Digital mirror: Finding ourselves in The Sims

Rounding off our theme for August, mental health, a group of fans of The Sims explains how conducive the game is to a sense of well-being and community.


We started writing this article before the violence in Charlottesville, before the angry speech in Phoenix on August 22, before the pardoning of Sheriff Arpaio, and before the military ban on trans women and men. In the current U.S. political climate, our thoughts about a game, and the stories we write connected with it, may seem trivial. But when we can point to a creative act that promotes acceptance of diversity, that generates kindness and openness, it’s not trivial. It’s significant.

Produced in Redwood City in Northern California, The Sims franchise of video games has been developed over the past 17 years in a culturally and politically liberal context. The open-ended framework of The Sims allows its players to create an accepting and inclusive approach towards gender expression and sexual identity.

A graphically rich and colorful game, The Sims also provides a customizable medium for writers of a form of fanfic known as SimLit. SimLit writers make use of the game as a creative tool on the spectrum of illustration to collaboration. The game has been likened to playing with dolls; when SimLit writers stage their screenshots, posing Sims like models or directing them like actors, the Sims become characters in vibrant illustrations for stories. Other writers take a more collaborative approach with the game and the individual Sims, telling the stories that develop organically as they explore the lives of these digital individuals.

The game operates on adaptive artificial intelligence, which develops in response to the game-player’s decisions and the autonomous choices of the Sims themselves. Each Sim is capable of making decisions, experiencing emotions, falling in love -or not – and living a digital, autonomous life from conception to the grave, and beyond. In addition to the adaptive intelligence of each individual Sim, the overall game engine runs on adaptive AI, which allows it, too, to change and evolve in response to both the player’s choices and the autonomous actions that happen within the game.

Most of what we describe here represents our experiences as SimLit writers who fall towards the end of the spectrum of collaborating with the game and the Sims, rather than directing them as actors. The significance of this distinction lies in the element of discovery: Through the responsiveness of this adaptive, open-ended game, we uncover aspects of our identity as qualities of ourselves are reflected back to us in the game, and then in our stories.

In this panel conversation, three of us examine some of the ways that playing The Sims, writing SimLit, and being part of the SimLit community has supported healthy approaches to our sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

Finding Identity

Cathy Tea: Much of my own understanding of myself as an asexual has come about through my involvement with the game and the writing connected to it. A late Baby Boomer, I was unaware of asexuality as an identity until I came across the term in another SimLit writer’s “About Me.” Wanting to be able to be a supportive friend, I googled “asexuality,” and I read descriptions of myself in the explanations at AVEN and whatisasexuality.com. Now I had a term to describe what others meant when they called me “naive,” “an innocent,” “undeveloped,” “childlike,”  and “clueless.” I felt relieved to discover this was an identity, not a lack of development on my part as a person. This discovery offered what Karen Pollock points towards in her recent article, ‘Playing the Identity Card’ when she writes, “It is important to remember that whilst words may change, identities rarely do.”

Around the time of this discovery, I started noticing that asexuality as an identity was appearing in some of my Sims games and stories, while most of the stories I read revolved around courtship and sexual attraction. The game engine in The Sims 4 has a subtle and responsive approach to sexual attraction. Through the game and the Sims’ adaptive intelligence, the sexuality of the Sims is influenced by the choices the game-player makes, in addition to the individual characteristics of each Sim. My game-play style encourages the Sims to autonomously select their love-interests, rather than my choosing for them, and many of my Sims were selecting no one, opting to remain single. One of my favorite Sims, Willow, was clearly asexual, and I identified with her wholly. I found her inspiring because, with no romantic interests, she was happy and complete on her own. After Willow, many more asexual Sims cropped up in my games and stories. I featured them on my blog during the 2016 Asexual Awareness Week. Seeing so many asexual individuals in my games and discovering their stories in my writing provided me with a welcome sense of validation and affirmation.

Mackie: Matias, one of my favorite sims to both play and write, really helped me discover my identity as genderfluid. From the moment he popped out of the cradle (literally – babies used to hop out of their cradles, somehow morphing into 10-year-olds along the way, before toddlers became a thing), I felt a really strong connection to him and wasn’t sure why. He had tons of siblings (one thing I’ve always wanted), red hair (I let him dye it, because why not?), and a cool older friend (actually, I did have this one, but I’ll admit mine wasn’t as cool as Matias’). So, what was joining us? There’s one thing I neglected to mention—when Matias was born, the game informed me that he was a baby girl. The Sim I saw was a boy who wanted out of a girl’s world.

