The Sims and Progressive Sexuality
The Sims series has always been much more progressive than it often gets credit for, despite its fairly tame image. Even from the original Sims game, released way back in 2000, it already catered for non-normative relationships. Whereas many game franchises are, for some reason, still finding the idea of non-heterosexual gaming characters unthinkable, every sim is technically bisexual, something which has been expanded on throughout the sequels. The most recent release, The Sims 4, has taken this progression of sexuality further. In previous incarnations there was a fairly strict monogamy system, in which sims would become jealous and hate one another when discovering the object of their affection was “woohoo”-ing with another. If The Sims can be turned into a reflection of life, then obviously this is not particularly useful if you want your sim to be polyamorous, or even date around before committing. Like its predecessors, The Sims 4 has pushed forward to reflect what are usually brushed off as “alternative relationships”.
A little look at The Sims’ history definitely demonstrates that this isn’t particularly new for the series. In the original game, sims could be directed equally easily to have a crush on and fall in love with other sims of either gender. Compare this with the controversy that Nintendo garnered with Tomodachi Life, and you have a stark difference between the two very similar games. In Tomodachi Life, released in 2014, you are encouraged to create an online “self”, and can pursue romantic relationships and marriages with others who have done the same. That is, as long as you’re straight. Nintendo maintained that they were trying to avoid a political statement by not allowing gay marriage within the game, although evidently inadvertently did the opposite, as The Sims have continually proven that this is not an issue for a life simulation game.
It’s no secret that that the 1950s stereotype of a gender normative heterosexual couple with a few kids on the side is no longer the most prominent family unit, nor is it the most desirable. While non-heterosexuality is by no means a norm, over the past few years it has become infinitely more accepted than ever before, at least in the western world. Sexual fluidity seems to be much more commonplace, in that people who may generally identify as heterosexual or homosexual can accept that there may be a point where they fall for someone of a gender that they may not necessarily have expected. A similar phenomena is happening with polyamory. Whilst many people have been, and are, open to dating several people at once, usually this kind of behaviour is stereotypically limited to young blokes who shag around. However, the act of having more than one fulfilling and emotional relationship simultaneously – with the others in the relationship in full knowledge of this – is slowly becoming more and more common, and more and more accepted (emphasis on slowly).
The acceptance of “alternative” relationships, and particularly bisexual and homosexual relationships, within video games has been a rocky road. Bizarrely there still seems to be some residual belief that only white heterosexual boys play video games, despite consistent and vehement opposition to this assumption, and so for some LGBTQ gamers it has felt like an uphill struggle. In recent years though, increasing numbers of games – both RPG and life simulation – that have started to include same-sex relationships. These relationships are treated as a non-issue, and are always an optional extra (as in, the player could choose to engage in a heterosexual relationship instead, if they wished to engage in a romantic relationship at all).
One could argue the point that, whilst The Sims does have the option to contradict the heterosexual and monogamous “norm”, compulsory heterosexuality is present throughout the games as a standard. The families that you meet in-game are all heterosexual bar one, so unless the player themselves decides that their sim isn’t going to maintain this “norm” then you wouldn’t really have contact with someone obviously non-heterosexual. This doesn’t seem to be advanced in The Sims 4, despite Russia taking umbrage with this particular incarnation of the game above any others. However, this latest game does now have a mod that allows same-sex couples to biologically reproduce, when they were only able to adopt previously. While there still seems to be a fair amount of ground to be covered when it comes to homosexual relationships being part of the “norm”, as well as how The Sims games represent non-cisgendered people, this is definitely a good platform to start with.
Out of all of the games, The Sims 2 probably furthered this idea that in-game homosexuality is not an issue most by allowing both heterosexual and homosexual couples to marry or enter into joined unions. In addition to this, in The Sims 2 package files, which were accessible via a cheat, you could see whether each individual sim had a preference for men, women, or no real preference at all. This made the game a much more authentic experience in terms of a sim’s autonomous personality, and made it almost as much of a trait as the personalities you could assign. While all the non-playable sims present as heterosexual (in that they aren’t in pre-programmed homosexual relationships), this showed that the player then would be in contact with a non-heterosexual sim without knowing it (much like in life). That being said, if you wanted a sim to sleep with – sorry, “woohoo” with – anyone of any gender, you still could enforce it with a few jokes and flirts, regardless of built-in sexual preference.
Making this kind of fluid attraction is one thing, but The Sims 4 has now taken this a step further. In a move that makes the Sim world even truer to life, The Sims 4 has changed the relationship dynamic of compulsory monogamy that was implemented in the previous games. In the past three incarnations, if your sim had any kind of romantic attachment to another sim then they would become extremely upset if they saw said sim involved in romantic behaviour with any other sim. This would mean that their previous relationship with the original sim was often damaged almost beyond repair. However, now there is the relationship status of “lovebirds”. The sims are not in a formal relationship, and if their other romantic activities are witnessed then there is only a minor jealousy penalty. There is also a reward trait for the serial lover aspiration that a sim will never make another sim jealous, so if you want to make a fairly serious Don Juan then you now have the freedom to do so.
Other games that allow the player to pursue romantic relationships often have a similar monogamy remit to the other Sim games, in that your character can only have romantic relations with one other person. In The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, you have a huge selection of characters (male and female) that you can marry – but that’s all you can do. If you decide to commit to another character in game then you’re committing for life. Of course, if you change your mind you can kill off your beloved, but that can be a little awkward, especially if they’ve grown into a particularly powerful follower.
Fable 2 is one exception to this rule. You can romance anyone and everyone to your heart’s content with kisses, dates, and a bit of thrusting. Outside of being hounded by lovesick villagers wherever you go, there is no penalty for this kind of polyamory. BioWare also recently announced plans for both polyamorous and asexual relationships, and the possibility that in-game relationships could fail. They stated that the only thing in their way was scripting, and so it seems like this could be a very real possibility in the next generation of games.
This kind of dynamic affords the player a lot more freedom. As in life, relationships are not always clean cut, and whilst there may be small amounts of jealousy if someone you sort-of dated gets with someone else at a party, it’s not going to entirely destroy the friendship between you. Sims can still only have one spouse, but it is possible to have multiple other partners without the world ending. This makes for a much more realistic experience and, let’s be honest, is great for the vicarious living which is exactly what games like The Sims are for. What’s the point of living a lavish life of fast cars and elaborate mansions if you end up getting a tongue-lashing and your bins periodically kicked over because you flirted with somebody in front of someone you forgot your sim had “woohoo”-ed with? It’s this vicarious living that is also so important for life simulators like The Sims. The game provides a safe space for LGBTQ+ exploration, and potentially polyamory exploration, without fear of discovery from internet or Netflix history, or being caught somewhere or with something that could attract gossip and could potentially be quite dangerous.
The Sims has shown again and again that gaming doesn’t have to be behind the cultural norm. Where Tomodachi Life felt that allowing a same-sex relationship in a life simulator would be a political statement, The Sims takes it as an unspoken option. No sim has to engage in homosexual behaviour, but the option is there. Now, with The Sims 4, no sim has to have multiple partners, but the option is there. This is in no way an attack on Tomodachi Life (or other games like it): Nintendo and EA come from different places with different cultural norms, and so it makes sense that their development and sense of these relationships may be different. However The Sims has consistently (and quietly) maintained a progressive movement in terms of sexuality. The genders may still be binary and the identities still quite restrictive, but The Sims is definitely in the lead with video games – and most other mainstream media – in terms of progress and acceptance for relationships that don’t necessarily conform to either heterosexuality or monogamy.
What do you think? Leave a comment.