Early access

Has playing digital ‘Barbies’ stood the test of time?

Jake from Game Academy

After eight years, The Sims 4 has just become free to play. This is a great opportunity to review the game, and its relevance in the world today.

What’s striking is how far The Sims has come in its representation and the diversity of its cast - and it throws into stark relief just how far behind the gaming industry in general. Ironic really when the games world has traditionally been a safe haven for those who feel or find themselves marginalised in the real world.

Since its release in 2000, The Sims franchise has followed LGBTQ+ rights closely. The original game had gay relationships but weirdly had no marriage mechanics.

Sims 2 added the mechanics and called it a “joined union” for same sex characters.

It was not until the release of The Sims 3 in 2009 that “marriage” as a term was used in game for all relationships.

Sims 4 was released in 2014 and a patch two years later finally added customisation options for characters’ genders. It is a welcome addition but it took - believe it or not - another SIX years for pronouns to be implemented, and even then imperfectly.

It isn’t just gender that The Sims franchise has sought to embrace. From a base of just three skin tones there are now hundreds to choose from. Not bad considering that anthropologists recognise three of four basic races of mankind today that can be further subdivided into as many as thirty subgroups.

But look at the wider picture and the games industry lags way behind - it feels almost like Hollywood after the Second World War. Only 5% of games released in 2019 featured a female lead, despite 46% of gamers identifying as female. And Black or Hispanic characters have forever perpetuated stereotypes such as the gangs in the GTA series and Cole Train in Gears of War.

The nature of the gaming industry itself has got to be more than half of the problem. The lack of diversity in the industry in the United States is shocking. Female game developers make up just under a quarter of the workforce. The lack of diversity in the industry in the United States is shocking. When it comes to race, more black teenagers play video games than white, but the business is over 80% - repeat 80% - made by White/Caucasian/European people!

This matters - and not necessarily just for obvious reasons. Representation increases immersion. Game players prefer to play with a character that resembles themselves. By not being able to relate to the main character, gamers can feel excluded and reluctant to engage with the game.

The Sims has come a long way. Representation in the game is actually hugely impressive. But it definitely draws attention to gaps elsewhere in my Steam account.