I’ve learned not to question the little instinctual thoughts that pop out of my head – in times such as this, they can be particularly useful, so I didn’t question it, though I had my doubts. Am I just making things up? Was I just watching way too many transgender YouTubers? The answer to both those questions was no – after about a day of seeing him as a child, I knew. That’s why I started getting into the habit of watching Sim-children closely on their first day after aging up, or having a birthday. I’ve noticed lots of little things: the amount of time, and with whom, a sim spends socializing, which hobbies they choose to pursue, and how all of these things affect their happiness and well-being, indicated in the game by what we call “moodlets.” That’s how I figured out what would make him happy. No, there’s not a moodlet that says “I feel like I was born in the wrong body,” or “Everyone’s saying ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ and it just doesn’t feel right,” but that’s the conclusion I drew from connecting the dots between the much more vague descriptions.

That’s when I started playing around with one of the easiest things to change in the game: clothing and hair. While there isn’t a ton labelled “feminine” that I felt fit him, I made do where I could, and where I couldn’t, player-made mods allowed me to give him a couple of the boys’ things to fill in the gaps. That wasn’t the end of it, though—he still had teenagedom to look forward to. As he aged up once again, I felt this familiar pang of nervousness in my chest. The same pang I felt when I looked in the mirror. I think that’s when I realized, “hey, I’m not as female as everyone in my life thinks I am.”

Matias was the one who definitely sparked the quest to find my gender – wait, that sounds more epic than it actually was. It was more like, “let’s do a bunch of random Google searches and maybe I’ll find someone who feels like their assigned gender sometimes, but not always.” That’s how I found the word genderfluid, and it clicked almost instantly.

So, what happened to Matias? He’s still a teenager, but thanks to the gender patch he can wear almost any piece of clothing available to teens, regardless of their sex. He’s pretty happy in his body, especially when working out, which definitely helps him deal with high school drama. He’s also got an artistic side that we’re both dying to explore, as well as a crush on a girl who might just like him back.

Normalcy

Our experiences of finding identity reveal ways that we, in seeing ourselves mirrored back to us in the game and then in our writing, were able to achieve understanding and self-acceptance. The gender patch which Mackie refers to was released for the game in June 2016. In their announcement of the patch, the Maxis PR team wrote, “The Sims is made by a diverse team for a diverse audience, and it’s really important to us that players are able to be creative and express themselves through our games. We want to make sure players can create characters they can identify with or relate to through powerful tools that give them influence over a Sim’s gender, age, ethnicity, body type and more.”

As Mackie points out, this game patch allowed her Sim, Matias, to dress to express. The game engine also uses these options when creating “random” Sims, known as Townies, and many of us have genderfluid, non-binary, agender, and trans Sims populating our neighborhoods in our games and, hence, our stories.

This representation leads to establishing normalcy: For us, queer is normal in our games and writing, and many of our favorite SimLit writers also create worlds where it’s normal to be LBGTQ+.

Celebrating Inclusion

MastressAlita: The Sims games, with their open sandbox worlds in the hands of open minded, creative players, are such a perfect medium for the expression of characters on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, that I knew I wanted to do something to highlight both the Simmers and their diverse creations. During National Pride Month in 2016, I organized the first Sims Pride, as a chance for Simmers to submit an image including any LGBTQ+ Sims from their game, or even a Sim representation of themself (known as a Simself) to be included in the festivities. The celebration returned for National Pride Month this year, with plans to continue the tradition every June.

What is so moving about a celebration like Sims Pride is seeing just how much diversity exists within SimLit. Just within two years, there have been submissions ranging from homosexual couples – many that have started their own families or participate in the drag community –  bisexuals, pansexuals, trans, gender-queer, gender-fluids, non-binary, agender, asexual, intersexual and polyamorous individuals, some questioning characters, and many allies of the community. When I sit down and think of other more mainstream forms of media, like television and film, many of these types of characters get little to no representation at all.

