20 Years of Queer ExplorationHow “The Sims” Helped 13 LGBTQ People Find Realization

The cover of The Sims 4 (Photo credit: EA Games/Microsoft)

Though I now identify as queer, I was a very straight preteen and teenager. In my “real” life, I made out with boys in movie theaters and flirted with guys in school hallways. All of my crushes, celebrity or otherwise, were men. I had a giant, shirtless Usher poster behind my bedroom door, and multiple photos of Robert Pattinson pinned to my ceiling. It never occurred to me that I would, or could, have a crush on a girl or date a woman. And yet, all of my Sims were lesbians.

I played The Sims for the first time at a friend’s house when I was in fifth grade. We played The Sims on her brother’s Playstation 2, and I was immediately hooked. I moved from game to game, growing with the franchise—almost all of my afternoons and nights were spent playing The Sims on my GameCube—and then The Sims 2 on my family’s computer. I can’t remember when I realized that Sims could be gay, but the moment I did, I couldn’t help myself. In the same way that I made my Barbies and Polly Pockets make out on my living room floor as a kid, I started having my female Sims make out, have sex, build families, and live this digital existence that contrasted my own boy-driven experience. Real life Rachel was straight. Digital Rachel couldn’t have been more queer.

In July, Electronic Arts revealed the cover art for The Sims 4, which features the first same-sex couple since the franchise began nearly 20 years ago. The cover features a variety of people, with two women taking up the bottom left corner; a blond woman has her arm around the shoulder of a woman with pink hair, and they’re both looking at the Sim taking the camera. The franchise has also committed to validating their identities; while marketers often leave queerness up to viewer discretion, The Sims 4 includes profiles on each woman and refers to them as “girlfriends,” leaving no room for misinterpretation. And this isn’t the only inclusive measure the franchise is taking: The Sims 4 will also include gender-neutral bathrooms, Pride Month accessories, and allowing characters to have more control over their clothing preferences. (For example, a character will now be able to select a “masculine” frame but choose “feminine” clothing.)

Digital spaces have always been an arena for people to learn more and grow into their identities. While my college-aged self panicked about if I was actually queer, if my coming out would take up space in the community, and if I’d change my mind and hurt the woman I was falling in love with, my digital self was already unashamedly experimenting and visualizing myself as queer.

As The Sims franchise attempts to become increasingly more inclusive, I spoke with other LGBTQ people about how playing the game helped them learn more about themselves and their identities.

1. Valeria Flores, bisexual

I started playing The Sims 3 in Mexico on my cousin’s laptop. Since then, I’ve played The Sims 4 on my laptop and PS4. It had a very big impact [on my identity]. I usually played a female, would flirt with other female Sims, and then get married to them. That was the first time I saw myself in a game. It’s super important that The Sims [is becoming] even more inclusive; it allows [people] to see themselves in a game [whereas this might be less likely in real life]. I know it definitely gave me some confidence; I kept playing for hours, [and] I also think it sets a tone for other video-game developers to include [more than] just heterosexual couples.

2. Alicia, Black lesbian

I played The Sims 2, and I had the mega expansion pack. I also dabbled in The Sims 3, but was pretty attached to the second game so that was my go-to. I was a little too young to realize its impact while I was still an avid player, but looking back, it definitely [stood out to me] that adult Sims could kiss, woohoo, [and] marry any other adult Sim [regardless of gender]. There were no rules, [and] it was just normal. [For example], I had a woman Sim who totally hated her boyfriend, and who was best friends with another woman Sim who hated her boyfriend too. Eventually I just made them break up with their boyfriends and live in a house together as “friends.” One day I made one kiss the other out of pure curiosity, and they fell for each other. I let it play out—they were way happier than they had been [with their boyfriends]. I did it for the drama, but they ended up being my favorite family to play, and for some reason their happiness as a same-sex couple really resonated with me, though I didn’t think about why at the time.

3. Ellie Brigida, podcaster and cis lesbian

I started playing The Sims before I even understood what being gay meant. Being able to play as a female Sim who could kiss another female Sim [made me feel like it] was more normalized. I still felt a lot of outside pressures from society that kept me in the closet until I was 21, but when I was playing The Sims, I could be with whomever I wanted to be with. That is such a freeing feeling for someone [struggling] with their identity. I remember one of the first times that I realized that my female Sim could kiss another female Sim. My Sim was talking to my female neighbor who came over and at a certain level we got the option to flirt. I was 8 at the time. I remember my heart started to race and I looked around to see if my parents were watching me play the game. Flirting led to kissing and my gay little heart felt excited [about] this even [being] a possibility. If [the game] simulates every type of life, then people feel like they can be whomever they want to be without fear. It’s important for the non-LGBTQ community as well because if they play a game as popular as The Sims and know that their character could be LGBTQ, it puts them in our shoes for a bit and could make them more accepting of all types of gender identities and sexualities.

