How Russia’s LGBT ‘Propaganda’ Law Turned the Sims Community Against Itself

EA announced that it wouldn’t release a new Sims pack featuring a lesbian couple in Russia, then backtracked. After exhausting community infighting, the only clear winners are the architects of a discriminatory law.

Social media is a video game. You can win at it, and you can definitely lose at it. It’s being played all the time. Sometimes, the game is playing you. This week, the losers were the development team of The Sims 4

Last week, that team announced that the new Sims expansion it had been working on, My Wedding Stories, would not be published in Russia, citing “federal laws.” Most interpreted this as being about Russia’s law against “gay propaganda,” which makes it illegal to show any content that encourages “non-traditional sexual relationships” to people under 18. The Sims 4—which is not available for sale in seven countries because of its LGBT content—is already marked as 18+ in Russia because it allows for same-sex relationships. My Wedding Stories, though, took things a step further. It features a lesbian couple prominently on its cover art, and this couple is also the focal point of its marketing campaign:

This week, The Sims’s publisher, Electronic Arts, reversed course on the decision, saying not only that it would release the expansion in Russia, but also that it would not change or alter the queer content of the pack or its art. In this announcement, the company noted the “outpouring of feelings from our community” as part of why it reversed course. (This kind of language is a common euphemism in games—discussion of “passionate communities” is a polite way to refer to widespread harassment against the developers of a video game.)

LGBT Russian players were, on hearing of the initial decision, immediately hurt, and then angry. They felt discriminated against not just by their government, but also by a company that was complying with an unjust law. Because the initial statement from EA didn’t reference any specific law or content that would have prevented My Wedding Stories from coming to Russia, what followed was widespread speculation. In the absence of official word from EA, people came up with their own ideas about who was to blame, and why, and for what.

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There is, in theory, a clear villain here: A Russian government that passed an ambiguous homophobic law it enforces erratically. EA’s since-reversed decision to not publish My Wedding Stories in Russia—and the lack of messaging, for whatever reason, about what specifically led EA or its legal team to that conclusion—set up a scenario where a mind-warping collection of other entities could take the blame. Perhaps EA was the villain, and was against LGBT Simmers in Russia, or Russia generally; perhaps this wasn’t about LGBT rights at all, and was just a marketing tactic to score points from The Sims’s liberal Western audience; perhaps something else entirely was going on. In the absence of hard facts, a vacuum where conspiracies could grow took shape.

Sorting the truth from fiction in this conflict became nearly impossible the more the movement grew, and especially once the conflict started playing out on social media under the #weddingsforrussia hashtag. (All popular hashtags initially denote people with a shared interest and are then co-opted by people with wildly diverging ones.) This made what was already a contentious conversation spiral down into outright harassment, especially towards the developers of The Sims 4. When EA announced that My Wedding Stories would be coming to Russia, it also added a reminder to the community to “keep your words kind.”  

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That this whole debacle ended with EA publishing My Wedding Stories in Russia shouldn’t distract anyone from this: A law designed to make it difficult to publish material celebrating gay life in Russia did so, and in the process turned a community against itself. Who won? The people behind homophobic laws designed to turn friends into enemies, and people with the same ideals against one another.

Jovan Jović, who runs the popular Sims fansite Sims Community, told Waypoint that as soon as he heard the news, he was shocked by EA’s decision. Jović is a gay man who lives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and felt personally affected by the ban even if he’s not in the same country as Russian players. He shares these players’ skepticism that the initial decision not to release the expansion in Russia was actually about LGBT rights or content.

“I don't live in Russia. Still, we share the same Cyrilic script,” Jović said. “Our stories are very much similar in terms of discrimination from straight people who we're surrounded by. We still cannot get legally married by the state—let alone the church that blames us for every earthquake, fire, and now the pandemic.”

Jović told Waypoint that he has been stopped in Bosnia and Herzegovina by police who asked about his sexuality and mocked him for being gay, and then continued to follow him in their patrol car. He said that conditions for LGBT people in Eastern Europe in general are harsh, with intense discrimination from the heterosexual majority.

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“My first ever Pride parade was in Belgrade, Serbia in September 2021,” Jović said. “Unlike with Pride parades that you usually see reported in the media across the globe, the Pride parade in Serbia is very different. People here not only fight for the right to marry—they fight for the right to be recognized by the state so they can visit their loved one in the hospital.”

