For the last two decades, The Sims games have operated in an almost exclusively pansexual landscape. Sims—those little virtual figures you play dollhouse with—were conceived as sexually fluid, exploring interests in both men and women at the player’s whim. There was no option to define your Sim’s sexuality—that being said, there was no binary that prohibited male Sims from sleeping with male sims and female Sims from sleeping with female Sims.
For more than 20 years—since the first game arrived in 2000—the franchise has been a safe space for queer players to build a realistic video game world, one that allowed their characters to love who they wanted to love. And The Sims hasn’t stopped at just letting players make their characters kiss and WooHoo whoever they so choose, either: The most recent entry in the series, The Sims 4, added the opportunity to select customizable pronouns for Sims.
And now, for the first time in series’ history, you’ll finally be able to get even more specific with how your Sims live their lives: Players can, as of this week, dictate their Sims’ sexual and romantic orientation, as well as whether or not they’re exploring other options.
The feature has an apt launch partner, with the game’s High School Years add-on content, out on July 28. Players will be able to create teenage Sims, who live in an expansive world ruled by parents, principals, and hormones. But as of July 26, everyone who owns The Sims 4 will be able to access the orientation feature. Design lead Jessica Croft walked us through the feature before it went live, explaining what Sims players should expect as it rolls out gamewide.
“It’s going to be the first time where Sims push back and maybe not be interested in your Sim,” Croft told the Daily Beast. “Relationships in The Sims, up until this point, have largely been at the absolute behest of the player. If the player wants to romance somebody, they can just spam flirts on them and it will probably work out at the end of the day. But now, you’re going to run into some pushback.”
Players can’t turn the feature off—because “LGBTQIA+ identities are a fact of life and not a toggle to be switched on and off,” Croft explains in her developer’s diary. But if you make a Sim that’s sexually interested in both men and women, as well as select the “exploring” feature, you’ll essentially be playing with the same settings that The Sims games have always implemented.
Fans were already impressed by the feature when developer EA revealed it earlier this month. While folks have been joking that the game is “begrudgingly allowing you to make straight people,” many players are excited by the opportunity to craft their Sims with sexual and romantic orientation more akin to their own.
Croft sat down with The Daily Beast to explain not only how the feature works, but why now was the right time to introduce sexual orientations, how the company partnered with GLAAD and It Gets Better to fine-tune the language of the feature, and what’s next for the growing customizability of the game.
How did the team first decide to create a new sexual and romantic orientation feature, after all these years?
There’s a lot of factors that went into it. It felt like the right time to finally do it, because we’re looking at teens and the self-discovery aspect of being a teenager. It was a natural fit for trying to address this part of identity. Also, a lot of members of the team—myself included—are LGBTQIA+. I identify as a lesbian. It’s very personally important to us.
And The Sims is already fairly progressive, in terms of sexual fluidity.
If you look at the overall trajectory of The Sims, 20 years ago, we were one of the very first games to really push the boundaries of depicting same-sex couples in the actual gameplay. When I was a youngster, that was one of my first experiences with same-sex coupling in a game. It seemed like a natural fit.
To be perfectly honest, the bar for where representation is in games these days is so much higher. I was playing one of the recent Call of Duty games, and there’s a point where they asked your pronouns. I’m like, that’s unexpected from a shooting bang-bang game!
But that’s the point we’re at. It seemed like the right thing to do. It’s been something the fans wanted for a very long time. I know from my perspective as a queer person, having a Sim that is queer that flirts with the people they’re not supposed to—that throws off my entire story.
They look like you, so why wouldn’t they think like you too?
A story I hear all the time is of an LGBTQIA+ player that sees themselves reflected for the very first time in media in The Sims. From that, they know that who they are is normal, and everything will be okay. That’s a really powerful story. The whole team felt that this was a very important step to venture into.
What were the conversations like when this was first brought up?
While there are a lot of LGBTQIA+ folks on the team, we recognize that each one of us only [has] a narrow set of lived experiences. The very first conversation we had was, “Do we think we can get this right? Do we have the resources in place to make sure we actually solicit enough feedback to ensure that we are actually uplifting the community and not playing into anything negative?” Obviously, we talked all over the team. We also talked to internal interest groups.
There’s a few iterations that we went through before we got to this final project. In the early version, we were more into labels—you had labels for your Sim, and we were trying to set loosely what their orientation was. We found that that actually created a lot of confusion and noise and static, because a lot of labels are still heavily debated in the community. We wanted to steer clear of that, and that’s how we got to where we are now.
