Earlier this year, Russia slapped an R18+ rating on the soon-to-be-released The Sims 4 videogame, in compliance with its law restricting the depiction of same-sex relationships to minors.
When I think of The Sims, political controversy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. For those not familiar, The Sims is a casual life-simulation game, which gives a player open-end control over a family of Sims (simulated humans) and their daily lives.
Common associations for me – and I assume anyone else who was an avid player – would be swimming pools with deleted ladders, alien abductions, kitchen fires, their Simlish language and, of course, the “motherlode” cheats.
Released by California-based Electronic Arts in 2000, The Sims has become the best-selling PC Franchise of all time.
How can a game in which the player creates virtual people to place in decorated houses for them to live out their aspirational goals push social decorum? My maid Sim did once enter the bedroom and boo my Sims while WooHoo-ing (a euphemism for sex) but I think that’s more hilarious than controversial.
Citing Russia’s recently amended 436-FZ law that aims to protect minors from “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships,” The Sims 4 will not be available to anyone under the age of 18. Notably, Sims 3 was only rated 12+ before the “gay propaganda” law came into effect.
This law has proven to be quite controversial for Russia, resulting in significant protests during the recent Sochi Winter Olympic games.
The argument here is that the gay couplings in The Sims 4 are harmful to children and equates the game with violent titles, such as series Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.
Electronic Arts has responded to Russia’s strict censoring by stating the game will not be amended to appease conservative classification laws. Deborah Coster, spokesperson for the franchise said:
one of the key tenets of The Sims is that it is up to the player to decide how to play the game. We provide the simulation sandbox and player choice and creativity does the rest.
Amusingly, engineer Jamie Doornbos, without consultation with others working on the game, first programmed the coding for same-sex coupling in the franchise.
The Sims was given leeway with this content because it is deemed a casual game. Programming queer content in triple-A games would be significantly more difficult – a fact that makes Mass Effect 3 all the more ground-breaking.
The Sims has always led the way with gay content in video games. Every Sim is technically bisexual; they can fall in love with and “WooHoo” with a Sim from either gender as long as they are within the adult age group.
Interestingly, the various titles in The Sims franchise coincide with changing developments in Western gay equality. In 2000 same-sex Sims were “allowed” to move in together and adopt a child, Sims 2 allowed a state of Joined Union (how romantic!), and Sims 3 made marriage available to any couple in a romantic relationship.
Current knowledge of Sims 4 gameplay is limited, but it is assumed the game’s positive representation will continue. The new “Create-a-Sim” trailer for Sims 4 does tell us that the user can control their voice and how the Sims will move, which allow the possibility for Sims that challenge conventional gender expressions.
Acknowledgement of the gaymer fan base continues to grow, with Nintendo recently apologising for not allowing gay marriage in their recent Tomodachi Life simulation game and pledging to allow this gameplay option for the next instalment in the Tomodachi series.
In considering the evolution of gay representation, not just in The Sims franchise but also in wider videogame content, the development with the Russian classification system is significant.
The Sims has always had the potential to represent traditionally “othered” audiences in the video game industry, such as the gaymer. Because the control has been given to the player in the creation of their Sims, EA is able to avoid stereotypical traits in how gay and lesbian characters are depicted, while not alienating potentially conservative gamers.
A sceptical gamer could view this is an exploitation of difference, that this representation of marginalised identities is not done out of a liberal political belief but rather out of the desire for financial profits.
At last year’s LGBT-focused gaming convention GaymerX in San Francisco, Bioware’s David Gaider (responsible for the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series) stated that “people at the top [aren’t] fundamentally bigots; they’re fundamentally capitalists”.
EA is refusing to cave in to Russian censors, which should be applauded. If same-sex couplings in The Sims – or any other game for that matter – don’t hurt sales, we can look forward to more gay-inclusive titles in the future.
Stuart will be on hand for an Author Q&A session from 2pm to 3pm (AEST) on June 5. Have any questions about queer representation in videogames? Post them in the comments section below.