It came not with a WooHoo, but with a whimper.
Last week, Maxis – the studio behind long-running life simulator series The Sims – announced a small change to their current title, The Sims 4.
The free update, automatically rolled out to all users, would apparently make changes so “female Sims can wear suits like Ellen [DeGeneres], and male Sims can wear heels like Prince”.
In reality it did much, much more than that.
The game is already a pariah among social conservatives due to its acceptance of same-sex marriage, gay parenting, extra-marital sex and non-traditional families – but the update brings more progressiveness than near-enough any other video game.
I dived in head-first (in a futile attempt to justify the game purchase as a work expense) and soon discovered that as in real life, many of the world’s pre-conceived gender identities are breaking down.
Creating my first character, Lex Lexington, I was presented not with just a binary choice between male and female, but with a custom list of options for various mutually-exclusive gender identifiers.
Do I want Lex to stand up to pee? Do I want them to be able to get pregnant? Their sex is male, but what’s their clothing preference… and do they have the body frame to match? What does their voice sound like?
All of these settings were adjustable, and there’s any number of different combinations.
This was just the start. I decided to make Lex as gender-nonconforming as possible, and after trying on a few outfits, settled on a red dress for daywear.
It’s important to stress that while the game asks you to pick a gendered clothing preference, this isn’t actually hard-wired: gender-specific clothing has simply been abolished.
You can mix a dress with boy shoes, or wear camo and high heels. You can wear a bra even if you don’t have boobs. Clothing, as in real life, is just clothing.
Lex’s housemate Sammy Ginsburg (named in honour of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, natch) was equally gender-diverse, sporting a neat goatee alongside their female frame; donning a waistcoat, loafers and jeans.
Until this month, all of this would have been impossible. The dresses were for women only, and the baggy clothes for men.
Setting Sammy as male would give them a male ‘look’ automatically – and you definitely couldn’t mix breasts and a goatee.
By now I was all character-created out, and set about building a post-modern house for our post-modern crew; in real life they might be crammed into a tiny apartment, but in The Sims they can have wall-to-wall windows and two infinity pools with money to spare.
And a rocket on the roof.
The beauty of The Sims has always been this wish fulfilment, and that extends to gender too.
While real-life trans people may be waiting years for gender treatment, Lex and Sammy could get instant free reassignment by looking in a mirror – which allows you to tweak any of the gender settings on the fly, as many times as you want, with no fanfair.
Anyway, the pair began to settle in, with Sammy gaining a passion for athletics.
Meanwhile Lex gained a passion for… men.
Within just a few hours, I’d unlocked a ‘reward’ item that allowed them to enter more than one relationship at once without making partners jealous – and a polyamorous Lex gained a number of simultaneous boyfriends.
It’s stunning to think back to the first days of The Sims in 2000, when same-sex marriage was in zero US states and the game lived within fairly conservative. restraints
16 years later, here I was with a gender-nonconforming athlete and a trans polyamorous queer mischief-maker.
But it didn’t stop there.
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It turns out that when you have eight simultaneous boyfriends… you can get pregnant.
It was here that the full impact of the changes and the extreme amount of thought that went into them became fully clear.
Every single message dealing with pregnancy in the game had been sensitively tweaked, with a Second Trimester notification reading: “Lex is well into his pregnancy now and excited to be a father”.
Models also appeared to have been tweaked. Lex grew a baby bump, but maintained their masculine frame.
Maxis may say they just made a few changes to let men dress like Prince – but in reality, The Sims now allows things that have never been seen before in mainstream gaming, and plenty of things things that are still llacking mainstream acceptance in real life too.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of an iconic game – that has a child-friendly rating and millions of players around the world – allowing trans and gender-diverse people to represent themselves in a way that’s rejected in most other forms of media.
Pushed on the changes, Maxis said: “The Sims is made by a diverse team for a diverse audience, and it’s really important to us that players are able to be creative and express themselves through our games.
“We want to make sure players can create characters they can identify with or relate to through powerful tools that give them influence over a Sims gender, age, ethnicity, body type and more.”
Also, before you condemn their single-parenthood, Lex hastily tied the knot with the man responsible.