My family never really had many traditions. Before moving to New York from Bangkok, we didn’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas, and after my father passed away a few days after my seventh birthday, it was hard to fully celebrate knowing that the week bookends itself with life and death.

After I met my boyfriend, though, we became fond of traditions. Even though he’d grown up with American holidays, he always felt like they were never truly his as opposed to his parents’. When we moved in together, we had vowed to start more as a newfound family, to have something we could call our own.

One tradition that our friends could always rely on was having hot pot on his birthday. It’s a Chinese meal consisting of a center pot of simmering broth you use to cook raw meats, vegetables, and noodles. I’m not sure how this tradition started exactly; sometimes we’d do it at home and other years we’d try a new restaurant because New York City offers so many. But we knew that since 2011, at the end of every March, we’d always have that communal meal because it gave us a sense of togetherness that was equal parts chaotic and delicious.

This year was obviously different. With all our friends quarantining at home, we couldn’t risk having people over for a meal because we wanted to make sure they stayed safe. So instead of skipping out on tradition, I sought to throw him a birthday the way I knew how: by building it in The Sims.

Through the game, I made all our best friends and their significant others, with all the traits I knew and loved about each of them. I also made sure that his sister, who had just moved to New York a month ago, and our friend from Chicago who was supposed to visit us during his birthday before nonessential travel was discouraged, were part of the party — the way things should have been before the world essentially changed.

It’s surreal how a goofy simulation game could feel so true to life. When our guests arrived, they headed straight to the birthday boy to give him a warm hug — a jolting reminder that something that used to feel so simple and commonplace was now something we had to resist. When Sim boyfriend finished cooking a giant bowl of soup (the closest thing the game had that resembled hot pot), our friends gathered over the pot of food, sitting close to one another as they shared smiles and laughter.

It was also funny to see Sim versions of our quirkier friends behave not unlike their real-life counterparts. While attempting to throw out party plates, one of the guests knocked over a whole trash can and remained embarrassed for the following few hours. The girls peeled off into another room to chat, leaving their boyfriends behind to go have their own little hang. Even our Sim Chicago friend quickly became the life of the party. As soon as he sat down at the table, his stories and jokes took center stage — with everyone wanting to know what was new in his life. For a brief moment, even in a simulated world where you get better at cooking by watching enough TV or immediately get hired just by applying to a job, things felt… normal.

After candles were blown and cake was served, some of the friends began to head home. His Sim sister, true to form, stuck around to help clean up — and even set back the trash can that was knocked over hours before. She’s always been the kind, selfless individual who would go out of her way to make you happy, and I have no idea when I’ll get to see her in person again.

As my virtual family and friends danced themselves into the rest of the night, I felt wistful at the birthday party that could have been — one surrounded by hugs, shared meals, and laughter. The last time I wrote about The Sims I said that life isn’t as simple as clicking a few objects in the house and building up your mood metrics to steer away from sadness. It still isn’t; but for now, when I see my Sim friends hug and watch as those little pixelated mouths turn to smiles, mine does, too. Because when this is all over, the first thing I’ll do is wrap my arms tightly around everyone I love, knowing that those of us who make it out of this safely will never let go either.

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