of the neighbourhood can be improved. The Sim, for instance, can upcycle an old shipping container into an off-the-grid home, install wind turbines and solar panels on the roof, or grow veggies in vertical planters. They can even source planet-friendly protein from their own insect farms. Another new feature also allows Sims to recycle objects into raw materials, which can be used to craft new furniture and appliances.
Evergreen Harbour’s potential does not stop here. The former industrial town comes with an abandoned train station, an old marble quarry, and other unused lots that can be transformed into community spaces. The player can choose between a community garden with lots of planters, a maker space where Sims can make use of 3D printers, or a marketplace to sell hand-made products. In order to turn community lots into one of these spaces, however, then Sim needs to collect points to vote for the preferred option.
Another participatory element in Eco Lifestyle is the Neighborhood Action Plans which the Sims are able to take part in every virtual week in their neighbourhood. These include promoting eco-friendly initiatives, such as saving water and using less electricity, as well as initiatives aimed at modernizing and greening public spaces. Once activated, the action plans transform the surrounding environment with green facades, renovated walkways, and colourful street art.
In this context, Eco Lifestyle stands out from earlier game expansions, not only in its ability to transform the virtual world’s environment but also in its promotion of green innovations, which is inevitably political. Surprisingly, bringing chaos and pollution to your Sims’ world needs a lot more in-game effort than greenifiying, even though Sims players are known to try to wreak havoc on their Sims’ lives. Some players even noticed that the algorithm will eventually transform a polluted area into a neutral one without their intervention, whereas our real environments would be polluted if we didn’t make the effort to clean it up.
While introducing participatory processes and green innovations is a dream to many city planners and urban activists, the gaming community has heavily criticized the pack for bringing “greenification” into the virtual world. Considering that The Sims is being played all around the world, it’s worth noting that this concern, based on real-life experiences, apparently is wide-spread amongst our generation.
“With a teensy donation from residents in the form of a weekly increase in utility bills, we will be able to fund the planting of many luscious trees (…) which will, in turn, give Conifer station a greener Eco Footprint. Everybody wins!”Quoted from the in-game participation tool of The Sims 4: Eco Lifestyle
Nevertheless, it remains true that The Sims has become so successful due to its high potential of virtual escapism by giving the player full control in creating their own stories. The arrival of real-world signs of neighbourhood gentrification into the virtual world, such as the new “juice fizzing” skill which lets Sims brew Kombucha, has led to unexpected discussions about urban transformation among the gaming community.
Even though transforming our cities into greener living spaces is usually carried out with good intentions such as health and climate resilience, “green gentrification” has also been shown to drive up prices in entire districts, eventually leading to the eviction of residents. While this is a complex issue which cannot be solved easily, the discussion around it can become more participatory with a bigger and more diverse crowd. In this light, The Sims 4: Eco Lifestyle could be the first life-simulation game that not only imitates daily life in the virtual world but also motivates players to advocate for their communities’ needs in the real urban realm.