Sims, the people-resembling avatars you control in the popular game The Sims, are just like us. They need to eat, sleep, shower, and make friends — and they need money to do all these things. Though the game frequently asks you to accept the bizarre — Sims regularly catch on fire and get trapped in rooms without doors — money is perhaps the aspect of the game that adheres closest to our reality. While a player can simulate an inheritance for their Sims by using cheat codes to add money to their bank account at the start of the game, the vast majority must find work as architects, fortune tellers, daycare providers, or any other profession. And as of a new update which went live on April 16, the Sims can be like millions of other Americans, and live life as a full-time freelancer.
I’ve been a full-time freelance writer and fact-checker for about a year. My decision wasn’t really a decision, but the result of my inability to find a salaried job after I graduated from college. Previously, I’d split time waitressing at a French restaurant, during which I managed to pick up enough freelance fact-checking work that when my back started to hurt and one too many rich people yelled at me about their mediocre croc monsieur, I was able to quit the restaurant to work out of my basement.
Joining the freelance economy meant that I joined the 57 million other Americans who work freelance, making up 34 percent of the U.S. workforce. By 2027, freelancers are projected to make up the majority of the country’s workers, encompassing jobs that range from graphic design to driving an Uber As the American economy changes, some traditionally salaried jobs have gone freelance, with companies lured by new technologies and the prospect of not having to provide their workers with benefits.
Growing up, The Sims dominated so many of my afternoons. I’d hadn’t played in years, but tempted by the prospect of a freelance life where I actually knew all the cheat codes to succeed, I pulled out an old external hard drive and logged back in. I made a Sim, named her after myself, and chose for her to begin a freelance writing career.
In the Sims world, after choosing the career path of “Freelancer” at the start of the game, a Sim can log onto their home computer to find work, where the in-game writing agency “Fighting Words” provides a list of writing gigs. (Apart from writing, they can also work as a freelance programmer or painter.) A pop-up box shows the jobs available, how much they pay and how long your Sim has to complete the task. After selecting a project, a Sim needs only to sit down at its computer, a clunky PC that can be upgraded to a sleek laptop once your Sim progresses far enough in its career, and write for a few hours. A meter to the left of the screen tracks how much longer a Sim needs to work before its project is complete, and a small reminder pops up on the screen as the due date approaches.
As a Sim gets experience writing, more lucrative gigs will be unlocked. If you hover over Fighting Words’ icon on the Sim’s homepage, the agency reminds you that “Climbing the ladder in a writing firm only to be assigned boring projects just isn’t for Emma. Neither is working unpaid and hoping to publish something that catches on.” I’m not sure where these mythical “writing firms” are, but as in real life, I did begin by writing for almost free. The Sims copy-writers are correct — it sucked — but I didn’t need a video game to tell me that.
Slowly, my Sim moved up the ladder. Not long after getting into the business, she spent a few days writing a listicle for 145 Simoleons, which she could use to buy two potted cacti or three paper towel dispensers in the Sims world, though not enough for a twin bed. (For comparison, I once made about $35 to write a listicle in less than four hours, which paid for an overpriced New York City salad, with enough left over to ride the subway for a week.)
As she picked up more writing gigs, my Sim’s life settled into a rhythm I’m used to, with work bleeding into all hours of the day. She would get up at 4 a.m. to work on her gossip column, only to go back to bed at 2 p.m. In the middle of writing a book of poetry — yes, in the Sims world they actually pay you for that — she made macaroni and watched TV in the middle of the day, but her mood turned tense when she had to stay up all night to make a deadline. She got encouraging responses from her editors like “While the topic of Emma’s article wasn’t too interesting, her writing was able to punch it.” She wrote a children’s book on a randomly generated topic, though after she turned in a draft in she got a message from her client that the book she wrote was both too mature and too exciting for children. Instead, she was paid a kill fee, and, in a burst of unsentimentality, left the finished manuscript on the sidewalk in front of her house.
Unlike in real life, there never seemed to be a shortage of work for my Sim. Every time she logged on to her writing agency’s website to find gigs, there were new posts from people offering her thousands of Simoleons to write a fantasy series or proofread a resume. Even more exciting than the abundance of work was how quickly she was paid. When she turned in an article she was compensated immediately, without having to file an invoice or have her payment enter purgatory when her editor fell victim to a series of layoffs. It once took me three months and countless emails to be paid less than a hundred dollars; my Sim was making more than that every few days.
Over the course of two weeks of Sims time, my Sim has written five books, a handful of articles, and only had a couple episodes of crippling loneliness.
It wasn’t long, however, before she became desperately lonely. After spending about a day and a half alone, her mood meter notified me that if she didn’t come into contact with another person soon, things would get bad. At one point, with no immediate social engagements on the horizon, I directed her to go for a walk outside and try to make friends with a local teen. Like 56 percent of freelancers who reported that their work can leave them feeling isolated, exclusively interacting with my coworkers through a screen leaves ample time to feel bad about and second-guess all my choices. I almost never leave my apartment during the day, but since my Sim seemed to be living the better version of my life, I decided she should take a short trip, the benefit of a flexible work schedule that I nonetheless have never really taken advantage of, as I’m always thinking about the next assignment I can squeeze into my free time. She went to a park across town, but after only a few hours she got agitated, and then fell asleep on a bench. I sent her back home to write copy for a tech startup.
The Sims is following a long tradition of using cheap, piecemeal labor to accomplish tasks with a definitive endpoint. The first written use of the word “freelance” appeared in 1819 in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, in reference to paid mercenaries that a Lord is able to command at will: They are his “Free Lances,” and their loyalties can be bought by whomever is willing to pay. It was a common concept at the time, trading money for the services of soldiers, who in return serve their commander only as long as they are needed. As the Lord explains in the novel, “thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.”
In The Sims, the times are never not bustling. There are no recessions or dips in employment in the video game, only a sugary kind of reality where the outlines are familiar but the rules are tweaked ever so slightly. Freelancing exists as the best version of itself. My Sim gets flexible hours and fair pay. She doesn’t have to worry about building a retirement fund on a freelance salary — if I want to, I can turn off aging, and she will never get older. She isn’t one of the 42 percent of freelancers who turned to freelancing because of the flexibility they need due to disabilities, or childcare needs that they couldn’t have found from traditional employers. She doesn’t have to worry about a lack of health care or the looming possibility of losing work and not being eligible for unemployment. She doesn’t live in our world, where existence as a freelancer comes with worry and instability. She’s fine as long as she can go outside once a day to try to make friends.
Over the course of two weeks of Sims time, my Sim has written five books, a handful of articles, and only had a couple episodes of crippling loneliness. She is inspired multiple times a day, and cranks out creative work at an alarmingly fast pace, happily letting her work and life balance disappear in pursuit of a much more cheerful brand of capitalism. In that same time, I played a video game for hours and wrote these 1,300 words. I thought when I started playing Sims with a career option that mirrored my own, the somewhat removed perspective might actually teach me how much I should value my current career, and make me feel motivated to keep working at it. Instead, it mostly reminded me how tired I am. After only a few days of playing Sims, I let all my freelance clients know I wouldn’t be available anymore — I’d just accepted a temp job, in the real world.