All the points, right there | Image: Sheepie Meili CC BY 2.0
So perhaps inspired by my recent foray into the world of teen pregnancy Sim mods, or perhaps because I feel like the entire world is spinning away from me and nothing makes sense anymore, I’ve been playing The Sims 3 a lot. It’s a nice game that I don’t have to pay a lot of attention to in order to play, which makes it easier to simultaneously binge CW superhero shows. But since it’s been a couple years since I’ve played, I’m starting to notice some things that I never paid much attention to. Namely, weird ways that the game has some pretty outdated notions of success and good behavior.
Now I have to be fair to The Sims series as a whole—it was one of the first major games to make homosexuality a totally normal part of the gameplay. (Apparently it was able to do so because no one thought that it was going to be popular so the higher powers didn’t really care what features went in.) When I was a teen it also offered titillation and expanded boundaries because you could totally hook up with multiple people oh my God. You could also get your female sims pregnant via random strangers in a hot tub. It was like The Jersey Shore, only with better acting.
But as I’ve been playing again, I’ve noticed some rather retrograde attitudes in the games, most of which are likely attached to the programmer’s idea of what “progress” in a life looks like. Guess what—it looks like partnership and babies!
Let’s start at the beginning. A single sim starting out gets $16,500 in the currency of the game, simoleons. Every additional young adult or older sim gets you an extra $2,000, and every additional child gets you $1,000. But when you enter say, Sunset Valley, the main landscape in the Sims 3, you’ll find your options limited for single sim living or any co-living that doesn’t involve wanting to bump uglies. Available houses that a single sim or a twosome could afford on starting money include:
- The El Urban Sprawl, a 2 bedroom home that costs $17,869 unfurnished and $24,234 furnished
- The Monotone, a 1 bedroom that costs $12,545 unfurnished and $16,230 furnished
- The Mosquito Cove, a 2 bedroom that costs $15,250 unfurnished and $22,602 furnished
- The Pre-fabulous, a 1 bedroom that costs $10,003 unfurnished and $12,675 furnished
- The Shotgun Style, a 2 bedroom that costs $12,824 unfurnished and $16,271 furnished
- The other “affordable” lots are empty lots costing between $1,200 and $6,800
So for a single sim, you can either get an empty lot, a few empty houses, or a few furnished houses that leave you with between $250 and $4000 to start your new life. If you have two sims that just want to be friends, they can get an empty lot, a 2 bedroom without furniture, or they can get really cozy with single beds in a bedroom. It makes the most economic sense to start the game with a romantic couple (your options are boyfriend/girlfriend, fiancé/fiancée, or husband/wife) since they’re gonna be chill with sharing a bed.
Partnering up also makes the most sense for Lifetime points—the unofficial currency you get for making your Sims happy via fulfilling various “wishes.” These points can be used to modify your sim (make them have to pee less or make them more attractive to others) or to modify other aspects of the game (make it so you never have to pay bills). One of the quickest ways for these points to add up is to have a romantic partner. You get between about 150 and 500 points for fulfilling wishes for interactions ranging from chatting with your romantic partner to having “woohoo” (tell me I don’t need to explain that one to you) with your romantic partner. If you’re not yet married, you get 5,000 points for marrying your romantic partner. You don’t even have to make a big to-do of it; two of my sims got married while standing in their bathroom. In comparison, gaining a skill can get you a measly 400 points, and even getting a promotion at work only gets you 1,000.
This emphasis on marriage makes its way through a lot of aspects of The Sims. In one game, I was trying to play as an independent female musician who Didn’t Need No Man, But Wants Kids So Let’s Have Sex. She got pregnant via a fling, and was doing perfectly well settling in with her new child and lack of husband. Suddenly, up popped a new wish. “Get married,” worth 5,000 points. But it wasn’t even a wish to marry her fling/baby daddy. It was totally non-specific. The game just really, really wanted her to get married. To anyone. She was living in sin! I cancelled the wish for her (again, not needing no man) and she carried on with her life. In this particular game I was playing with an expansion pack that lets Sims become celebrities. Paparazzi start camping outside of your sim’s house, people start rumors about them, and your sim’s interactions start becoming public fodder. If you do something scandalous or someone falsely accuses you, you get a negative moodlet (the things that help control if your sim is happy or sad; also, getting moodlets to push your sim over a certain level of happy means that you start passively gaining Lifetime points). When I wanted my sim to have more children, I procured another baby daddy and the process repeated. But this time she was a celebrity, and her decision to procreate without putting a ring on it apparently caused a public furor. She got a negative moodlet for having a child out of wedlock and scandalizing the community. (I call this the “you’re a whore” moodlet, but I’m sure it has another name). Under the guise of the “public” judging my sim, the game was effectively judging my sim’s/my life choices.
Feeling disgruntled, I decided to make a nice little couple. After they got married, they both had the desire to have their first child. 5,000 Lifetime points. The husband, who had a family-friendly trait, specifically wanted to have a child with his wife. An extra wish, worth an extra 5,000 points. Once the wife fell pregnant, they both suddenly had new desires—she wanted a boy child, and he wanted a girl child. Well, barring fraternal twins, this wasn’t going to be able to happen. Out of curiosity, I looked up whether it was possible to select the sex of the upcoming child. (This is The Sims, there are mods for everything.) Apparently an in-game trick could help you select the sex of the child—eat apples for a boy, watermelon for a girl. Weird, but ok—except for the fact that watermelon cost three times as much as an apple. So it’s three times more expensive to have a girl than a boy. This is how China’s lopsided gender population problem happens, EA! (This is not at all how China’s lopsided gender population happens.)
Fine, I decided. No more weirdness with children. I’ll have a nice lesbian couple—all of the rewarded interactions, none of the weird pressure about children. I even made them move in as an engaged couple, so that I could immediately make them get married. (I’m pretty sure this is not supposed to be the result of marriage equality.) If I wanted them to have kids, I reasoned, I could have them adopt at my leisure. Or so I thought. Not long after their first round of woohoo, they simultaneously got the desire to adopt their first child, as if sex triggered hormones that told them they were supposed to get pregnant.
So then I said screw the hetero-normative, reproduction-obsessed Sims patriarchy. I made a whole new sim, used a cheat code to give her boat loads of money, and had her live a life of simplicity with her garden and her dog. Her biggest concerns were keeping the zombies out of her garden on the full moon. (The expansion packs are weird, don’t ask.)
So why have I ranted about The Sims for almost five pages? (Besides the fact that the real world makes me too sad and angry?) Because it’s a good example of how sex, gender, and relationship norms can be reproduced in a negative manner without anyone really meaning it to be negative. I doubt any of the programmers of The Sims sat down and said “how can we reproduce a world where relationships and reproduction are prioritized over career and self-fulfillment?” (At least I hope not.) Instead, they probably sat down and thought “What are important milestones in peoples’ lives? What are important interactions? What is something that is likely to make waves in the tabloids?” And then they reproduced the world around them (which, btw, is obsessed with relationships and procreation) in the form of a game. There is a lot of purposeful bad stuff going on in our world, but a large portion of the negative norms in our society get reproduced in person, or in pop culture, without people realizing it. We have to be aware, whenever we’re creating something, of the unconscious biases and norms that we’re reproducing.
Also, seriously The Sims? $16,500 for starting out money? If I wanted to play life as a millennial I’d just use my own life.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not figuring out how societal norms affect reward structures in gaming, she studies gender in popular culture.
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