I’m a woman who doesn’t quite fit into most character creators. I used to make a version of myself — Cassandra Shepard in Mass Effect, or a young mage named Cass in Dragon Age: Origins. But these versions of me made in each character creator aren’t quite right — these Casses feel like a lie. Part of it is the fact that video game protagonists are always trim and proportioned, and picking that kind of body at my weight isn’t right — that’s not me. Most of it is the fact that female frames and characters tend to be powerfully femme.
I don’t know what’s up with my gender, exactly. There are no easy answers that I can sum up in a snappy intro. It’s messy, and mostly communicated through things like the feeling of relief I get after my hair is cropped short or I get called “sir” by a cashier. I present as female, and use she/her pronouns, but it’s not simple (although I wish it were).
There’s one game that has managed to create a character creator that feels like I’m reflecting myself. That’s The Sims 4, which goes beyond male/female and into a multi-tiered menu. I’m not the only one who finds this new system soothing; there are a host of LGBTQ+ gamers who find the ability to mix, match, experiment, and evolve to be a major draw to the game. As society, and our language for gender and its presentation evolve, The Sims 4 has managed to grow in pace with many of those changes.
“I started out playing The Sims 2 and 3 like I was making my own soap operas and snuff films,” says Amy, a Sims fan who spends time making small homes for other players to download to their neighborhoods. Amy is trans, and she worked through her feelings as an unaware teen by playing Sims games. “After I did a lot of big stories, I started making versions of myself, like ones where I was dating a girl... and then eventually, ones where I was a girl.”
Amy spoke to Polygon through Discord, where she explained how The Sims series helped her process thoughts she didn’t know how to voice. “I was able to put a version of how I visualized myself in the world. That meant a lot.”
“I build stories of love between two Sims regardless male, female, or alien,” says Rayvon Owen, a singer and former American Idol contestant in an interview with Polygon. Owen came out as gay in 2016, telling Billboard that “you’d be surprised at the amount of times I tried to pray the gay away from me or tried to tell God to take this away from me. No kid should have to do what I did and pray to not be who they are.”
As he explains to Polygon, “As a kid playing The Sims, these stories more-so reflected the life that I initially didn’t want to accept for myself, but was able to see hope within the game of what that could look like for me in my real future. [...] As a child, even though it be a game, it duly served as a beacon of hope.”
The Sims has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to portraying queer characters. The original The Sims in 2000 allowed players to pursue any Sim they liked. Early design documents stressed this as one of the developers’ priorities, and Sims would have romantic interactions trigger based off user action, not the gender of Sims.
Over time, Maxis has added more openly LGBTQ+ characters to their cast of canon characters who populate each neighborhood. Lia Hauata, a villager in Island Living, is nonbinary, and Morgyn Ember from Realm of Magic is a trans man.
Kellen Joseph is a Los Angeles-based singer who grew up with The Sims games. Joseph is a trans man, and he saw himself in his early Sims. “My favorite Sims story of all time has to be creating a character that I feel was a big part of me finding my identity in real life,” he says in an interview with Polygon. “It took awhile for me to understand why I always made the characters I felt represented myself male.”
The Sims 4 has a different appeal for him now. He is a self-professed fan of the occult content and Sims that cause trouble for those around them. “In ‘real life’, like most people, I often find myself constrained by social pressures and obligations,” Joseph said. “I like to create characters that get to do/wear/be things that in real life I’m a little too wary of to take the risk.”
For players like Joseph who experiment with the lives of queer or trans Sims, there’s an extra level of escapism there. Amy shares her experience with escaping into The Sims from her real life world.
“I got so sick of every story with a trans lead being about them coming out and being trans. That was it, and it ground me down. I wanted romances with trans girls, adventures with trans explorers, just regular stories that just happened to have someone like me in them,” says Amy. “The Sims gets wild. There are fires, vampires, I have a Sim married to Santa Claus, there are trans people, careers, buying stuff for the house... It’s just one thing. It’s not the whole thing.”
In The Sims 4, Make-A-Sim has dozens of sliders for faces, bones, height, and alignment. One of the most nuanced parts of character creation is how players can define their Sim’s gender.
“We took quite awhile to get the feature to feel right,” Lyndsay Pearson, general manager of The Sims, told Polygon. “While there were certainly some technical challenges in making our clothing work for both genders, it was more important for us to make sure we offered up choice and flexibility in an appropriate and authentic way. Most of our iteration was in the exact flow for the player and getting our visuals to feel good.”
The character menu offers a choice between binary genders, as well as some specific fine-tuning that may help players create transitioning or nonbinary Sims. A Sim can have a feminine frame, which changes their appearance and bone structure, but be masculine in how they present themselves in the world. Whether they stand or sit while peeing, what they wear, and if they can get pregnant are all easy to change. Any of these options can be changed at any time from a mirror, so players can do anything from tweak a Sim’s options slightly to emulate the stages of their own transition through a Sim.
The Sims speak a fragmented language called Simlish, which means players don’t need to choose a method of address of pronouns. Instead, the world adapts around them and their choices. For some players, that escapism leads to them creating detective vampire roommates. For others, it was a more personal kind of dream.
“I was in a place where I couldn’t express myself, I had to come across as cis. I didn’t know if I was a trans guy, or if I was just gay. It was a lot to deal with,” says Rowan, a The Sims 4 fan who spoke to Polygon about their experiences. “One thing I did was make a Sim me, and I could play around with things.
Like, it was cool to get to pretend to be a secret agent or have a sexy affair with the butler, yeah, but for me the fantasy was getting to safely transition and still have the rest of my life.”
Maxis worked with GLAAD to create the system UI, from the order and modifiers to “the icons and the language used in communicating this new feature.” Pearson says. “It’s particularly meaningful when someone says ‘I can finally make myself’.”
That’s not to say that every decision around The Sims franchise is perfect. Rowan and Amy both mentioned the high cost of DLC meaning that they had to pick and choose, or miss out on The Sims content altogether. Features like toddlers, seasons, and higher education are stripped out as a new Sims game is launched, then slowly re-added over time.
There are also times where the best efforts at representation still fall short for some players.
“Our recent Pride update was a great example; we worked with consultants, internal and external, on which flags to include with our content and thought we’d covered most of the prominent imagery,” says Pearson. “It turned out we’d missed the lesbian flag and while we’d thought other flags were considered more inclusive, we realized we had instead left lesbians feeling excluded — completely unintended!”
Situations like that become fuel for The Sims team to continue to tweak their formula and work on representation. “Things are constantly changing and evolving and I expect that representation we may push for today may look different five years from now,” says Pearson. “I think it’s amazing to be part of a game that can continue to grow and evolve along with the players we aim to represent.”
I’m familiar with that evolution. I don’t know how I’ll present in five years, or how I’ll see myself. I don’t know where my current feelings on gender take me. But I do know there’s at least one character creator that can bend to match my growth, and that means a surprising amount.