A lot of what we were talking about was, “Are we phrasing this in a way that is going to get the point that we’re trying to get across without offending anybody?” Because if you’ve operated in the queer space on social, there’s all these pitfalls of ways you can express something that might offend somebody, or it might not have the meaning you think it does. We’re trying to be very, very, very careful.
We’re doing this in a way where we’re trying to celebrate community [that] isn’t going to cause a lot of frustration. [GLAAD and It Gets Better] had a lot of feedback on how the gameplay would play out; it was all very valuable. It’s give and take, they recently had feedback that was outside the stroke of what we were going to do. But it’s all very useful information.
Why was it pertinent to release this feature alongside High School Years?
A lot of people discover their sexual orientation in their teenage years. It makes a lot of sense there. I do want to make it clear, though: This is not gated behind High School Years. This is a completely free update—everyone [with The Sims 4] will get it. We really want to hammer that point home. One of the very first discussions we had was, “This has to be in the base game.” We try not to appear evil! So we could not paywall this one. But the teen story is a lot about experimenting with who you are, so it made a lot of sense here.
The Sims definitely has played a big role in young queer people’s lives, thanks to the ability to explore sexual attraction. How are you hoping to see this update make an impact on young folks playing the game?
Beyond simply being able to have a queer Sim, there’s lots of little things we did to also further that story of figuring out who you are. You can set your orientation/your romantic interests, but you can also set whether or not your Sim is “exploring.” That’s tied into that. If your Sim is set to not exploring, that’s the story of someone who’s figured out who they are. They’re very firm in their identity. I’m 38, I identify as a lesbian, and I’m not really trying to figure it out anymore. In terms of my identity, I’ve figured it out.
So what happens if your Sim does want to “explore?”
The story of someone that is exploring is someone whose identity might shift around a little bit as they go on dates with various genders. It’s also important to note that we try to capture more than just lesbian, gay, bi—we also tried to capture asexual and aromantic sims in this one. This is the whole “WooHoo interest” portion of it. You can totally create an asexual Sim in this by just having them not be interested in WooHoo [a.k.a., Sim sex] or physical intimacy.
We were realizing as we were building this that, “Hey, you can’t actually WooHoo somebody if you aren’t romantically interested in them in our game currently.” From that discussion, we were like, “Oh crap. We need to actually have something like WooHoo partners.”
So like, friends with benefits.
WooHoo partners is, if you’re very close to somebody as a friend, you can propose that you take on this kind of relationship with them where you’re physically intimate but you’re not romantically attracted to them.
Do you look to the community to inspire changes like these to the game?
We are very in-tune with what our community is asking for at any given time. We’re very data-driven. We have tons and tons of data of what fans are actually asking for, and what they’re talking about, and what is very relevant and on-point for us; and also, where we’ve been in the past and where we’d like to go in the future. So it’s pretty calculated. This is definitely driven by the fact that we know the fans are interested in this.
Again, at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do. It’s 2022. Queer representation—now more than ever, for various reasons—is really important. We definitely try to keep our fingers on the pulse of what the community is asking for.
What are you expecting the reaction to be when this finally is released?
“Finally.” [Laughs] Overall, everyone that’s heard about this so far has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic about it. The approach we’ve taken is one that, at its core, is about uplifting the community and allowing players to tell a variety of stories. You can have a Sim that is interested in romance with men and women, but only interested in physical intimacy with women. You can create very specific stories like that.
Certainly, there are going to be players that want more. That is entirely fine. We just had the pronouns update not too long ago—you can create custom gender pronouns for your Sims. This is another step in that journey. A few years ago, we added gender settings where you can allow your Sim to get pregnant regardless of their [gender] frame, pee standing up or sitting down regardless of their frame. These are all pieces of that journey towards better representation that we’re always trying to plan out the next step for.
You do mention the fact that non-binary Sims still aren’t available in your developer’s diary.
It’s worth talking about. We are launching with the ability to be romantically interested in female and male Sims. The reason why it’s gender-binary now is primarily driven by the fact that it’s a technical limitation. At its core, the game still creates Sims on the backend as a gender binary. That’s certainly an area where players can ask us to do more. That’s fine. That’s good. Let’s have that conversation. And let’s keep trying to plot out this journey ahead together. We have an idea of where we can go in the near future, but it’s always good to have players asking and taking us to task on where we go next.