Over the years, The Sims series has been praised for including diverse character representation far beyond what most other AAA gaming franchises had available.
The Sims has allowed same-sex relationships since its 2000 debut, and has actively worked to improve options around same-sex marriage, cultural and racial diversity, gender representation, and more ever since. And today, a free update will add custom pronouns and improve players’ ability to see themselves within The Sims even further.
Currently, the way The Sims 4 works is that Sims are assigned a pronoun based on a binary gender system. During Create-A-Sim, players must designate a Sim as either male (he/him pronouns) or female (she/her). They’re able to customize further from there, with factors such as whether a Sim can become pregnant, their body type and physical appearance, and clothing choices made independent from the initial male/female selection. But players nevertheless have been locked into a binary gender system for all of the narration in The Sims 4 until now.
With the help of GLAAD and the It Gets Better Project, Maxis has implemented a new feature allowing players to determine a Sim’s pronouns as part of Create-A-Sim, right at the start when they input their Sim’s name.
Players will be able to either select she/her, they/them, he/him, or create a custom set that will fill in for all that Sim’s narration. The custom option has fields to input pronouns for the subjective, objective, possessive dependent, possessive independent, and reflexive forms, and includes sample sentences in case grammar terminology isn’t your forte.
The addition of customizable pronouns shouldn’t be surprising to The Sims 4 community, as Maxis has been transparent for months now that it was looking into the feature after hearing feedback from the community that the binary gender limitation was a concern. But why is this so important to them?
Stephanie DeBiase, gaming and future tech coordinator for the It Gets Better Project, explains that The Sims 4 has historically been seen as a safe, fictional space for members of the LGBTQIA+ community to explore queer lives and relationships. By adding customizable pronouns, Maxis is effectively removing an unintended limitation on that fantasy, allowing for its players to have even more creative freedom.
“If you’ve created a sim and imagined them to use certain pronouns, and then see that characters in the game are using different pronouns to refer to them, it can be jarring, if not dysphoric, and take you out of the world you were trying to build,” DeBiase says. “So, creating a sim and setting their pronouns and then having that seamlessly be used in the gameplay is liberating, especially for trans and nonbinary players who are often met with resistance and discrimination in their everyday lives. This kind of virtual affirmation, especially from a large, mainstream video game like The Sims, can go a long way in reminding LGBTQIA+ players that they are seen, valued, and understood.”
While most people are likely familiar with they/them, she/her, and he/him, some may be less familiar with the idea behind The Sims’ custom pronouns, which allow players to input any combination of pronouns they choose for an individual Sim , including sets of pronouns that are less common or are personal to them. And this freedom is especially valuable to members of the transgender and gender non-conforming communities (TGNC), who may not necessarily feel like one of the more common sets of pronouns accurately conveys who they are.
“Many of us see gender as a galaxy, as opposed to a spectrum or a binary,” says It Gets Better education coordinator Rae Sweet. “And with something as complex as a galaxy, it can be hard to find language (and pronouns) that feel right. That’s why many TGNC people use multiple sets of pronouns, like he/they, she/they, he/she, and so on. But many TGNC people also use neopronuns like ey/em/eirs, zey/zem/zers, per/per/pers, and more. Having the ability to explore endless options is crucial in order to fully and accurately connect with the TGNC community.”
Speaking to IGN, associate producer John Faciane and executive producer Phill Ring said that the biggest piece of feedback they received from It Gets Better has been to be open and transparent with their community as they worked on the feature. They acknowledge that custom pronouns in The Sims 4 aren’t going to be perfect right out of the gate, nor is it the end-all-be-all fix to make representation in The Sims perfect forever. For instance, Faciane suggests that The Sims 4 still contains other gendered terms like “mother” and “father” that they may one day want to examine to see if there are ways to be more inclusive.
But for now, Maxis wants to encourage players to let its team know via social media or existing Sims communities if something doesn’t look right, whether that’s as small as a grammatical typo somewhere, or as big as something still not feeling inclusive enough.
“The Sims 4 is eight years old at this point, and we created this system on some system architecture that’s been around for a while, so there’s some challenges there,” Faciane says. “And although this has been fully tested and we’re releasing it, we wanted to get it out to players as soon as we could, there are going to be instances where maybe the tool that we’ve created needs to be edited manually. And we’re looking for players to give us that feedback, or seeing, ‘This is great, but what about this?’ Providing that feedback to help us make it more inclusive.”
The feature is currently only available in the English version of The Sims 4, and is still a work-in-progress as Maxis works to update elements like verb agreement and other adjustments. But the studio intends to update and expand custom pronouns to more languages over time.
Faciane points out that English alone presented a fair amount of challenges to the team just because of how verbs are conjugated. For example, the word “likes” in the sentence “He likes” becomes “like” if you use “They like,” and might change depending on what other pronouns you’re trying to use. That gets even more complex when you move into other languages, which might have nouns with different forms based on gender, or other complexities.
Despite these challenges, Faciane and Ring say they hope Maxis’ work on the feature encourages other gaming companies to consider similar options in their own games. For their part, they say Maxis is committed to not just working to update custom pronouns until it is in line with their community’s existing expectations for representation, but also continuing to focus on representation in the franchise long-term, even as ideas for what good representation looks like may continue to change.
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“Language is always changing, it’s always evolving,” Ring says. “So we are going to be focused as well, if things do evolve. Maybe there’s certain languages that have one set of pronouns as gender neutral ones, but then actually that changes, that evolves as language does, and we’ll be looking to update. This is a thing that we’re going to be continually looking at and seeing the best ways to evolve as we move forward.”
While custom pronouns is largely a feature for people who want to see themselves represented, Ring notes that he hopes players who already feel represented with just he/him and she/her pronouns also gain something from this update, especially if they haven’t gotten the opportunity to meet many people who use pronouns outside the binary in their real lives. He hopes it will give them some exposure to more diverse identities, and allow them to tell stories that involve custom pronouns, learn a little more about why they matter, and maybe learn something about themselves in the process.
Faciane echoes his sentiment: “I didn’t come out until a bit later in life and one of the things that helped me feel comfortable with that, even though I had a loving, supportive, open family, was…seeing more representation in media and games. Film and television have had it for a while now, but really when I was starting to see it in more games, as a gamer myself I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do that, I can be who I was meant to be. ‘”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.