4. Austen, researcher and transmasculine Black person

I grew up playing The Sims. I owned The Sims 2, The Sims 3, SimCity Build It, and The Sims Mobile 3. I [still keep] up with the franchise because it connects me to my childhood in a healthy way. I’m from the South, so I didn’t have a lot of exposure to LGBTQ folks. Even if someone was queer, we didn’t talk about it. I realize now that I used The Sims to create a virtual safe space. In the universe of The Sims, I could be and love whomever I wanted. From the beginning, I chose masculine Sims even though I was assumed female at birth. The Sims gave me bodily autonomy, something our world still struggles to grant Black children. The first time I made a Sim, I kept what I loved about myself and created the rest from my imagination. I kept my dark skin. I also kept my glasses. But instead of choosing a girl Sim, I chose a guy Sim. He had long hair, but he expressed mostly masculine. Throughout the years I made many variations to this template. In retrospect I was totally using The Sims to define a self-image outside of what I was given. Seeing someone who looks like you lead a successful life, with steady meals, stable housing, and gainful employment [or] someone like you becoming the mayor of a city, starting a family, waving frantically as an appropriate response to a house fire, [or] falling in love —even if it’s through a video game.

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5. B.A., masculine-of-center Black queer writer

I was always a gamer, so playing The Sims was a new realm of gaming. I grew up in a pretty close-minded and isolating home. I was often not in control of my presentation and my voice, [so] when I discovered The Sims, I was intrigued by the control and freedom I had to do and be whomever I wanted. It was also around the time when I was discovering my true attraction to both genders and then more specifically toward women. I discovered I can be who I want to be by playing The Sims. It’s where I discovered my queerness. I remember creating this couple where the husband was lazy and gluttonous. The wife was constantly working and cleaning the house. Her gem was always orange or near red. She was miserable [and] she would frequently turn and wave to me. Like, please help. Like I was her god. It was a very surreal and existential moment for me. It definitely activated my empathy. I decided to have her call out from work. I made sure she took a long bath, changed her outfit, and had her go to a nightclub [where] she met a random woman Sim and they ended up flirting all night. I wanted her to be happy. I wanted her to be with someone who was just as ambitious as her. I nurtured their relationship. They had an affair. It was fun, but she also loved her husband. So she left him. And in that moment I realized I had that power in real life. I didn’t have to stay connected to someone because I loved them, especially when loving them hurt me.

6. Kieryn Darkwater, community organizer and nonbinary transmasculine QTPOC

Playing The Sims 3 and The Sims 4 helped me imagine myself doing what I wanted to do but didn’t feel I could. I made Sims who were good at the things I was never encouraged to explore as a child, and as I came out further, I made Sims that mirrored my evolution. The Sims helped me imagine that it was possible to be my fullest self by creating a space where it’s safe to experiment. Seeing myself reflected accurately pushed [a] button in my brain that told me, “I am valid.” That feeling you get when you see main characters who look like you in movies or TV shows (unless you’re cis and white, in which case, imagine not having that all the time) is the same in games.

7. Jozette, queer woman who uses she/hers pronouns

The Sims 2, The Sims 3, and The Sims 4 opened up a world of options I didn’t realize existed for me. When I started a family in The Sims, I made a heteronormative couple. I found myself disengaged with the gameplay using that family, and so I took a large break. Finally, I came back to it and decided to make a lesbian couple. I didn’t play as myself, but having the option to play as two women in a relationship was so much more interesting and impactful. This was a few years before I came out to myself or others, but it [allowed] me to see what that relationship might [look] like. I could tell friends that I was playing as a lesbian couple without it necessarily being attached to me.

[I had a] realization after I played as a lesbian couple. I remember feeling so excited to see their relationship unfold. I kept wondering why I was never this interested in straight couples I’d played before. For a moment, I allowed myself to think, “What if I was one of these women?” While I couldn’t fully allow myself to go there, this realization gave me a flicker of hope. Making The Sims more inclusive is so important. I remember playing The Sims 3 and needing to cheat in order to have a child while playing as two women. I didn’t want to adopt, [but] I wanted to have a child. In The Sims 4, you can choose which Sim can conceive. I hope The Sims’ developers continue to make their game more inclusive so that other people can have the experience I did. For example, in upcoming games, I wish game developers could remove binary/gendered language from clothing [entirely] so that any Sim can wear whatever they want.

8. Tevy Khou, illustrator and art director

I was maybe 12 when I started playing The Sims, and it was exhilarating the first time I played with a same-gender couple. There was freedom in having the choice of sexual fluidity, body shape, and race, unlike a lot of other role-playing games at the time. The option of customizing almost everything was like having full autonomy over myself away from social pressures. My family shared one main computer, so when my older brother asked if my girl Sim was in love with another girl, I simply answered, “Yeah?” I was petrified, but [I] tried to answer nonchalantly. He brushed it off and, and right then I knew I had an immediate ally. The Sims helped me trust my brother.

“It may seem like just a silly game, but being able to have the freedom to create the queer, accepting, open world where we’re wanted is genuinely empowering.”

