Back in February, drag artist and Twitch streamer Sierra Myst organised a collaboration effort that transformed The Sims 4 district of Willow Creek into a queer utopia. The project involved fifteen LGBTQIA2+ creators and ended up raising $12,000 for True Colors United, a charity focused on helping find solutions to queer youth homelessness in the US.
Named Fresh New World, the neighbourhood is still available for players to explore—anyone who owns The Sims 4 can download the world save file for free and have complete access to this reimagined Willow Creek. The Sims living in the neighbourhood are non-binary, asexual, trans, bisexual, lesbian, gay, femme-presenting sims, masculine-presenting sims—there's a lot of diversity. Each Sim comes with an in-game description that the creators have used to tell the backstories of their characters.
With Fresh New World, Sierra aimed to not only raise money for a great cause but to demonstrate the potential The Sims has to become a much more vibrant and diverse game. "I wanted to showcase what The Sims has given us so far, in terms of diversity and inclusion," Sierra says. "The Sims team talks about it a lot, and we see it a lot in the game, but it can be pushed so much more. I wanted to go at it with a very queer lens, and create a more diverse, inclusive, more interesting world than just the default one."
#FreshNewWorld Complete!!✨➡️ An all LGBTQIA2+ world save for Willow Creek➡️ Builds and Townies by 15 LGBTQIA2+ Simmers➡️ $12,000+ Raised for @TrueColorsUnite, a charity focused on LGBTQIA2+ youth homelessness✨Link to download below! pic.twitter.com/ktrjOU81mXFebruary 17, 2021
The community lots in Willow Creek can be something as simple as a cafe, comic book shop, and botanical gardens and can be quietly welcoming to the community. Don't get me wrong, I live for sparkles and rainbow flags, but here in Willow Creek, there's a sincerity and calmness to the way buildings and lots have been designed that avoid falling into stereotypical preconceptions of queerness. There are plenty of wonderfully queer characters and buildings to explore, but there are also spaces available if you'd like to add your own Sims to the neighbourhood. "You can easily just start living in that queer world," Sierra says.
EA is taking steps towards making The Sims more inclusive, most notably making significant updates to the character creator. Largely thanks to vocal streamers and creators, a long-awaited skin tone update included more varied options for darker skin tones, and also overhauled black hairstyles giving them more realistic and detailed textures.
It's projects like Fresh New World and other creators that are actively pushing for what can be done with The Sims. "Even things like elders are not really put into the game a lot, and then queer elders are something that like we don't see," Sierra says, "So, one of the builds that I did was I had an older elder lesbian couple who bought a ranch."
Although The Sims is two decades years old, it's a series that has always been queer, if accidentally. Back in 1999, as the game was making its E3 debut, its presentation unintentionally included a gay kiss between two female sims and, due to a miscommunication in the development team, the option for same-sex relationships was written into the game code. Thanks to this, Sims has always had the ability to fall in love with any other sim regardless of their gender, allowing people to play out their queer identities and desires before being comfortable or feeling safe to do so in real life.
"For me, it's a game that allows you to build a world that you may not necessarily have access to, right?" Sierra says. "It's always been a place of experimentation and exploration. Even just in terms of building these fantasy builds, homes that probably most people could never afford, or maybe aren't even architecturally feasible, right? But it gives us as players, and as individuals, the opportunity to create a world where we could see ourselves in, and living our best queer life."
In that respect, the game has brought a lot of joy to many players. "I think that's a very common story for a lot of like, queer people that play The Sims," Sierra says. "I think that kind of brings queer people back to The Sims as well, knowing that those same kinds of moments can still exist in the in the in the newer editions of the game, but are almost like encouraged as well."
The Sims allows players to explore different parts of our identities with many people who play the game projecting parts of their personality onto their Sim characters. It's why we hold such a strong connection to The Sims and similarly to the way Sierra describes her drag. "Everyone's experience is different with drag, but for myself, I'm getting to play with the different parts of myself," Sierra says. "I get to bring out different parts of me, and it just so happens that some of those parts are a big blue alien woman. I just get the opportunity to showcase that."
