As everyone who plays it knows, The Sims is a virtual life simulator that doesn't officially have a set end-goal, but, like, the goal is to make your Sim have sex with every single person in their neighborhood. What you may not know, is that the game may have never come into existence at all had not it been for an accidental lesbian Sim-kiss at a game expo.
According to a fascinating report by Simon Parkin at the New Yorker, Electronic Arts didn't have much interest in The Sims, which made the development studio behind it really hesitant about including a same-sex relationship option: "No other game had facilitated same-sex relationships before — at least, to this extent — and some people figured that maybe we weren't the ideal ones to be first, as this was a game that E.A. really didn't want to begin with," original Sims developer Patrick J. Barrett III told Parkin.
After several months of deliberation, the team decided against including gay relationships. However, Barrett joined the company after the decision had been made and was completely unaware of this. Two weeks into his new job, he was asked to program social interactions in the game — and, by a stroke of fortune (or, more likely, because the goddess above wanted there to be gay Sims), he was given an old design document from before the team nixed same-sex romance options. He thus implemented them, and game designer Will Wright praised him for doing so, and everyone else was more or less like, "K, chill, let's just go with this."
In 1999, the team went to show the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The Sims wasn't even shown on the main stage — it had a humble little booth off to the side and wasn't attracting much attention. But that all changed due to a passionate womyn-on-womyn kiss during a live wedding simulation:
Barrett was asked to create a demo of the game to be shown at E3. The demo would consist of three scenes from the game. These were to be so-called on-rails scenes—not a true, live simulation but one that was preplanned, and which would shake out the same way each time it was played, in order to show the game in its best light. One of the scenes was a wedding between two Sims characters. "I had run out of time before E3, and there were so many Sims attending the wedding that I didn't have time to put them all on rails," Barrett said.
On the first day of the show, the game's producers, Kana Ryan and Chris Trottier, watched in disbelief as two of the female Sims attending the virtual wedding leaned in and began to passionately kiss. They had, during the live simulation, fallen in love. Moreover, they had chosen this moment to express their affection, in front of a live audience of assorted press. Following the kiss, talk of The Sims dominated E3.
"I guess straight guys that make sports games loved the idea of controlling two lesbians," posited Barrett sagely.
With the game's future completely secure, Barrett went on to design natural-seeming, seamless sexual orientation controls: "Certain social interactions were tagged as romantic," he explained to the New Yorker. "The game kept track of whether these were performed by same-sex or opposite-sex Sims. The formula was a little more complicated, but, over time, as a Sim developed a relationship, his or her preference was set."
And now, as the company prepares to roll out the fourth version of the game (which looks like a social-life-obliterating, beautiful nightmare), the impact of the decision to leave in same-sex relationships is still hugely significant.
Illustrating this perfectly, former Sims-enthusiasts recently started a Reddit thread discussing how playing the game helped them become comfortable with their own sexuality. Wrote one user, "Thinking back, it was actually the first way for me to explore my sexuality. I could be any gender I wanted, and I could date any gender I wanted. It was perfect :)"
I was 14 year old closeted gay boy living in rural Kentucky when I played The Sims for the first time. It's rare that a video game is a life-changing experience, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that it was. It was a safe place to experiment with social interactions that were absent from (if not illegal in) my real world. And it was a space free from the judgment, the ostracism, and the hate that was associated with homosexuality in my family and community...
I still return to it from time to time for the sheer nostalgia. It was a little virtual neighborhood that managed to make my world at the time seem so much bigger.
Representation matters! (Quick, someone tell Nintendo.)