How the Sims 4 helped create an entire community.
Since The Sims entered the video game market in 2000 on the PC, it has defied easy categorization. Designed to be a mix of an architectural simulator and a high-tech doll-house, The Sims’ release marked some of the most extensive customization in a video game at the time. All iterations of The Sims since have continued the trend. There is no definitive story mode or sense of linearity; the draw is in the details.
Your sim pays their bills, cleans themselves, eats, and remembers if they had a sour social interaction with another sim. Players have a great deal of freedom to guide their sims in whatever way they wish. Whether that’s toward success — through wealth, fame, family, popularity, a stylish vampire coven, or unbeatable cooking skills — or death. You can kill your sims in progressively stranger ways (because, at some point, we’ve all put our sims in a pool and removed the ladder to observe as nature takes its course).
Despite all this freedom, Black gamers still found themselves left wanting. In the latest Sims, Sims 4, some Black players across message boards and social media criticized the darker skin tones in the game as unflattering, grey, or ashy. They lacked the cartoonish vibrancy of the lighter skins available. The base game’s hairstyles — an important point of creativity or expression for Black girl ‘simmers’ — were few and far between, and those that were available lacked nuanced details. The Sims 4 is meant to be a life simulator, but feedback from the community pointed to the overwhelming reception that Black girl gamers weren’t seeing their life reflected.
So Black girl gamers decided to take matters into their own hands and began to create in-game items and mods on their own. SheSpeaksSimlish, EbonixSims, and Xmiramira are notable Sims modders that gained popularity because they decided to fill the community’s need. Xmiramira’s creations have ranged from the celebrated “Melanin Pack” offering vibrant skin tones to behavior mods and traits that take a page from Black slang and pop culture. Xmiramira’s “petty” trait takes the “petty” concept — which she describes as “truly, the definition of a hot mess” — and makes it a playable option.
The term “petty” has a specific meaning in Black slang, and Xmiramira managed to integrate that meaning into The Sims 4 in a way that is both faithful to its origins as well as playful. This particular mod is one of the more nuanced ways that creators have brought common ideas from Black youth culture into the game. A house full of Rihanna posters, Basquiat art, or Sims with intricate natural hairstyles might not be the first thing you think when you remember The Sims, but this is the aesthetic of these creators’ custom content that’s been resonating with the Black community of players.
Community-created mods have turned The Sims 4 into more than a game.
“It definitely helps to create a sim like you or your loved ones or any sim for that matter,” SheSpeaksSimlish said in an email. “A lot of what I create, I’ve seen in real life or I’ve worn the style myself. So when I create my simself, I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll have a hairstyle for her,” SheSpeaksSimlish said. She focuses on hair and African print clothing and accessories, though hairstyle diversity in particular seems to be her specialty. “I started because I saw that we weren’t getting [hair] from Maxis or other creators. Also because that’s what I have, so that’s what I want to see in game!”
By creating their own content for The Sims, Black girl gamers created a fanbase within a fanbase, and it’s provided inspiration for Twitch streamers and Youtube influencers. Simmers like Keeyuh, who was recently featured on the front page of Twitch for Black History Month, are known for almost exclusively using the specially-created content to make long-form stories on streaming websites.
These streams are also regular gathering spots for Black girl simmers to meet up and chat. Community-created mods have turned The Sims 4 into more than a game: it is an opportunity for representation and community for a group that doesn’t always get represented in video games. The opportunity for that representation, and for relevant communities to participate in a world that reflects themselves, is a reprieve from the sometimes-hostile instances that come with exposing games and its audiences to the importance of diversity. It’s a welcome tool that expands the reach and range of a game like The Sims 4.
It’s no secret that Black culture is highly influential in popular culture, even online. Slang from the Black community finds its way into viral advertisement and dances popularized by rappers show up in games like Fortnite. In this case, these creators and players are arbiters of how they want their culture to contribute to that landscape. In other words, The Sims has become that platform that’s given Black simmers — especially women — control of their own culture, and that’s powerful.
Alexis Harper is a Los Angeles born pop culture writer currently attending University in Washington D.C. She can be reached on twitter @Lexi_Caly