What the sims can teach us about youth culture

When The Sims 2 landed in 2004, it changed my life forever. I’d spend entire days and nights in our family computer room making virtual mac and cheese, upskilling in charisma and chain clicking “Flirt” until I could “WooHoo” with the resident hottie in my Sims town.
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What the sims can teach us about youth culture

When The Sims 2 landed in 2004, it changed my life forever. I’d spend entire days and nights in our family computer room making virtual mac and cheese, upskilling in charisma and chain clicking “Flirt” until I could “WooHoo” with the resident hottie in my Sims town.

Fast forward 18 years, I’m doing Strategy 9-5 and Simming 5-9. I’m unashamed to say SimsTok has found me, and has become my happy place. The hashtag #thesims4 has 3.5B views on TikTok, and 5.7M followers on Twitch, and as I write this at 2pm on a Tuesday, 2,500 people are currently watching Sims Live streams on the platform, so I’m clearly not alone. The Sims used to be something I saw as a recreational silo in my life, but now, thanks to the algorithm I am immersed in the wider culture of the game and its huge online community. 

The Sims is a cultural institution that has remained relevant with young people around the world for the past 22 years, and holds an incredibly nostalgic cultural cachet, but what is it about the Sims universe that has the new generation so hooked?


The Sims has always operated on a foundation of no boundaries, whether of love, gender or passions. 4 days ago, Maxis updated the game making it possible to finally prescribe sexual preferences for your Sims, but before that, you couldn’t technically create a straight Sim!

The game also has extensive gender customisation options, with users able to give their Sims unique pronouns, customise whether their Sim gets pregnant or impregnates, whether they pee standing up or sitting down, and whether they have a preference when it comes to gendered fashion.

We know the new generation live life fluidly in all aspects, and platforms that facilitate this are seeing the most success. Young people want to try on different identities, but we often see them doing this in virtual worlds first, which is why inclusivity and representation needs to be woven into the fabric of the metaverse.


The Sims 4 base game can be layered with extension packs to customise the game for users’ unique tastes, and The Sims has always been pretty on it when it comes to delivering updates and extensions in tune with youth culture conversation and moods. 

Right on the nose of Gen Z’s Cottagecore fantasy, The Sims released a Cottage Living pack in June 2021. Players can live out their most wholesome village-life dreams, raising livestock and growing produce. And again, noticing the rise of climate activism and sustainable living subcultures, The Sims released an Eco-Lifestyle pack in June 2020, that brings the idea of your Sims’ eco-footprint into the forefront. In the pack, players can farm alternative protein sources, try home brewing and smart mobility, and participate in the circular economy, bringing climate education to life in an interactive, immersive forum. 

And in the most recent development, The Sims is partnering with Depop to bring the idea of virtual thrifting and upcycling to life.​​ “Five of Depop’s sellers – @internetgirl, @happyxloco, @selenasshop, @judaku and @furrylittlepeach – have created new, limited edition in-game pieces, available to buy in the game’s new thrift store”, says Depop on their blog. The partnership unites two of Gen Z’s biggest priorities - self-expression and sustainability, while also championing online creators and cross-pollinating channels in an authentic and natural way - community building 101.


With ongoing climate anxiety, political turmoil and growing wealth inequality on a global scale, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen a rise in nihilistic attitudes amongst Gen Z. With all these existential threats, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Gen Z is increasingly turning to nihilism to navigate modern life. It’s a philosophy that many young people adopt by default, and though it can be depressing, many adopt nihilism into their lives to bring a sense of euphoria and freedom.

Most players have experimented with the darker side of the Sims experience. Taking your Sim for a swim and removing the ladders or locking them in rooms without food supplies are the staple methods, but with every expansion pack comes new creative ways to play with the impermanence of life. 

You can even download a ‘Nihilistic Trait’ to give your Sim, or add an ‘Extreme Violence Mod’ to take your game from wholesome cottage living to a bloody twerk-fest in a matter of seconds. A lot of the content is completely absurd, mirroring Gen Z attitudes and trends and shows that sometimes the best route forward is to not give weight to things that don’t really matter. Youth audiences love some nihilistic chaos - inject it.


The one thing that truly makes The Sims a huge opportunity for brands wanting to engage with youth audiences is how community driven the culture is. Maxis has empowered superfans of the game to create their own extensions and enhancements of the game, through tools for creating Custom Content (CC) and Mods.

CC can range from unique home decor items to dressing your Sim in Nike or Louis Vuitton in game. The shared cultural capital this provides for The Sims, the players and the emulated brands benefits all parties when it comes to long term brand love. The space is full of opportunity, and is mostly untapped when it comes to pushing the boat out further. What other branded experiences could you create in game beyond fashion and interior design? The creative scope is truly endless thanks to the Open Source development capabilities.

As marketers, we throw around the word ‘co-creation’ a lot - but it’s only true co-creation if you relinquish creative control and allow your co-creators to truly express themselves, and that’s how the Sims have garnered true, long-term cultural capital. They provide toolkits, not instructions - and the creative output is something to really write home about. 


To summarise, here are four key lessons brands and businesses can learn from the way young people interact with The Sims:


When creating platforms for young people, make fluidity the default and empower them to continuously customise their experience as they grow up with the platform.


Try gamifying purpose marketing to make your comms cut through


Offer moments of chaos and nihilistic humour to win share of voice and garner earned media


If you’re going to co-create, commit. The more guardrails and ‘rules’, the less authentic cultural capital is up for grabs.