The Sims team has come a long way since the first game regarding diversity. The Sims 4 introduces several queer pre-made characters, including trans-masc sim Morgyn Embers, the non-binary villager Lia Hauata, and lesbian couple Dela Ostrow and Mia Hayes, who even feature in the game's cover art.
Regarding character creation, Create-a-Sim has also had major improvements, and The Sims 4 introduced a much more in-depth character creation menu which included a greater range of gender customization options. You can now choose between a masculine or feminine body frame, clothing isn't locked to one gender, you can decide if your sim sits or stands using the toilet, and whether a Sim can become pregnant. You can also change any of these options by selecting an in-game mirror to access the character editor and change your sim's gender, so players can emulate a Sim's transition.
With all these new character options, it's also possible to make your very own drag queen. "I made a Queen with a big pink beard and a big pink hair," Sierra says, "but they always had the pink beard, even when they were out of drag like they kept a little part of themselves when out of drag."
Unfortunately, creating a drag queen doesn't come without issues. "When you're selecting clothing for your sim to wear, you can remove a gendered filter so you can pick feminine clothes for masculine bodies, and masculine clothing for feminine bodies. But they often don't mesh very well on the body because it's clear that they were designed to go on a different type of body in the game. Even so, I've created masculine bodied Sims, put them in dresses, and then sent them off to go perform at a club and there's an option that lets them sim for tips."
Whilst the game has options for gender nonconformity, as Sierra points out, some features still rely on the gender binary. Although the presentational aspects of your sim are no longer predetermined by their gender, there are issues with how certain clothing fits and you still, unfortunately, need to set your sim to either male or female. Sierra has a wish list of features they'd like to see introduced.
"Without being too much of an armchair developer, pronouns are an easy one for sure," Sierra says. "Something I thought about when we were working on this project is that we have in our heads the sexuality of these sims when we're creating them and recreating the backstories, but that's not how The Sims works.
"It would be nice to have a setting where you could say that this sim is interested in these types of relationships, and to have a little bit more control in terms of someone's relationship status. I think that would be pushing for queerness that could exist there regularly."
Adding pronouns has been a common request from the community, recently culminating in a change.org petition started by Twitch streamer Momo Misfortune (a fellow contributor to the Fresh New World project). The petition asks EA to be more inclusive to transgender and non-binary sims through in-game dialogue, asking for more g pronoun options and gender-neutral language. So far, over 14,000 people have signed it.
Day 51 of tweeting @TheSims & @EA till we have pronoun options in The Sims 4 or game texts are changed to match the random gender neutral language being used throughout game dialogue.Sign the petition here: https://t.co/tK98mQLoWP#TheSims4 #YouMakeTheSims #PronounsForTheSims4April 15, 2021
Recent sims packs have included gender-neutral language but, unfortunately, there are still some instances of gendered language. There's also an issue with clothing, as Sierra pointed out, with many of the feminine-based clothing having the outline of a chest, even if your Sim doesn't have one. EA even included a non-binary flag into the game as part of a 2019 partnership with It Gets Better, a non-profit organisation that empowers queer youth around the world. It also introduced several Pride events, rainbow flags, and gender-neutral bathrooms to The Sims 4, but the irony was that non-binary sims were still getting misgendered in the game's text.
It may have a ways to go, but generally, The Sims has been open to improving its diversity and inclusion, which is what the community love about the game. As our understanding of gender identity has evolved, it's somewhat kept pace, but while EA continues to strive to include more diversity, it's the community that is actively keeping The Sims quintessentially queer.
Projects like Fresh New World, the enthusiastic support of the community, the abundance and creativity of mods—these are the people actively pushing for better diversity. The evolution towards making The Sims more inclusive is an achievement that lies with the players.
"There might be future Fresh New Worlds and future collaborations," Sierra says. "There's a lot of different worlds in The Sims 4 that we could makeover, so who knows? Keep your eyes on it."