• (EA Games / MarioXtremo via forums.thesims.com )
“[It was] a world where I didn't have to hide or pretend to be interested in marrying a girl. To be able to have that control, to basically see what I wanted come to life was amazing.”
Ben Winsor

17 Jan 2018 - 11:54 AM  UPDATED 17 Jan 2018 - 11:56 AM

I was 13 and I had a secret.

Unbeknownst to my parents, I’d started a relationship with an attractive, black-haired guy named Zack. Not only that, but we’d built a two-storey mansion together, put in a pool, and were considering adopting a child together.

It was the early '00s, and The Sims had become one of the world’s most popular video games.

The advanced-for-its-time household simulation game allowed players to design characters, build homes for them, and manage their lives. Under their creator’s guidance, ‘sims’ would cook, clean, study, swim, work, and paint their way to domestic bliss.

There was no winning, no losing. It was a virtual dollhouse which turned life into a game.

But for a generation of LGBT+ gamers in the early noughties, the game offered something extra special: freedom.

Unlike other games, players were free to pursue relationships with any gender combination they liked.

Perhaps due to avant-garde politics on behalf of the game makers, or maybe due to coding shortcuts, the sims lived in a sexually fluid, judgment-free world.

All sims were essentially bisexual, and if they enjoyed their gibberish conversation with another sim, they might make out with them, go to bed with them, move in with them, or even adopt a child together.

My relationship with Zack was sadly short-lived. He burned to death in a kitchen fire, where I lovingly kept his urn as I remodelled the house.

While it may seem unremarkable by today’s standards, the freedom offered to LGBT+ gamers by The Sims 18 years ago was one denied to them by the real world.

“I didn't really have anyone to talk to about being gay back then, so to escape into a virtual world where I could be myself – well, it was just that, an escape,” says Chris Lawrence, a 28-year-old self identified ‘gaymer’ in Sydney.

When the game was released in the year 2000 – the year of the Nintendo GameCube, the first version of Mac OS X and the Sydney Olympics – not a single country in the world had legalised gay marriage.

Homophobia was still publicly acceptable ,and the very idea of same-sex marriage was novel or absurd to most. Much of the world appeared to be moving in the opposite direction.  

In 1996, Bill Clinton had signed the Defence of Marriage Act in the US, barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard, would uncontroversially pass even stronger legislation in 2004.

“I made gay couples get married on The Sims because you never really saw or heard about it back then,” says Chris, who was a young, closeted teenager when he first made a gay couple in the game. “It was still sort of taboo to talk about gay culture.”

“[It was] a world where I didn't have to hide or pretend to be interested in marrying a girl,” he says. “To be able to have that control, to basically see what I wanted come to life was amazing.”

While Chris encouraged his sims to have same-sex relationships, the game’s mechanics also allowed it to happen organically. Another ‘gaymer’ told SBS he was surprised when two of his male sims started showing affection for each other in the original game. A teenager at the time, he didn’t yet realise he was gay himself.

“I was completely shocked that it could happen, then I decided I kinda liked it, then I was trying to make it happen,” he says.

But it wasn’t just the freedom to have same-sex relationships which resonated with LGBT+ players, it was also the ability to sculpt an alternate gendered version of yourself, and have them live in a completely normal domestic setting.

“I didn't really figure out I was trans until my early 20s because I never had the language to explain it,” says Tina Hill, a Sydney gamer, now 26.

“I made girl versions of myself all the time and it turns out there was a very good reason for that.”

In the open-minded sandbox of The Sims, developers had inadvertently given young LGBT+ gamers a digital identity to experiment with, free of judgment.

“I don't doubt that's had an effect on who I am today,” Hill says.

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A history of same-sex rights in The Sims

According to a fan-made Sims wiki page - which has an extensive section on same-sex relationships - same-sex couples in the original game could do almost everything heterosexual could do, including adopting a child.

The only element of the game off limits to same-sex couples was a ‘wedding’ animation.

The Sims 2 was released in 2004, at a time when the notion of ‘civil unions’ was being talked about in the United States. In the game, same-sex couples were offered a ‘Joined Union’ rather than ‘Marriage’, a move which was actually progressive for its time.

The Sims 3, released in 2009, was the first version of the game to allow full, equal same-sex marriage. A futuristic expansion pack even allowed same-sex couples to travel to an advanced medical facility and have a biological child together.

In granting same-sex marriage rights, the game beat the United States by six years and Australia by eight years.

Released in 2014, The Sims 4 then allowed players to have greater control over their sims’ gender, including the ability for sims to transition to another gender.

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An LGBT+ oasis in modern gaming

For all the freedom The Sims offers, it remains an anomaly in the broader gaming landscape. Gaming narratives rarely feature LGBT+ characters, and gaming culture is often deeply homophobic.

‘F*gg*t’ and ‘you’re gay’ are common slurs on gaming chat systems dominated by heterosexual male players. LGBT+ characters who do feature in prominent roles – such as Ellie in blockbuster hit The Last of Us – are often only revealed to be queer in extra content separate to the main game.

Gaming culture has also notably struggled to accept and represent other minorities, including people of colour.

In fact, The Sims’ creator, Will Wright, had struggled to get the game made because financial backers worried it appealed too much to another gaming minority: women and girls.

When he first pitched the ‘virtual dollhouse’ premise to the board of his company, Maxis, they showed little enthusiasm.

“Dollhouses were for girls, and girls didn’t play video games,” the reasoning went, according to a 2006 profile on Wright in the New Yorker.

But when Maxis was bought out by a larger developer, Electronic Arts, the gaming giant was keen to see another instalment in the ‘Sim’ franchise which Wright had started with the wildly successful urban development ‘god game’, Sim City.

Unusual at the time, and still unusual today, 40% of The Sims’ development team were women.

18 years later, and gaming is still an industry struggling with diversity, both on and off the screen. Many developers have recognised this – in part because of a growing, diverse base of gamers – and in the coming years, it’s likely the games will continue of trend of increased racial, gender and sexual diversity.

But for a generation of gamers who came of age in the early 2000s, the most influential LGBT+ characters may remain those they created themselves, the sims.