How Playing 'The Sims' Lets Me Be Free As a Queer Person in Indonesia
In the game, I never have to put on a mask.
My nonbinary Sim, who bears the name of my favorite porn star, isn't afraid of experimenting with fashion and hair dyes.
During elementary school, years before I identified as a gay man, I was a pretty clueless kid. At recess, I usually sat alone while all the boys played football or whatever it was they did out there, and the girls stayed inside classrooms, chatting about things that sounded equally uninteresting to me.
I had gotten used to the loneliness when two boys in my 5th grade class were kind enough to let me in their circle. We didn't stay friends for long, but in a way, my life changed forever because of one specific topic that we share in our friendship. Every conversation we had during break, in one back corner of the classroom, inevitably turned toward video games, to my initial annoyance. Unlike most of the students in my grade, I didn't grow up with Play Station and Xbox. I was familiar with basic games like Tekken or Harvest Moon, and the unsophisticated—yet totally addictive—snake game on my cellphone. None of my new friends' games stuck out as something worth remembering until that one day when they finally mentioned The Sims.
The basic premise ignited my wild, wild, imagination: You get to make your characters, or your Sims, whoever you want them to be. You can build your dream home(s), and design their lives. It didn't take me long to install the game on my chunky Windows 95 computer. Instantly, I was hooked. I was also, for the first time, able to truly explore my own gender identity, albeit in the virtual world first.
The first thing I did was make my Sims try on a bunch of clothes, naturally. Then I built a two-story house where the second floor was used solely for dance parties. Since you could make your Sims crush on, fall in love with, and hook up with both female and male Sims, they were all inherently bisexual. As a young, increasingly flamboyant kid, I was perplexed. I might not be able to express my feelings to my crush at the time (a boy in my class) but assigning a male love interest to my male Sim—who I built to represent who I was or who I wished I could be—was as easy as a click of the mouse.
The Sims became a natural extension of my daily life. If some people wrote diary entries about their daydreams, I just turned on my computer and opened The Sims. When years later, in my senior year of high school, I had my first boyfriend, I made him into a Sim. His Sim and mine lived together, cooked each other meals, held hands in public, and did other "normal" couple things I can only dream of doing in real life. After we broke up, my single self created an equally single and hopelessly romantic Sim (I'm a Taurus and so are all the Sims I have created. Yup, I make the rules).
That was the beauty of it all: when I felt down, The Sims were there to make me feel less lonely and more in control of my life. But when things were looking up, even when I couldn't express my true self in real life, I could at least live vicariously through my Sims. The Sims even let players create non-binary Sims way before I started identifying as neither exclusively feminine or masculine—the game, even early iterations, was just that free.
Now in my early 20s, I've have supportive queer friends with real life shoulders I can cry on. And not surprisingly, some of them were Sims addicts as well. I imagine that this was just how us baby queers coped with our limited freedom of expression before Instagram and dating apps existed, though maybe not in places like Russia, where the latest version of the game, The Sims 4, has been rated 18+ for its depiction of same-sex relationships. The rating, of course, is just another way Vladimir Putin's administration have tried to oppress the country's LGBTQ population.
Growing up in Indonesia, I didn't know about its gender diversity until I was old enough to experience homophobia firsthand. Indonesian culture has a long connection with gender fluidity. But that doesn't mean today's culture isn't full of homophobia as well.
In Bugis culture, the people who comprise the majority ethnic group in South Sulawesi, five genders have existed for generations: oroane (men), makkunrai (women), calabai (feminine men), calalai (masculine women), and bissu (androgynous priests). In Toraja, burate tattiku (women) and burate tambolang (men dressed as women) are considered important religious leaders.
But these distinctions are now seen as cultural artifacts, and not mainstream beliefs. So, despite our long history, more people today think within gender binaries, not outside of it.
Queers living in Indonesia still have masks to put on, performances to put up every time we go out, and an inevitable guilt of “living in sin” to deal with. But in The Sims, you get to be whoever you want to be. And if you don't know who you want to be yet, you can literally try on every kind of appearance and identity until you find one you like the most without anybody judging you. That, to me, was the most beautiful, emancipating thing in the world to experience with. My only hope is that one day I'll get to do that in real life, but until then, don't disturb me at my designated Sims time on the weekends.