The video game world has never been particularly kind to women. Whether female characters were prancing around as skimpily clad sex objects in Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, or prostituting themselves before being mercilessly killed in the Grand Theft Auto series, the existence of positive portrayals has been quite rare. Throw in the exploitative lesbian characters in superficial games like Playboy: The Mansion, and lesbian gamers have few, if any, positive role models to follow.
Enter The Sims, a life-simulation game by Electronic Arts. Originally released in February 2000, the game broke all sales records on its way to becoming the number-one selling video game of all time–and in the process, it also broke down significant social barriers.
The game allows players to create and control characters (called “Sims”) and help them succeed in everyday life. But unlike most games, there is no end to The Sims: players progress through the expected ranks of education, employment, and family within their custom-built homes and neighborhoods, all the while creating personal legacies and giving birth to offspring that allow their family tree to continue to thrive. The game has been favorably compared to a dollhouse, and although characters receive points by building up skills and relationships, there are no winners, and no end to the possibilities set forth in the game.
While the lure of The Sims is in the seemingly never-ending scenarios offered to the player, it is also one of the few items of pop culture to include equal rights for the gay community.
It would have been easy for the game’s creators to ignore the issue entirely by allowing only heterosexual romances and marriages. But early in the creative process, creator Will Wright decided that players should be given free reign to create their own likenesses and mimic their own family structures. This means that the world of The Sims, unlike many real-life societies, is inclusive of all sexualites.
The latest incarnation of the game, The Sims 2, gives same-sex couples even more rights: lesbian Sims can move in together, get married, and even share a single household bank account, a luxury that is rare outside of Sim towns. Their relationships and families are not ignored, shunned or despised by their Sim neighbors. Well-adjusted, happy couples are even offered the chance to adopt children, and in The Sims 2, those children can be modeled to take on the characteristics of both parents. It is equal-opportunity turkey basting at its finest.
Creation within The Sims is not limited to the in-game character models. It features an open-ended system that allows users to add options to the game’s database, so that new objects, houses, and characters can be designed and used in the game. To further enhance the personalization available in The Sims, players are also given the opportunity to create “skins”: unique, lifelike models of people, both famous and unknown. Every subtle nuance of a character’s appearance can be manipulated, and this feature allows each individual to truly customize their Sim families to their liking.
There is also a large faction of skin designers who create very detailed likenesses of celebrities. Now, with a few clicks of a mouse, a gamer can have the complete cast of The L Word or Buffy the Vampire Slayer appear in their Sim neighborhood, and with additional tweaking, these characters can be made to interact similar to their television counterparts. “Shane is scoring with all the chicks, and they all nearly faint when they walk by her,” describes one gamer who has utilized skins of the The L Word characters.
Indeed, this additional level of customization allows lesbian gamers not only to live out their real life dreams of love, relationships, and family, but also to indulge in the fantastical aspect of crushes and role models.