In 2000, Electronic Arts published The Sims, starting a franchise that would become one of the best-selling video game series of all time and occupy hours (who am I kidding, it’s days) of my future time. In the original simulation game and its three sequels, players can create virtual people, called Sims, and customize their appearances, their personalities, and their aspirations. Gamers lead their Sims through a virtual world and control their everyday lives, from decisions as large as what career paths they choose, to those as small as what they will eat for breakfast. Aside from day-to-day wish fulfillment, there’s no over-arching goal in any iteration of The Sims—these games are open-ended and meant to mimic real life, in which the only real goal is…to live.
This is the primary reason why The Sims has always included same-sex relationships, making it one of the earliest games of any kind to do so (although same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption weren’t introduced to the game until The Sims 3 came out in 2009). As noted by Simon Parkin in his 2014 New Yorker article, “The Kiss That Changed Video Games,” “If this digital petri dish was to accurately model all aspects of human life, from work to play and love, it was natural that it would facilitate gay relationships.” Parkin interviewed one of the game’s original developers, who stressed that in 2000, “it wasn’t considered ‘normal’ to be gay or lesbian…some even saw it as dangerous. But in The Sims it was normal and safe to be a gay person. It was the first time we could play a game and be free to see ourselves represented within.”
Although progress has been made toward LGBTQ+ equality in the 16 years since the release of The Sims, it’s clearly still not always safe to be a gay person in the real world. But in the utopian universe of The Sims, it just got a little bit safer to exist outside the rigid sex/gender/sexuality binaries. On June 2, The Associated Press announced that the creators of The Sims would remove gender boundaries in a free update to the most recent installation of the game, The Sims 4. Developed in collaboration with GLAAD, the update de-genders styling options, allowing Sims of any gender to wear clothing, makeup, and hairstyles that were previously only available to either male or female Sims. Walk styles and voice customization have similarly been made accessible to all Sims regardless of gender or sex. The update also invites players to customize the physiques of their Sims by answering a series of questions: Does this Sim have a masculine or feminine frame? Can this Sim use the toilet standing up? Can this Sim become pregnant, impregnate others, or neither?
These choices can be changed at any time within the game, enabling the creation of transgender, intersex, and gender fluid Sims, a virtual first for video games. This update has been broadcasted modestly and received a moderate level of media attention, but don’t be fooled: It’s a big deal. The collaboration with GLAAD, careful implementation of the update, and the use of non-gendered questions to customize individual Sims displays not only an understanding of players’ desires, but also a respect and acceptance of the LGBTQIA community. I should also note that this update is completely free with The Sims 4 base game, which is important. The ability for players of all genders to represent themselves accurately in a game they love isn’t a peripheral add-on that comes at an extra cost. The fact that EA and Maxis didn’t try to sell a “Gender Stuff Pack” (only $9.99!) on par with packs like “Romantic Garden Stuff” and “Movie Hangout Stuff” is validating. Representation isn’t for sale and it isn’t an amenity, it’s a necessity.
The sentiment that representation is important is one we hear over, and over, and over again. Representation is important in government, in advertising, in various types of media, including television, film, and video games—it’s important everywhere. But for all the think-pieces written, speeches given, and tears cried, the representations of real life around us have been woefully slow to actually… represent real life. That is: to represent life as it is for anyone who’s not white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, and able bodied. So to call a genuine effort at inclusion from one of the most popular and profitable video game series in history “heartening” or “a big deal” seems like an understatement.
However, even prior to this update, The Sims franchise had been somewhat of a post-oppression safe-haven for groups marginalized in the real world. Discrimination is virtually absent from the game: Sims of all races and all (available) genders have been allowed the same career paths and behavioral options (aside from bathroom and pregnancy actions) since the start. Sims have never had biased or prejudicial reactions to other Sims or societal phenomena based on race or gender. In The Sims 2, 3, and 4, which introduced progressively more diverse and nuanced body types, Sims never have negative reactions to their own bodies or to the physiques of others.
Although there’s always room for improvement (Where are the disabled Sims? And toddlers?), the team behind the game has done a remarkable job of representing the range of identities that exist in our world while freeing them from the limitations imposed by our society. The recent gender customization update not only allows transgender and non-binary gamers to create Sims that look like themselves, but it also affirms that The Sims is a rare gem in the world of video games, which doesn’t have a history of being particularly inclusive (#gamergate, anyone?). In part because of the kind of game it is, The Sims doesn’t cower or scoff at the idea of diversity in gaming, but instead listens, changes, and thrives. Because the only object of the game is to simulate life, it must actually, you know, simulate life. At times, however, The Sims goes above and beyond that call of duty—it represents most identities as they are in our own society while simulating the world in which they exist as better: less controlled by systemic oppression, less hampered by historical prejudices, and more accessible for everyone.
Sul, sul, Simmers! Sim on!
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