I love The Sims.
I have been playing The Sims since it was first released in 2000. I had every expansion pack of the original series - Hot Date, Unleashed, Makin’ Magic, you name it - and I played them with a fervour straight through my preteen and teenaged years.
Now I am a professional grown-up human living in the world, and I treat myself to three hours of Sims 4 every Saturday and Sunday morning. I have a few expansion packs - Island Living, Eco Lifestyle, the one that gives you hot tubs - and I will still occasionally go on a days-long binge, if I’m on holiday or if the weather is particularly bad.
One of my favourite things about The Sims 4 is the fact that it has long been a queer game. In fact, at The Queer Games Library, The Sims 4 was one of the first games we wanted to include, and we quickly classified it using our Q3 system as a Queer Me game.
Why not a Queer You game, you ask, or a Queer World game? By way of an answer, allow me to take you with me on a journey through my Sims world. Together we’ll keep an eye out for what’s queer and what’s less queer, and hopefully you’ll come to the same curatorial conclusions I did.
To set the scene: it is 8am on a cold, grey Saturday. I’m in my bed with a cup of coffee. Sims 4 is loading on my Mac, and I have every intention of playing it until noon.
For the past few weeks I have been playing with the Sim version of myself, so I think I’ll play her this morning. Most of the Sims I create reflect my life in some way, of course, but I’m talking specifically about my actual mirror representation as a Sim: Emilie Owens.
Like me, Sim Emilie is white, and has long brown hair with a blunt fringe and glasses. Like me, she enjoys reading, writing, going on runs, and throwing dinner parties. Like me, she favours slouchy clothes in a neutral palette. And, like me, she is queer.
Now, when I identify myself as queer, it is because I have traditionally hesitated to identify myself as being one particular sexuality. I’m certainly not straight: I am attracted to women. But nor am I gay: I am attracted to men. Am I bisexual? Maybe, but I have never felt super comfortable wearing that moniker. Pansexual could also apply, but I’m not confident adopting that label either. If I must, I call myself queer, and I don’t worry too much about it.
Sim Emilie doesn’t worry too much about it either. She engages in romantic entanglements with Sims both male and female, with no particular pattern and no particular preference. She’s more likely to want to be with another Sim based on the fact that they share traits with her than she is because of their gender (hello fellow neat freaks...😍)
Playing as Sim Emilie allows me to be as sexually fluid as I feel in the real world, and therefore allows me to be my queer self.
But by 10am on this particular morning I’m sick of playing with Sim Emilie. I make another coffee and switch to the other Sim I feel most closely represents me. While Sim Emilie is perpetually single and constantly bustling around town as an actor and writer, this other Sim is in a happily committed marriage, working as a civil planner and raising two young adopted daughters. This other Sim is also a man. His name is Henry.
It’s important to note here that I do not identify as a man. My pronouns are she/her, and I present as female in my appearance and (most of) my behaviours. Nevertheless, I have traits and feelings which I would argue are traditionally masculine - I have been told I have strong ‘dad energy’, for example - and these are traits and feelings which I can play out on The Sims 4 through Henry. It is not just the fact that I can play a male character; it is the fact that I can customise the experiences of that male character to explore the ways in which I myself perform, or seek to perform, certain masculinites.
For example: Henry is a handy Sim who loves to build furniture and mend objects around the house. He is committed to his job but he works from home in order to look after his two young daughters, helping them with their homework after school and teaching them how to play chess on the weekends. He is dedicated and faithful to his husband Ito, but gets embarrassed by showy displays of affection and overwhelmed by romantic dates in the city. He recycles obsessively and loves to cook on the barbecue. He is, basically, a good dude.
So The Sims 4 not only allows me to see my own queer identity represented in the characters I create - Sim Emilie can have a sexual identity as fluid as my own - but it also allows me to try on a different gender identity, and explore my queerness in that way - Sim Henry can be a good dude, emphasis on the dude.
The Sims 4 allows me to be queer. The Sims 4 is a Queer Me game.
When I take Henry out into the world, however, I rarely encounter other queer sims. Occasionally Sims will flirt with me, and when this happens they do not appear to discriminate based on Henry’s gender. But that doesn’t really make them queer. That just makes them flirty.
In fact, most of the default Sims that show up in my game, and therefore in the Sim life of both Emilie and Henry, are straight: either straight couples living together romantically, heteronormative families with sets of biological children, or groups of straight roommates living together platonically. In Island Living, one of the expansion packs for the game, a non-gender conforming character is introduced as part of the new world, Sulani, but they are still the exception rather than the norm. The Sims 4 does not set up routine interactions with characters who are queer, and so it cannot be a Queer You game.
This could change in the future, of course! It would be a fairly simple algorithmic shift on the part of the developers to ensure that the Sims in any given Sims 4 world were just as likely to pair off homosexually as they are heterosexually, and to set up more default queer families in each neighbourhood. What is less easy to change is the inherent heteronormativity at the heart of the Sims 4 gameplay.
Animator and researcher Maria Jose (MJ) Campos writes the following about Sims 4: “much of The Sims’ gameplay relies on existing tropes of ‘real’ - and therefore heteropatriarchal - society.” And it is true that, regardless of whether I am playing Emilie or Henry, my primary objective in the game is to achieve a certain goal related to progress, or material success. In order to do that, usually I have to make money. Emilie, for example, wants to be a world famous actor. Henry wants to be a jack of all trades. Both larger goals are made up of escalating mini-goals - promotions at work, personal skill development, etc - that insist on a linear, forward progression through the society of the game, as well as a consistent amount of simoleans (Sims' money) coming in to pay the bills. Insofar as this remains the case, The Sims 4 can’t be a Queer World game, because it doesn’t present a world outside the current heteropatriarchy in any significant way.
That said, as MJ also notes, there are modders (players who code their own game modifications for private or public use) who have worked to make Sims 4 a Queer World game. Individual players who have written custom aspirations like the Pursuit of Happiness aspiration, or the Quiet Life aspiration, for example, are changing the gameplay from being futurist-progressive (and therefore heteronormative) to being… well, queer! So while The Sims 4 may not come with a queer world straight out of the box, it can be queered by players who care to do so. “These queer aspects,” writes MJ, “are ultimately wholly reliant on the desire of players to create queer experiences for themselves within the game.”
We at Queer Me aren’t claiming to be the overlords of what’s queer and what isn’t; our judgements about the Q3 system and how we categorise the games are entirely our own, and while we’re pretty confident about them, we are also always ready to listen to alterative opinions. My experiences playing The Sims 4 have informed the way I think and feel about its queer aspects. If you feel differently, let me know! Drop a comment or send an email, and we’ll talk about it. Same goes for any of the games on our site, or any games we don’t yet have on our site - if you have thoughts about queerness and gaming, we definitely want to hear them.
And now, back to my Sims: Henry and I are taking the family for a snowboarding holiday over Christmas.
Lots of Love,
'The Sims Makin' Magic' screenshot courtesy of Moddb.com
Other images are screenshots by the author.