While LGBT people in the U.S. and most of the rest of the Western world have rights enshrined by law, including the right to marry, members of the LGBT community in the States also perceive those rights as hard-won, and fragile. Although gay men and women can marry, there is still an intense backlash against portrayals of queer life in the States, including proposed bills that would ban LGBT books from school libraries. In Florida, one proposed bill seeks to prohibit teachers from talking about LGBT issues with students. 

LGBT people in the U.S. have long used non-compliance with homophobic laws as a form of activism, which is a freedom that Tanya Lokot, a researcher on internet freedom in Eastern Europe and related topics, told Waypoint that LGBT people in Russia do not have. Lokot said that non-compliance with homophobic laws can be dangerous for them. 

“It's really about whether you have enough status to be out.”

“That's the kind of work that gets you arrested or fined or exiled,” Lokot said. She said that in Russia, being out is still incredibly precarious. 

“Large Russian cities are very cosmopolitan, and there are tons of publicly out gay people. There are gay nightclubs in Moscow, a lot of celebrities are out,” she continued. “So it's really about whether you have enough status to be out, because that's a protection.”

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To Russian players, EA’s stance of not releasing the pack in Russia to “stand by their values” was pointless; it felt like an additional insult on top of the grievous injuries caused by continued discrimination. Putin wasn’t going to bend on the law over a video game; the only point EA could make by not releasing it with an 18+ label was about its own righteousness, and the only people who would be affected by that were Russian gamers unwilling to pirate the expansion.

A representative from the Sphere Foundation, a charitable foundation for LGBT people in Russia, told Waypoint that to the queer community there, EA’s initial decision to not release My Wedding Stories felt as if EA was complying with a law that already negatively impacts their lives.

“By seemingly complying with the discriminatory Russian legislature, EA was becoming complicit in legitimizing homophobia in the country. By depriving the Russian people of the pack altogether, it is almost as if the company was punishing the people for having a homophobic government,” they said. “It is a stretch, of course, but such is the public sentiment. Because it is not like we don’t fight against that law as a community, we do. There is actually a big gap nowadays between the public attitude toward LGBT+, which is becoming increasingly accepting, and the government’s turn toward ‘traditional values,’ but the power of the latter seems at times too overwhelming.”

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It’s difficult for people in the U.S. to understand the specific law on “gay propaganda” that exists in Russia and how it is implemented—one of the purposes, it seems clear, of the law’s lack of clarity. Western companies tend to interpret the law cautiously, and have been affected by it in the past. Last year, for example, Netflix was investigated by the Russian government over an anonymous complaint regarding “gay propaganda” on the platform. In 2016, Blizzard declined to release an Overwatch comic where one of the characters in the game spends Christmas with her girlfriend. A book about sexual health written by an Australian journalist was published in Russia without two pages related to trans people, following advice from the author’s legal council.

“By depriving the Russian people of the pack altogether, it is almost as if the company was punishing the people for having a homophobic government.”

An independent game developer, who asked to remain anonymous because he has signed an NDA, told Waypoint that sometimes, during the localization process, LGBT characters or themes get flagged as problematic by translators. In his case, a publisher who funded a Russian localization got cold feet when they heard about the law against “gay propaganda,” specifically regarding a character who was non-binary and trans.

“If I recall correctly, I think [the translator] did surface a couple of things, like, ‘Oh, this will be a little touchy for the Russian market,’” the developer said. “They won't come out and say, like, ‘You must change this or we will ban this in Russia,’ but what they want is sort of, like, they'll give you their concerns, and then they want you to talk them into why they shouldn't be concerned.”

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“They asked, like, ‘Does the character talk about who they like, date, or talk about sex at all?’” the developer said. “And in our case, no, the character was non-binary, but their dating life was not part of the story. So they seemed more relaxed when they heard that there wouldn't be any clear romance.”

The solution ended up being that the publisher commissioned a “clean version” of the Russian localization that removed swear words and one or two references to queerness in the text of the game. Still, laws regarding LGBT content in other markets, like Saudi Arabia and China, have prevented the release of this game in those countries entirely, even though the publisher had commissioned Arabic and Chinese localizations.

“I would definitely say there's a chilling effect around releasing in the market,” he said.

For some U.S. companies, including the developers of The Sims 4, navigating Russia’s law about “gay propaganda” has a relatively painless solution: In order to comply with the law, you add an “18+” label to your content. It still marginalizes the content, though, by marking it as only appropriate for adults, a move that Human Rights Watch says is harmful to the LGBT youth in Russia, even if it allows companies to distribute in Russia. 

