Megan Elliot speaks to queer youth about their nostalgic love of The Sims, and its importance as a space for queer storytelling and safe identity exploration.
WORDS Megan Elliott
Before coming out a year ago aged 25, I appeared very straight to the outside world. I had been in a long-term relationship with a man and had exclusively dated boys at school. But behind closed doors, my teenage self was playing out my queerness on The Sims, long before I would admit it to myself.
The Sims was my escape from reality, a place where I could forget about my anxieties and immerse myself in a fantasy world. I started out playing SimCity with my dad as a kid, developing thriving towns and managing natural disasters. By the time I was a teen, I had graduated to The Sims 2, which is where I first started experimenting with same-sex couples.
In the Create-a-Sim stage of the game, I never made lesbian couples. Instead, I often made two ‘straight’ couples in one household and embarked on secret lesbian affairs during gameplay. When the women got together, I often got bored with the men and moved them out into a separate household so I could focus on the women. Chatting to my therapist about why I never made a lesbian couple from the outset, I concluded that this reflected my previously held ideas that same-sex relationships were taboo and shameful.
It’s unsurprising that for many in the LGBTQIA+ community, The Sims provided an outlet for exploring identity and sexuality, as the game is a safe space in which you can act out personal fantasies. A 2006 studyon The Sims concluded that people who play the game project parts of their personality or life onto their Sim characters. Digital spaces like The Sims are much lower risk than physical spaces when it comes to exploring sexuality. I spoke to several people about their experience playing The Sims and how it helped them to better understand themselves and their identities.
Jess, 28, they/them: There was so little in the way of queer stories in other media, so I used to create them on The Sims. When I was a teenager, it helped me imagine what my life could be like. I enjoyed making male characters, especially doing their clothes and hair, back when I didn’t realise it was an option for me to look like that myself. There were two types of stories I invented – real lives I might want myself and queer versions of more dramatic kinds of stories that I wasn’t getting elsewhere (vampires, etc.).
Alif, 23, she/her: All my Sims were gay and none of them were white, which helped me process and normalise being brown and queer. I would screenshot my Sims kissing and keep them secretly. The Sims was a way for me to create narratives where I could tell stories about people like me and other people who I found interesting.
I enjoyed making male characters, especially doing their clothes and hair, back when I didn’t realise it was an option for me to look like that myself.
Kris, 29, they/them: The Sims meant so much to me in early adolescence! When I was about 13, my best friend/next-door neighbour (who, looking back, I might have had a baby gay crush on) had The Sims 2 (I wasn’t allowed to own/play it). We would play for hours at her house on the family computer, and I can’t remember who initiated it, but we ended up making two girls kiss on the game. I think we were both curious, so we kept the Sims flirting until we could finally make them ‘woohoo’. That was my first sapphic experience. Before, I didn’t even know it was possible to be attracted to someone of the same sex. I didn’t come out until later at college, but I’ll always love The Sims 2 for shedding light on my little queer adolescent self.
Emily, 35, she/her: All my Sims were gay when I was a kid – they still are when I play it now! I’m still not out. I was probably about 15 when I first started playing. I was outed by someone from a different school when I was around 17, but I denied everything and shoved myself back into the closet for a long time. I ended up in a relationship with a man, and we’ve been together for ten years. He’s known I was bi since we met, but in the last year or so I’ve realised I’m gay and I’ve yet to find the courage to tell him. I still play The Sims every so often and I make myself a happy lesbian family every time!
Jen, 25, she/her: I played The Sims 1 and had a couple (man and wife) who I painstakingly made work for their fortune so they could move out of their shitty house and into the neighbourhood mansion. It took months. Once they were there, I had the wife leave him for a female neighbour. On The Sims 1 at the time, they couldn’t ‘woohoo’, but I could make them kiss and declare their love. The husband fought with the neighbour for stealing his wife. I felt like I had done something shameful and ended up re-setting my save and erasing the affair.
Norman, 30, he/him: I had a super religious and uptight upbringing. I used The Sims to explore relationships and the thrill of sexuality in general. Now, I enjoy playing The Sims 4 with the different gender customisations and relationship options.
I used to create straight couples and then drown the unsuspecting men in the pool so the women could get together!
Andrea, 24, she/her: I used to create straight couples and then drown the unsuspecting men in the pool so the women could get together! I would spend hours creating the female characters but didn’t care about making the men. I had this idea that same-sex relationships were naughty but exciting. The straight couple would always live with another woman because deep down, I wanted the women to be together but it felt wrong – I guess that’s on internalised homophobia!
Mattie, 23, they/them: My first experience with playing The Sims was The Sims 2 on our family computer as a kid. Most of the time, my brothers would be about too so we’d all build houses together or set things on fire. But when I had the computer to myself, I liked the actual gameplay and I’d spend hours on it. It didn’t take me long to realise you could make two sims ‘woohoo’ in a hot tub, and it didn’t take much longer after that to realise those sims could be the same gender. It quickly became all I did with the game. I’d break up marriages with queer affairs, make teenage boys fall in love, have same-sex couples adopt babies. And then I’d hurriedly turn off the screen when my brothers came in. This was a long time before I ever thought about my own sexuality; I didn’t realise how connected it was until I started playing the game again when I was about 20. At that point, I’d been out as a lesbian for a couple of years and felt pretty comfortable. I love that the game gave tiny queer me the space to create stories and explore. Now playing The Sims 4, it feels like the game has grown with me. Instead of just making same-sex couples, I play with the custom gender settings. I even downloaded some custom content top surgery scars to put on my trans masc Sims. I’ve spent a lot of time living in my parent’s home where I’m not out as non-binary and get called the wrong name, so escaping to a game where I can create infinite, gender queer versions of myself is affirming. I wish they would add more gender options, and they/them pronouns, but I think they will get there eventually. The Sims has been very important to me and has brought me a lot of joy and space not to think.
I love that the game gave tiny queer me the space to create stories and explore. Now playing The Sims 4, it feels like the game has grown with me. Instead of just making same-sex couples, I play with the custom gender settings. I even downloaded some custom content top surgery scars to put on my trans masc Sims. I’ve spent a lot of time living in my parent’s home where I’m not out as non-binary and get called the wrong name, so escaping to a game where I can create infinite, gender queer versions of myself is affirming.
As Mattie says, The Sims still has some way to go, particularly in terms of gender options; whilst the game has options for gender non-conformity, such as by making all clothing, physiques and voices accessible to all Sims, each Sim is still designated male or female. It was only in 2019, after the rebranding for The Sims 4, that the creators included a pre-made same-sex couple for the first time,Dela Ostrow andMia Hayes. Furthermore, a recent campaign has demanded better representation of darker skin tones on the game, suggesting a colour wheel for skin tone selection instead of the current limited swatches. The Sims creators have responded that they recognise they need to do better and will provide a game update on this later this year.
The Sims has given countless people, including myself, the space to play out queer identities and desires before they are comfortable or safe to do so in real-life. Around the world, some people never reach the point where they can live openly as LGBTQIA+, so The Sims continues to provide an escape, and the opportunity to imagine a different world.
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