Top surgery scars, binders, tucking underwear and shapewear are some of the new elements "Sims" players can now add to their characters. The news has transgender gamers celebrating, marking the latest breakthrough for the LGBTQ gaming community.
"The Sims 4" — which is free across multiple gaming platforms — rolled out a software update last week centered on inclusion. Along with the add-ons for trans visibility, additional upgrades include medical wearables like glucose monitors, insulin pumps, and hearing aids, which can be customized by color and placed on the Sims' right, left, or both ears.
Kendall Stephens, 36, who describes herself as a civil rights trans activist from Northeast Philly, said she was skeptical when she saw the announcement. She worried the company behind "Sims," EA Games, was pandering to the gender-variant community.
In the corporate world, "rainbow-washing" is a common practice where large companies brag about pride initiatives for monetary gain. Still, she asked other members of the trans and nonbinary community for their thoughts.
"Predominantly, there was a general sense that 'The Sims' game depicting transgender and nonbinary people in the light of their truths is gender-inclusive, not gender delusive," she said. "In 'The Sims' game, you can be whomever you imagine yourself. Including trans characters in the 'Sims' universe — scars and all. That allows everyone to have an equal opportunity to feel represented and affirmed."
'There are living people who are transgender and deserve to be included'
For years, games like "The Sims" have acted as an outlet for queer gamers. Players have discussed using the game as a form of escapism, affirmation, and as a way to explore their identities.
Addie Barron, 28, a trans woman who lives in West Philly, said she personally used games like "The Sims" to experience gender euphoria.
"Character Creator [games] are a space of fantasy where there are no insurance companies or governments limiting the changes I can make to my body," she said. "By including explicit, real-life markers of transness in the Character Creator, the game allows us to see our own bodies as part of our fantasy, not something we have to leave behind."
Barron, who plays video and tabletop games and has also studied and taught about game design in academic environments, says showing elements like top-surgery scars in positive, or even neutral, context, is crucial amid a wave of anti-trans political actions.
"'The Sims' is hugely popular and it has a lot of power to set standards in the culture and industry of games," she said. "This kind of representation can steer people away from misinformation and fearmongering."
Troy Lee, 36, of Germantown, has been a gamer his entire life. He is gay, and said the additions to "The Sims" are "absolutely groundbreaking."
"'The Sims' is a life simulation and there are living people who are transgender and deserve to be included and able to create themselves in the game," he said.
For Adam Hoyak, 32 — a longtime gamer from South Philly who enjoys "The Legend of Zelda" games and has logged his fair share of "Animal Crossing" hours — "The Sims" updates are refreshing.
"If you're like me, you create a version of yourself and the world you live in [in 'The Sims']," he said. "This update is more than just an update," Hoyak, who is gay, continued. "It's a celebration."
It marks the latest win for LGBTQ gamers, many of whom also praised the new TV adaption of "The Last of Us."
'The Last of Us' elevates a gay love story
Last month, episodes of HBO's "The Last of Us," based on the video games "The Last of Us" Part I and II, centered on a romance between the characters Bill and Frank. For LGBTQ gamers, the gay romance scenes coupled with the show's mainstream success — 4.7 million people tuned in for the pilot and 5.7 million for episode two according to Variety — felt like a "watershed moment for LGBTQ representation," NBC noted.
In the video game's storyline, Bill is a minor character and his relationship with a man is a small aside. In the TV adaptation, a tender, heart-wrenching love scene marks the plot's turning point.
"It really gave a purposeful backstory to Bill and who Frank is and how much they meant to each other," Lee said. "That's a story we didn't get in the game and I appreciate how they were portrayed."
For Hoyak, "The Last of Us" was a chance for a gay couple's love — not their sex — to be highlighted.
"Don't get me wrong, those movies are fun, too. But it's nice to see the love in our community highlighted for just that," he said. "Those scenes struck a chord with me, bringing me to tears."
Hoyak watched "The Last of Us" with his boyfriend and described sobbing during the scene's climax. "I held him a lot closer that night when we went to bed," he recalled.
'We deserve to be represented'
LGBTQ representation in media is commonly viewed as positive for both queer and cis-straight youth for shattering stereotypical molds, enforcing positive self-perception, and assisting with coping with discrimination.
Still, "representation at this level often comes at a cost," Stephens cautioned.
"There are still some trans and nonbinary 'Sims' players who may not see the gender expansiveness of the Sims characters as gender euphoria but instead as quite the opposite: gender dysphoria," she said. "[Also,] there is always the likely possibility of anti-trans biased-based bullying if players decide to post their characters online for public consumption."
She added, "hopefully, we can all lean into the uncomfortable and accept the reality that, just like in the 'Sims' universe, we all share this world together, and we all deserve to be represented as our authentic selves."
Maybe Mario will save a Prince next?
Stephens, Lee, Barron, and Hoyak all said they hope that efforts to depict members of the LGBTQ community in mainstream media will help normalize and celebrate their community.
"We've already seen an explosion of Character Creation in games becoming more expansive and acknowledging the huge variety that exists in people's real-life bodies," Barron said. "Sims is the biggest and most visible of these so far, so this means all gamers will be able to play and fantasize in a world that looks more like their own — one that includes trans people in all our beautiful variations."
Lee hopes this shift is just the beginning for LGBTQ representation in video games.
"What if we get a gay storyline in a major AAA (a high budget, high profile, mass distributed) title?" he said. "Mario saving the Prince [instead of Princess Peach]? I'm here for it."
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