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Adding to the confusion is that even those who comply with the law can still be penalized under it. In 2021, LGBT film festival Side By Side had its website blacklisted by the government, despite complying with laws regarding “gay propaganda” and placing an “18+” marker on every page. The film festival was also targeted by anti-gay politicians in 2013, even though they were complying with the law and the festival was only open to people 18 and over. This law was also a contributing factor in Russians complaining about an ad for a grocery store that featured a real-life lesbian couple and their family. Eventually the store took the ad down and apologized, and the family was harassed so badly that they left the country

This ambiguity—around whether or not the law will be enforced, and how much compliance is enough compliance—is part of the chilling effect of homophobic laws in general. It also makes it difficult to navigate for foreign corporations who don’t know the legal ramifications if they are found to be in violation of it.

Everyone in the Sims community agrees that part of the issue was the vagueness of EA’s initial statement, which framed the choice to not release My Wedding Stories in Russia as an act of political activism. (Waypoint reached out to EA for further clarification on why and how it came to this decision but it declined to comment.)

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In the absence of new information from EA, Russian players got angry. Before long, a hashtag was started, and players used the tag “#weddingsforrussia” to voice their opinions. Major Sims influencers added their voices to the pile by saying they would not make pre-release content about My Wedding Stories until EA addressed the community.

The issue with any decentralized internet movement, though, is how easily it can be hijacked. What started as LGBT people in Russia trying to talk about their experiences soon became a soup of sometimes contradictory, but often very hostile, stances on what EA should do.

The Sims 4 is somewhat unusual in that it has some of the developers on the team take audience-facing positions on social media. These developers, known as SimGurus online, make themselves available to players to talk about the game and answer questions. Unfortunately, in situations like these, the SimGurus instead receive the players’ unfiltered frustrations. When you’re on the receiving end of that—especially if those people are all using the same hashtag—it feels like a harassment campaign. 

What started as LGBT people in Russia trying to talk about their experiences soon became a soup of sometimes contradictory, but often very hostile, stances.

Some Simmers who used the hashtag were simply LGBT Russians who felt unfairly excluded by EA and its stated goal of being inclusive. Other Simmers were non-LGBT Russians who had no particular stake in whether or not My Wedding Stories would have a queer couple or queer content in it—these people just wanted the game they felt that they were owed. There was also definitely another, more amorphous group of people (many with fresh accounts) using the hashtag as a rallying cry to harass those with dissenting opinions, even as it was utterly unclear what the orthodoxy from which they were tolerating no deviation actually was. The people in the third group—who mysteriously managed to drive heavy engagement despite following and being followed by virtually no one—eventually became the most visible. Several people told me that their tweets disagreeing with the #weddingsforrussia campaign were replied to en masse by very angry people within minutes of their posting.

This behavior is not unique or unusual; it’s just how the internet works now as an engine for communication. Most dedicated communities on Twitter know how to get their tweets surfaced to larger and larger audiences. You need engagement—likes, retweets and replies— and it doesn’t actually matter if people agree with you or not, or if they even understand what it is you’re fighting for. Stan twitter, Gamergate, and #weddingsforrussia all have this in common. This is how you play the game of social media, and it is a tried and true method for winning it, and having whatever side you’ve aligned yourself with be the only one that matters. Once you understand how the game is played, it’s just a matter of weaponizing it.

Lokot gave an example from her research on Russia’s Internet Research Agency’s activity on Twitter and its effect on the 2016 election.

“It actually turned out that a lot of these accounts pretended to be Black Lives Matter activists, or in that community. If they're actually even doing that, there's really no limit to what all of these various networks of automated accounts or pretend accounts can do,” she said. “I think the probability that a really popular hashtag might be hijacked by whatever rogue actor is pretty high.”

The general lack of clarity on social media has made EA’s eventual choice to release My Wedding Stories in Russia without any changes to the queer content all the more confusing for LGBT people in the region. It’s a win that somehow still feels like a loss.

“I am happy about the result, don't get me wrong,” Jović said. “However, the entire ban being lifted and the fact that we've been proven right that there is no need for censorship only draws more questions. Why was there a ban in the first place?”

If there are winners, that often also means that there are losers. In the game of social media, winning doesn’t always mean attacking a specific target, but it doesn’t hurt. In this case, it wasn’t the parent company EA—which is ultimately responsible for business choices it makes of where they sell its product—that bore the brunt of the criticism. It certainly wasn’t the Russian government. In the end, the ones who were affected most by there being no good options to choose from and no obvious way to do the right thing were the developers who made The Sims 4—the game that the players in the #weddingsforrussia hashtag say they love.

Tagged:

russia, LGBT+, World News, fandom, The Sims 4

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