I’ve been playing The Sims for almost as long as I can remember. My first copy was burned onto a disc with a paper cover, given to me by the uncle that used to sell pirated DVDs at car-boot sales. My memories from that part of my life are hazy and jumbled, mixed up by the loss of my grandma when I was seven.

She was the source of unclouded love in my life; she held me when my parents had too much else to hold. I was never afraid or alone when I was with her, playing with my Barbies on the living room floor, helping her gather summer flowers from the garden, walking down the hallway with a book on my head to impress her. My favourite memory of our time together was being given a ball of wool, running through the house and wrapping it around door handles, table legs, dining chairs. She would watch on and laugh as I created an impenetrable web of teal thread. It must have taken her hours to unravel after I left. The clearest recollection I have around her death is the outfit I wore to her funeral, an orange t-shirt and a burgundy cord pinafore, and the soul-ripping feeling of watching her coffin pass me in the church aisle. I’d always been a sensitive child, but after she died I couldn’t hear her mentioned without melting down. This lasted until I was 10 (so I’m told—according to my internal timeline, it was a matter of weeks), and my parents sent me to a lovely group for bereaved children. They made really good chip sandwiches, real butter and soft white bread.

I don’t know what hooked me on The Sims. If I’d been a boy, like my cousin, I’d probably have been given a PlayStation and Crash Bandicoot, or Spyro the Dragon, something to shoot at or adventures to embark on. I remember playing on the clunky desktop in the living room, specifically the Makin’ Magic expansion. Now I could recreate the worlds I inhabited in the books I read, becoming a witch or a vampire or a fairy—not only was I, the player, all-powerful and immortal, but my creations could be too. It was perfect for a kid who loved escapism and control when reality was too big and scary.

[The Sims] was perfect for a kid who loved escapism and control when reality was too big and scary.

I was always home before my mum, so as soon as I got in the door from school, I’d fire up the Sims machine and plug in for hours and hours of living vicariously through my perfect characters. Some players loved the opportunity for chaos, but I was always trying to achieve what I thought of as perfection—skinny bodies, flawless grades, whole, happy families that were always successful and loving and never died. The aging off cheat was a compulsive twitch, embedded into my muscle memory. It gave me a place to feel safe, where small experiments were allowed, including exploring my burgeoning queerness in a way that I was too afraid to in real life. My self-insert creations would boldly flirt with women, wooing them into cohabitation, marriage, children—a life I could only dream of having. My mum and I would argue when I had to stop for any reason—eating dinner, going to bed—and I can still feel the ghost of the anger welling up inside me. It was the anger of the greedy having their riches taken. I hated having to leave my safe, virtual world to inhabit my imperfect real life.

I had a chaotic few years as a teenager, the repercussions following me into my mid-twenties. The grief I’d swallowed as a child grew, fed by more death, by the loss of the life I’d hoped to live, my joy snatched away when I’d barely begun to feel it. I struggled with anxiety, compulsive people-pleasing, and a debilitating feeling of being unsafe around others. I started seeing a therapist two years ago, and for the first year and a half, I never even looked at the grief, always perched at the periphery of my vision. The fact that I couldn’t even mention my grandma—who had died almost two decades prior—without crying didn’t seem like an issue. Neither did my careful avoidance of anything that might make me feel even the tiniest crack of loss (the movie Titanic, Fields of Gold by Eva Cassidy, particularly maudlin adverts for animal charities). My nightly insomnia caused by a fear of death? Small potatoes.

It‘s only in the last six months that I’ve even been able to acknowledge it. My grief was trapped, festering and mutating from garden-variety loss to a monster that threatens to swallow me whole as soon as I drop my guard. In these months, I’ve returned to my old childhood habit. The Sims had never really left, and I’d been clocking about 100 hours a year since The Sims 4 was released, but it ramped up significantly, and I’ve now played as much in six months as I would have in two years.

A screenshot showing a sim mourning the graves of two other sims.

I hadn’t made a connection between my grief and my playing habits until the night two of my Sims—Riku and Lena—were due to die. I’d seen them age from young adults struggling to balance their high-flying careers and a new baby (my play style has become more nuanced since I was little—chaos is allowed as long as it’s sure to be resolved), to elders in their enormous family home. I was struck by an odd feeling when the notification of their impending deaths appeared. It was panic, laced with a morbid responsibility for these avatars, these pale imitations of humans. I’m god, the fates, choosing not to save them, or to eke out a little more of their digital lives.

I put off the inevitable day with anti-aging potions, waiting until their youngest were out of high school before letting them go, trying to save my virtual children from the loss of their virtual parents. But whenever it got closer, I felt that tug in my chest, the downward pull towards the black hole I arranged my life around. It felt ludicrous, but even the smallest crack in the dam can unleash a torrent.

For their last day, I tried to make it perfect—a grand meal, Lena playing the piano as Riku watched on, knitting a rug to leave behind for their children. I cleared their inventories, selling anything of value (plumbing upgrade parts; old school projects). The only item I left was a composition Lena had written when it was just them and their baby daughter in the first, tiny house I’d built for them whilst she was busking for tips at the local lounge. It was the same as making sure your childhood teddies are comfy, perched on a bookshelf—a gesture of hopeful, gentle humanity applied to an inanimate object, saving them from a hurt they’ll never feel.

They collapsed at exactly the same time, synchronised animations and a cartoon grim reaper softening the scene with absurdity. The moment it happened, I felt the tiniest crack in my heart. It was better once it was over. The waiting is always the worst part, the held breath before the exhale of grieving can begin. For Sims, that’s a two-day +4 sadness buff that overrides any other emotion they encounter, and then it’s over. For me, it was 20 years of limbo, and two more of intense therapy. If they end up trapped in this state, it’s easy enough to debug them, reset them, cheat them into being happy again. There’s no lasting effect, no fundamental change, no grinding sobbing over memories of boiled eggs and toast soldiers, of the smell of sweet peas in the garden.

My therapist keeps telling me that I need to experience a little discomfort, over time, in order to make the big discomforts smaller. It’s an inconvenient answer that I never want to hear. I’ve barely begun to empty the reservoir where my grief lives. Most days, it feels too deep for me and my leaky, battered bucket. I still try to skirt around it, creeping on tiptoes to stop the dam from breaking. But I took the smallest step, let my foot fall a little harder. At least for now I can let my virtual families age, watch them eat mac and cheese, turn up late for work, fall in love and have kids; all the things they do in this tiny controlled simulacrum of life, knowing that when their time is up and the grim reaper is waiting, I can let them go.