When the world doesn’t provide, the digital world may provide an alternative solution

It’s a widely understood concept at this point that many people in the millennial generation find it far more difficult to afford comfortable lifestyles than the generations before them. Housing prices and the cost of living have grown increasingly over the years, while wages continue to lag significantly behind. At the same time, we’ve seen a rise in life simulation games, where players spend their time living in a virtual world, building their lives from the ground up. Could there be a correlation between these trends?

In terms of housing, the affordability gap has skyrocketed. According to statistics gathered by Shelter,

in 2015, wages had increased by 27% since 1999; however, house prices in that same period increased by a staggering 284%

Needless to say, most millennials have written off the idea of affording a house for themselves, at least until they’re in their late middle-age years. Instead, many live in flats, house shares, or with their parents. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but for most people their own home is very much a goal – it’s one that’s instilled in our society, and is unfortunately less and less attainable for younger generations.

And so the focus on home-life turns to games such as those in the Animal Crossing series. Players can fish and catch bugs amongst other pursuits, and sell these goods for cash. Their in-game funds can be used to develop their homes, and even pay off a debt for these developments, much like a mortgage. Why on earth would anybody want to pay off a mortgage in a game, an experience tailored for fun? Well, it provides a lot more satisfaction than some might think, and there’s a key reason why: it is attainable.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons sees players living on a remote island and building a community. In this game, players don’t have to work three jobs and run themselves to the ground just to survive. For one thing, the loans are obviously smaller than those in real life, though it’s difficult to relate our world economy to a fictional one. Also, the leader of the island, Tom Nook, doesn’t charge interest on these loans, and you can pay them back at any time. There is no time limit. You can happily go through each day at your own pace, slowly collecting enough money to pay off your house.

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Another allure of life simulation games is self-sustainability. In Stardew Valley, players run a farm handed down to them from their fictional grandfather. It’s a deeply relaxing game, with the simple pleasure of tending to a farm each morning, collecting crops and earning money, then reinvesting into the farm and continuing this pattern. This game also taps into growing unrest with employment for millenials: many are unhappy in their jobs and far from where they wish to be in terms of a career. The game begins with the player character stuck in a lifeless office job working for a soulless corporation, and they are given a respite when they inherit their grandfather’s farm. They go from churning cash for a corporate giant to living out their days peacefully, tending to the land and living outside of the all-compassing 9-to-5 hours.

Furthermore, the focus on a career in and of itself is pushed very hard in many western cultures, with the idea that we should be chasing our ‘dream job’ and anything else is a waste of our time. Games like Stardew Valley provide a valuable escape without these societally-imposed pressures: life on the farm, sustaining oneself and simply existing is enough.

The Sims series is another example of life simulation games, and one that mirrors real life a little more closely. The player has all the control, and can choose any career from a generous list of options, build up their homes, and even form relationships. Many players choose to recreate themselves as Sims and live reasonably ordinary lives within the game. This may seem unusual to some who don’t play video games, but this experience is surprisingly rewarding. There is a great appeal in simply having your Sim complete several tasks in a day, get promoted in their careers and enjoy lasting relationships. There is something indulgent in living a virtual life where you have the time to do these things, in a modern society where time is money and many struggle to have any time to themselves after the working day is done.

While games are first and foremost a form of entertainment, there is clearly a whole host of reasons why many people, but especially millennials, find solace in these kinds of video games. When our goals in real life seem unattainable, it makes sense to lose ourselves in a fantasy world where the fantasy, perhaps sadly, is simply owning the building blocks of a normal life.

mackayan: millennial gaming