It’s the year 1999, and E3, a still relatively new conference, is underway with David Bowie performing at an afterparty. Same-sex marriage is illegal throughout the United States, and would remain so for another five years. This is where The Sims introduced itself to the world with a presentation featuring two female Sims sharing a passionate kiss.
That single kiss – which wasn’t even intended to be included – was the start of The Sims’ legacy as a quiet ally of inclusion.
The Sims, and its subsequent sequels, offer options that support inclusion. That ranges from the types of relationships Sims can have, to physical features like skin color, hair options, and body types.
Later, Sims 4 added gender-neutral bathrooms and opportunities for gender non-conformity, such as making all clothing accessible to all Sims, and letting any Sim to get pregnant. It also features Diwali and Day of the Dead celebrations, new outfits to reflect cultures outside the game’s U.S. focus, and a hijab swim cap.
These options take the place of official statements. Rather than taking a formal stance on gay marriage or transgender issues, The Sims makes it possible to have a relationship with any character, regardless of gender.
“We are merely recognizing that we need to give you the option to define yourself and to tell your story as you see fit”.
“We make a game about options. We’re not making a statement one way of the other,” Electronic Arts Senior Producer Grant Rodiek says. “We are merely recognizing that we need to give you the option to define yourself and to tell your story as you see fit. As a result, we need to understand what people want, and why they want that, so that we can do our best to reflect that.”
The Sims’ inclusive stance has made it a good example of how inclusive options can expand a game’s appeal. Yet there’s still room from improvement.
Despite its gender-bending options, each Sim does have a designated gender; male or female. Asexual or non-binary players can’t tell their virtual story. Simmers have the option to let characters form relationships with any other pre-made Sim, but selecting that means no character has a sexual preference.
The game dances on a fine line which, for the developers, it feels like dancing on a tightrope suspended in the air while balancing a set of fragile fine china on their heads.
“Would we do it the same way again?” Rodiek pondered, reflecting on Sims’ fluid sexual preferences. “Because in some ways it implies that it’s just a choice, and it isn’t who you are.”
“In the human experience, everyone has their own thing that is deeply important to them.”
Rodiek, who’s worked on the series since 2005, notes he added chest hair in a previous iteration. If brought back, it would likely be changed, as it was limited to male Sims the first time around. That example illustrates how the developers have updated their approach over time.
The game offers a multitude of skin tones, facial features, and hair options. However, players of color note how few options there are for tightly coiled natural hair compared to the straight-haired locks and loose waves. The Sims 4 also struggles to realistically depict darker skin tones.
Rodiek is sympathetic to these problems. “When you make a game about humanity. Nothing is too small. And in the human experience, everyone has their own thing that is deeply important to them,” he said.
So, what’s a player to do?
There’s custom content other users make and share online, and the developers are happy to allow it. Players can find mods for stretch marks, cellulite, skin conditions like vitiligo, traits for mental illnesses like social anxiety or autism, traits for other health issues including Crohn’s disease, and varied ways to customize the game.
However, these don’t work for console players, and require in-depth game knowledge. That makes them inaccessible to many and shows the limits of the game’s approach to inclusivity.
As The Sims celebrates its 20th anniversary, it will go down in gaming history as one of the most inclusive games created, and one that stood ahead of its time. But as fans and developers alike already think of the next improvement, one thing is clear. The game, much like society, has come a long way since the kiss that rocked the gaming world.