The Sims seems like an unlikely game to be challenging and changing socially perceptions of the world, but in an article in The New Yorker it is claimed that the original 1999 version of the now popular franchise did just that.
The Sims, which was developed as a spin off of the popular franchise SimCity, was a game that went through years of development hell. It was on the table since 1993, four years after the release of SimCity. However fears over the mundane-ness of controlling everyday life, made EA fear a release.
But what is a more interesting side story to this game is its decision to allow same-sex relationships in the game. The article describes how it was a discussion that raged for a while, before ultimately the coders of the game decided to leave it out, allowing only opposite-sex couples.
Patrick J. Barrett III, joined Maxis (the arm of EA responsible for The Sims). The game designer, who is gay spoke of how he was given an assignment to complete while Jamie Doornbos, the games lead designer took holidays. He was charged with developing the AI for social interactions in the game.
He didn’t think I could handle it with Jamie off on vacation, but he figured that at least I’d be out of his hair
By accident Barrett developed the social interactions to allow for same-sex couples to be included. The team were amazed at his handiwork and never questioned the gay aspect to it. In fact, Will Wright, had praise for Barrett. “He told me that liked the social interactions, and that he was glad to see that same-sex support was back in the game.”
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 1999, no one was talking about The Sims. It was essentially believed EA would dump the title over fears it would damage the SimCity franchise.
Barrett was charged with developing “on-rails scenes,” these were non-playable live scenes that would demonstrate the games functions. The team ran out of time before E3, but what would happen next would shock them all, and secure the games future.
At the event, a wedding scene was being shown to the press. By pure fluke two female characters fell in love at the event and began to passionately kiss onscreen. Barrett speaking of that moment says “I guess straight guys that make sports games loved the idea of controlling two lesbians.”
The success of this secured the game but also made headlines as the first game with gay characters in it. The team had to decide how they would make a Sim either gay or straight. They allowed user-interatcions to decide whether a Sim would be attracted to the same, or the opposite sex. They could even become bisexual.
It was a momentous moment in video-game history. Barret noted that “It was also a different time; people weren’t so violently for or against same-sex relationships. They didn’t go out of the way to find it and react to it.
“The right-wing press didn’t have the platform they have today to scream. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no blogs. I kinda hoped people would come at night with pitchforks and torches. But it never happened.”
Looking back Barrett states “At the time, it wasn’t considered ‘normal’ to be gay or lesbian. Some even saw it as dangerous. But in The Sims it was normal and safe to be a gay person. It was the first time we could play a game and be free to see ourselves represented within.”
“It was a magical moment when my first same-sex Sims coupled kissed.”
And now, fifteen years on, the franchise is as popular as ever. The Sims 4 is to debut on September 2, 2014. The game may have advanced hugely, with bigger more interactive worlds, but one thing remains; a Sim can be any sexual orientation. And no other Sim cares. Now thats how the real world should be.
The full article appears in an online blog in The New Yorker available here.