Another thing that was a real eye opener to me – and I’ve heard from several others as well! – from holding Sims Pride is that many Simmers don’t even realize they are part of this supportive, LGBTQ+ friendly community, or that so many of their peers are LGBTQ+ individuals themselves. I was shocked when I saw how many other Simmers had submitted Simselfs to the event and said they identified as asexual, my own orientation, as I live in an area where every day, I feel like “the only one.” I’ve had to remove myself from social groups after receiving unwanted romantic advances, and after being very open and honest about who I am and trying to educate folks about my orientation, was only met with rejection and bigotry instead, so seeing that so many of my peers were of the same orientation as me and I didn’t even know it was a very liberating experience… a community I was already a part of was filled with people I could have leaned on for support if I’d only known. And I think that is one of the most important reasons why something like Sims Pride needs to happen every year.

One of the main goals of Sims Pride is not just to showcase all the amazing diverse Sims within the community, but to create a feeling of community inclusiveness. I try to make sure that people understand that Sims Pride is an event for everybody, not just LGBTQ+ people, and all allies are strongly encouraged to participate in the event. It’s a way for everyone to come together and share their Sims, their works, and their support for diversity together. And it’s a really beautiful thing!

Supporting Health and Well-being

Not every corner of the Simming and SimLit community provides a haven of welcome and affirmation. Even in this generally kind and open community for a game built on diversity, subterranean forums exist where hate and hateful expressions dominate. But it’s easy enough to avoid those dark corners. In an entertainment industry where misogyny, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are so common as to be practically standard, finding a game which intentionally sets out to be open-ended enough that it can be truly LBGTQ+ friendly feels like coming home.

This game isn’t scripted for us: We write the scripts, along with our Sims and the game’s adaptive intelligence. And that allows us to find reflections of ourselves in our game-play and our stories.

Simming and writing SimLit provide what we need to nurture a healthy awareness and understanding of identity: a medium for creative expression, representation, and inclusion. Sure, it’s a game. But through it, we play with simulated life to create something worth having, and, maybe, in this case, it’s a step towards creating a world that reflects that same acceptance, openness, and kindness that we uncover in our game.

Cathy Tea’s stories can be found primarily at Cathy Tea’s SimLit Anthology
Follow Cathy Tea on Twitter (@CathyTea)

Mackie/Pegasus143’s stories can be found at https://makplays.wordpress.com/
Follow Mackie on Twitter (@Pegasus143143)

MastressAlita’s stories (along with delicious reviews of tea) can be found at https://mastressalita.wordpress.com/
Be sure to check out Alita’s comprehensive index of Sims Stories, https://storiesandlegaciesindex.wordpress.com/

7 thoughts on “Digital mirror: Finding ourselves in The Sims

  1. Reblogged this on Cathy Tea's SimLit Anthology and commented:
    Here’s an article that MastressAlita, Mackie/Pegasus143, and I wrote about ways that the Sims and SimLit have connected with our gender expression and sexual identity. Hope you enjoy it, and so much thanks to Alita and Mackie for writing this with me! 🙂

    Like

  2. I visited this site because Cathy Tea follows my blog. I never played video games and never will, because I try to curtail the time spent on the computer. I see the value of experimenting with social relations in the simplified environment of a game, discovering thereby social functions which may be hidden and undetectable in the confusing richness and diversity of the real world. If the experiences and findings from the game can be applied to our natural environment and help to navigate and muddle through this complicated life, thats for sure a good thing.

    When I first looked at the site it appeared completely strange to me and the only thing that I could take from it was “kindness.” Kindness is still my main impression, though related feelings, attitudes, moods like tolerance, sympathy, tenderness, calmness, serenity, love are also noticeable.

    Kindness makes this site special, because the dominating mood of human society is aggressiveness. Aggressiveness rules, as it trumps, subjugates, drowns out any other emotions, dispositions, states of mind.

    Aggressiveness predominantly means male, testosterone driven aggression. Male aggression is a prime cause of wars, crime, terrorism, oppression, destructive competition, inequality, injustice. Male aggression is hard wired, but it can be mitigated, reduced, unlearned. The human brain is flexible enough to make this possible — brain plasticity is the key. The sages, saints, prophets, teachers, preachers of the word, Buddhist monks, artists, poets, environmentalists, and activists for just social causes show that it is possible.

    I’m male and my life could have been much easier and more peaceful if testosterone levels would have been lower. It takes a long time to tame the beast inside. My mission is now to comfort, aid, teach, heal.

    You have all my sympathies. Cary on, comfort, aid, teach, heal.

    Liked by 1 person

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