The way Franny Mestrich built her town, it has a psychic. She’s really a phony, a Miss Cleo type, but Mestrich made sure she was living in a Victorian mansion that’s also home to an occult coworking space.

It reflects the novel Mestrich wants to write.

But it also provides a distraction.

Mestrich, 22, is one of many people who, because of the pandemic, is reviving her dedication to The Sims, a popular and highly addictive life-simulation video game series first released in 2000 that is seemingly providing a necessary getaway from reality. It’s a place, Mestrich explained, where she’s playing out her daydreams.

“At the beginning of quarantine, I was like ‘Oh, this is great. I have so much time and ability to focus on this reading,’ and I was, like, really trying to sink myself into that,” said Mestrich, also a playwright. “And then, as it’s gone on, it’s become harder to focus and harder to really sit down and work on something when it feels like the world is falling apart.”

The Victorian mansion that Franny Mestrich created for the characters of the novel she hopes to write one day.
Courtesy Franny Mestrich
The Victorian mansion that Franny Mestrich created for the characters of the novel she hopes to write one day.

Simmers, as players are known, shouldn’t feel the tiniest amount of guilt over the time they’re spending playing, said Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., who studies how games help people psychologically and socially.

Gaming, she said, “is an incredible act of self-care right now.”

That’s because they give players a sense of agency at a time when most people don’t have any, said McGonigal, who grew up in Moorestown. “And we’re looking for a way to, I guess, keep that part of our brain, and that part of our soul active, where we can make decisions, we can take actions, and we can see the outcome of our choices in the world around us. In this case, in a virtual world.”

In The Sims, players create people called “Sims,” build or place them in houses, and help direct their lives and achieve goals, including making money, or simoleons. Sims 4, the most recent iteration of the series, was selling for almost 90 percent off in recent weeks, a discount that enticed Mestrich and many others.

Leah Koneski, 23, of Prospect Park, hadn’t thought much about The Sims since high school, when she was attracted to the game as an introvert. Now Koneski is a medical receptionist who’s working from home.

“Even now, like, with the whole pandemic thing going on, I just think playing The Sims, and creating a life that’s not your own, but getting to, like, delve into it, and kind of just be in it for hours ... . I don’t know, it kind of keeps your mind off things.” she explained.

Koneski plays the game three or four times a week, often for four or five hours. She created Sims of herself and her boyfriend, and gave them two kids, Michael Scott and Shia LaBeouf. She doesn’t think their salaries — hers as a blogger and his as a tech guru — are enough to support them and the children, so she applied a cheat code and gave her family almost a million in simoleons.

Chandria Harris has been playing "The Sims" during quarantine.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Chandria Harris has been playing "The Sims" during quarantine.

Chandria Harris, 26, of Olney, was working at a retirement home before the pandemic, “and now I don’t know when I’ll be going back because everybody there is sick.” She, too, gave herself a Sim daughter she named Zipporah, and then put her Sim self on a mission to be an astronaut.

The work-life balance of mothering and space travel proved too much, though.

“I couldn’t see my child in enough time before I went to work. I would take the child to day care, they wasn’t feeding the child at day care, so my child was starving all day, and they took my child from me!” Harris said. It still stings. She wanted another Sim kid, but instead gave herself a partner.

“I only did that because I need someone to watch the kids,” Harris said. She named him Derrick Johnson, and gave him a chocolate complexion and a beard. He’s an athlete who likes music. “His other trait is that he likes to cook. These are all qualities that I would probably want in a person in real life, though.”

A look at where Chandria Harris' Sim person lives with her Sim family. Chandria, who is 26 and single, said the game aged her character a lot faster than she anticipated.
Courtesy Chandria Harris
A look at where Chandria Harris' Sim person lives with her Sim family. Chandria, who is 26 and single, said the game aged her character a lot faster than she anticipated.

The resilience of avatars dusting themselves off and trying again is a quality people can learn from games, McGonigal said. While later versions of the game allow for more complex personalities, Sims still don’t have to worry about their health like we do. And, Sims don’t have to survive plagues. Pandemics in games are rare, unless you count the 2005 bug in World of Warcraft that provoked a virtual outbreak that’s been studied by epidemiologists.

“Games are a safe space to be more playful, and thinking about whether it’s who our identity is and the avatars that we craft for ourselves, or the kinds of relationships we explore with other game characters or other players,” McGonigal said. “Some people use that for escapism, and to have a kind of alternative experience. And some people use it to kind of enhance and bolster their real selves … . For many people now, the fantasy is just ordinary life.”

The house where all nine of Abby Misbin's Sims stay. She has them working around the clock.
Courtesy Abby Misbin
The house where all nine of Abby Misbin's Sims stay. She has them working around the clock.

Temple student Abby Misbin has her Sims making about $30,000 every day, only working, never sleeping, all living together in the same house to save money.

“I have, like, one toilet for nine Sims,” she explained.

Misbin, 21, is back living with her parents in Ambler, forced to finish her junior year at Temple online. Although she hadn’t played The Sims since high school, she reactivated the FreePlay app on her phone almost two weeks ago. She’s not even that fond of the game, but it’s something to do because she’s bored beyond belief.

“But you know it’s just, I’m here for the profit. I’m here for the progress.”

Abby Misbin, a Temple University senior who lives in Ambler, PA, has begun playing Sims Freeplay to pass the time while she is stuck at home due to the coronavirus.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Abby Misbin, a Temple University senior who lives in Ambler, PA, has begun playing Sims Freeplay to pass the time while she is stuck at home due to the coronavirus.