When the original Sims game came out in 2000, gay jokes were still funny to me – I was six, and the fact that Sims could WooHoo was inherently funny to me, too. But my juvenile sense of humor was undoubtedly shaped by the media landscape in which I was growing up. Being gay was, at the time, often a punchline in popular media. But even when I was in elementary school and “ha ha, these Sims are lesbians” counted as humor for me, it was never a joke to the structure of the game. It was just another part of The Sims.
Ahead of the Game
The Sims franchise has always dealt in absurdity and non-sequiturs. Outside of being an expansive life simulation sandbox with increasingly intricate tools for building houses and people, the gameplay has always had a lot of personality. For the most part, the player’s universe within The Sims franchise has always been aggressively pedestrian — originally and at its core, still very suburban, with gameplay focusing on the domestic space, the household, and to greater and greater degrees throughout later installments, career and money and hobbies and other things that virtually every human is concerned with.
All this charming normalcy is punctuated by the very, hilariously weird. When Sims got too lonely in the original game, a character called the Tragic Clown would show up to keep them company. In The Sims 2, you could grow something called a Cowplant, a bovine Little Shop of Horrors-esque carnivorous plant that would eat Sims alive if it got too hungry. And llamas have always been a recurring feature, from university mascots to manicured shrubs, just because.
The franchise’s personality has always hinged on injecting absurdity into the mundane, but never in its 20-year history has it derived that humor by ridiculing queerness. Today, of course, gay jokes in popular media like a major video game series would be distateful and cringe-worthy. But 20 years of treating queerness as just another part of life, like broken plumbing and homework, is pretty radical in its own, understated way.
When the first Sims game released with same-sex romantic interactions in 2000, anti-sodomy laws were still on the books in Texas and several other states, and would be until Lawrence v. Texas went before the Supreme Court three years later. Later, when marriage became a relationship status in The Sims 2 (rather than a one-time event), gay couples could form “Joined Unions” and be treated as equal to straight married couples within the game’s mechanics. When that game came out in 2004, the issue of gay marriage had just begun to explode into the public consciousness in the U.S., and civil unions/domestic partnerships for same-sex couples were under fire by many conservatives concerned that they were too close to marriage.
With The Sims 3, released in 2009, gay Sims got marriage equality six years before most Americans would. Adoption was possible for gay and straight Sim couples as well, as of The Sims 2, and if two gay Sims were in a joined union, both would be considered the child’s parents within the game. In several U.S. states today, licensed adoption agencies are still allowed to refuse adoptions to same-sex couples.
Bisexuality has always been an inherent feature of the game, as Sims are always able to engage in romantic relations with other Sims of any gender at the player’s whim, regardless of who they have been involved with before. And while transness only became a feature with a patch that shipped for The Sims 4 in 2016, the arguably overdue features came about in an equally understated, so-simple-it’s-stupid way: in Create-A-Sim, players can customize sex-related features like bathroom habits and ability to get pregnant or impregnate others regardless of a Sim’s listed gender. And, players could change a Sim’s gender after initially creating them, as well. While Sims must still be set to either male or female, physical and presentational aspects of sex and gender are no longer predetermined by the game.
What’s notable regarding all of these features, and ways in which queer Sims had rights and recognitions before some of their human counterparts, is that they’ve always been done with virtually zero fanfare. The Sims franchise has never been marketed as “queer” or “liberal” or “progressive” or any other politically-coded term. Queerness is just a built-in feature of the life simulation game, not unlike the way it is for queer people in real life. It’s not always a statement, or a trend. It just is.
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A Feature, Not a Bug
More recently, The Sims has featured several Pride events, like its partnership with the It Gets Better Project last year, bringing rainbow flags and gender neutral public bathroom doors to The Sims 4. The Sims Mobile also got a little collection of Pride-themed items for players to use last June, like a plethora of queer flags (including bi, trans, and ace) and a “Rainbow Connection” t-shirt. But apart from these minor stuff updates, EA and Maxis have never made a PR move or patted themselves on the back for queer inclusion.
Considering that we still can’t get a queer romance or character in a major TV show or studio movie without much ado, and often pushback, this is pretty remarkable. Before every major bank was using NYC Pride as an advertising opportunity, The Sims franchise was treating queer romance like any other romance and queer Sims like any other Sims. Much like queer people, queer Sims have always been around in some capacity. The only thing really changing is how the public responds to them.
Heck, The Sims had gays before it had seasons. In a way, The Sims franchise provides a space for players to build a strange little utopia free of prejudice and gay-bashing, but full of vampires and plant-people – where queerness is everyday, unquestioned, and anything but weird.