Amira Virgil has been playing The Sims for almost two decades, and still can't make a Sim that looks like her without user-created modifications to the game, or "mods," as they're called. She's trying to change that.
Virgil, more commonly known by her online moniker XMiramira, belongs to a long lineage of Black women who are tired of waiting for change and have decided to take matters into their own hands. As rapper Megan Thee Stallion noted in a New York Times editorial, "[Black women] have gone from being unable to vote legally to a highly courted voting bloc—all in little more than a century."
Despite the value that Black women have as voters, or in the case of The Sims franchise, consumers, Black women don't always see their worth reflected back on them. In the case of The Sims, Black women often can't even see themselves in the communities that they have devoted large portions of their lives to.
"It just seems like in gaming and in everything else, we Black women are always the foundation, but we're always forgotten where we're always left out of everything," Virgil told Motherboard over a Discord call. "Despite how much influence we have on the world."
The Sims is often referred to as a digital dollhouse, but it's more than that. This is a game where you can make any kind of person that exists in the world, and then run the course of their entire life, including raising the next generation. Sims fall in love, meet their nemeses, get promotions and get fired, go to university and become astronauts, all under the control and watchful eye of a player that guides their experiences.
Virgil has been playing games in the The Sims franchise for two decades, starting with console games like The Urbz and The Sims: Bustin' Out, before playing The Sims 3. It's clear in talking to her how much she loves these games. It only makes the pitfalls they step into all the more frustrating.
Because The Sims has always had a vibrant mod community, the lack of Black hairstyles and fashion in The Sims 2 and The Sims 3 didn't necessarily bother Virgil, who created the forum The Black Simmer to help Black simmers find custom content they liked. But when it came to The Sims 4, which included a limited number of dark skin tones in the base game, Virgil started making custom content herself. The Melanin Pack is a series of skin tone mods that add hundreds of tan, medium, and dark skin tones to the game. I can't make Sims that look like me without it.
The absence of realistic skin tones was highlighted by the release of The Sims 4: Vampires, Virgil said, referring to a paid add-on for the game that added vampires, as well as goth-y accessories, clothing, and decor.
"[Simmers] weren't able to tell a big difference between the darker vampire skin tone and the darker human skin tone,” she noted. “And that was when people were kind of like, 'Oh no, these skin tones are really ashy and gray and this is not good.'"
The Sims has slowly added more skin tones to the game as free updates, but at its current state it doesn't hold a candle to what Virgil does with The Melanin Pack. In The Sims's community, diversity is sometimes seen as an issue that must be remedied by the players. If the only Black content you ever see comes from mods, then you already know the game isn't giving Black players what they want. It then becomes easy to just tell players to make the content they want, instead of asking the game to change.
The Sims is a game that is supposed to allow you to make any kind of person, or mermaid, or vampire. Virgil knew that she needed to ask more from not the Simmer community, but also the people who make the game.
"We have some of the most accessible teams, as far as the developers; the engineers,” Virgil said. “As far as video games go, you're not gonna see other games that have this many people working on the game that are available to talk to on Twitter and say, 'Hey, something's wrong.'"
"Give them feedback when you can: they're there, they're accessible,” she advised. “Talk to them. You don't have to disrespect them. You don't have to cuss them out. You don't have to demean them. But giving critique is okay, it's okay to critique the things you love."
In August, Virgil and other Black Simmers campaigned to get Electronic Arts, the developer of The Sims, to listen to their concerns. Eventually, Electronic Arts committed to a substantial update to the game's skin tones, which released this week, including changing the way that make up works in the game to make it more flattering to Sims with dark skin tones.
Now, Virgil is consulting Electronic Arts on an overhaul of the existing skintones in The Sims 4 that's coming with the December update. This is the end result of years of Black Simmers campaigning for better skin tones in the game. Although Virgil feels that this change only occurred because their fight reached the attention of some of the most popular Sims content creators, who are largely white, it still puts The Sims in the vanguard of diversity and inclusion in video games.