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9. Raquel Diaz, student and queer Latina

The Sims’ [open] gameplay allows gamers to play with a virtual dollhouse. Just as I made my Bratz dolls make out in secrecy, I could create a clandestinely lesbian Sims couple when I couldn’t even envision myself living openly with a woman. Media creates social scripts during a child’s socialization, so seeing Sims of the same sex enjoy options given to heterosexual Sims helped normalize queer relationships for me. The options weren’t “gay flirt” or “gay kiss” in a time when gay couples would get “gay married.” This helped me realize my desires and feelings were normal at an age when I just wanted to be like everyone else. Seeing my lesbian Sims couple have the ability to “woohoo” felt like a glitch at first; I felt guilty yet enthralled as my lesbian Sims went under the covers. My Catholic Mexican parents hated seeing movies about “the gays” when flipping channels, so watching already age-inappropriate movies was not an option. Even being an ally raised my parents’ suspicions. But it’s [about] more than the sex. Same-sex Sims could raise a baby. They existed in the same living space and did their own thing. Even a hug between them made me feel better about myself.

10. Sammy, editor and bisexual woman

The Sims has allowed homosexual relationships between characters since the original game, and it has never made a big deal [about] that. I think this latter element really impacted me—coming from a rural, conservative, religious area, I had never seen a relationship between two women presented in such a relaxed, matter-of-fact, this-is-totally-normal way. When I realized I could make two female characters kiss in the game, I was able to explore this concept in a low-pressure, guilt-free environment. (More of my Sim households were queer than not.) In the area I grew up [in], this was literally the most exploration I could get without feeling deeply guilty or scared. A little over a decade later, I came out as bi. I remember liking to play one particular household more than the rest. I would tell myself that it was because one of the female “roommates” had a cool criminal career, but it was really because I was deeply invested in their love story, and when I finally accepted that, I immediately got them from roommate status to something more. The magic of The Sims, and why it continues to resonate with future generations, is that you can create any world you want. Many folks, especially LGBTQ folks who aren’t out, are forced to live in the current heteronormative world we’re in. It may seem like just a silly game, but being able to have the freedom to create the queer, accepting, open world where we’re wanted is genuinely empowering, and for me at least, it made me realize that I’m allowed to take up space exactly as I am.

11. Elle McKenzie, managing editor for 21Ninety and Black lesbian

I was a very shy kid. If I wasn’t seeking refuge in a book, then I would escape from reality through The Sims. I knew I was different from my friends and classmates, but I didn’t quite understand who I was becoming or why for that matter. The Sims allowed me to explore different avenues that sparked my interest, particularly with my sexuality and the career I wanted to pursue. My mother loves to tell the story of how she knew I was gay at the age of 3. For me, however, I began to come to terms with my sexuality around the time The Sims 2 was released. I remember thinking, “What? My Sims can kiss another girl and there’s no consequence?” By the time The Sims 3 came out, and my (lesbian) Sims were able to have large families and grow old together, I developed the confidence to channel this mantra of “true to oneself” into my own reality. When I was a teenager, it was illegal for two people of the same sex to get married. Though we’ve made significant progress toward bettering the lives for the LGBTQ community, there is still an alarming rate of suicides in our community who don’t feel seen or included. I applaud EA, Maxis, and the creators of The Sims for being way ahead of its time. With The Sims 4, all gender boundaries were removed from the game. And that matters because maybe one less nonbinary LGBTQ family member won’t take their life because they are able to see themselves in a game that can [be] easily transferred into their own reality.

12. Rivka, cofounder and managing editor of Hooligan magazine

When I was really young, I liked making people really pretty and totally separate from how I envisioned myself. As I got older, I started screwing around with gender expression and sexuality, making Sims do things I couldn’t do IRL (dress more masculine, kiss girls, etc.) As an adult, I always keep my Sims families queer as hell and make the perfect world I wish to live in where everyone is happy, has the career they want, and gets a dog or cat. It taught me so much about what I could do and how I could present, especially with advanced iterations of the game and the constant tweaking of the “Create a Sim” function. I learned I was capable of sexuality when I made my Sims “woohoo” and [it] turned [me] on. There were also moments where my mom would come and sit next to me while I played it (and other Simulation games on the desktop computer) and I would show her how I would create a Sim or design a house. Crafting my ideal versions of people was a projection of what I saw as beautiful and intriguing. It evolved over time [just as] my own gender expression [did].

13. Lexx, queer trans masculine

The Sims was the first game I played that allowed me to create character(s) that were essentially an extension of myself. I used to always create “guy” characters without even thinking about it. I must have been around 9 or 10, so gender identity wasn’t something I was really thinking about at the time. One day my dad came in and saw me playing and asked, “Why did you make your character a guy?” My scared little unknowingly queer self was like, “I’m not sure,” and I [really] wasn’t sure why. [It wasn’t until later that] I realized I was making characters who represented me. Video games can let you play and explore yourself and who you want to be [in the process], and [they offer] young kids [a] safe and fun way to figure themselves out.

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by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.