Games News

Black 'The Sims 4' Players Are Changing One of the World’s Biggest Games

The Sims has been an industry leader in terms of diversity and inclusion, but black players have been fighting to see themselves in the game for years.
12 August 2020, 3:47pm
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Some of the custom content created by Shelly. Image: savvysweet.tumblr.com

The Sims 4's black players have had enough. After years of complaining and coming up with their own makeshift solutions, they spoke out louder than ever and demanded developers give them better tools to make Sims that look like themselves. They have coalesced around the "#EAListen" hashtag on Twitter, collected tens of thousands of signatures, and enlisted the support of prominent players in the community.

"Isn’t it weird that EA/The Sims posted all that stuff to BLM but STILL POC can’t create themself in THEIR life simulation game without the help of [custom content]?" One player wrote on Twitter. "Where’s the logic?"

Last night, after years of effort, they finally managed to change one of the most popular video games ever made, which promised to give players better options for creating Sims with dark skin, and address issues with dark skin as it's currently implemented.

"Inclusivity is at the core of The Sims franchise. From the beginning, we set out to let you make Sims that look that you or people that you know, and right now we understand that right now it doesn't feel like we're truly living up to that promise," Lyndsay Pearson, the executive producer of The Sims, said in a video message posted last night to Twitter.

The Sims franchise has historically been a leader on diversity and inclusion in video games, but it still has its issues. Particularly with the latest entry in the franchise, making dark skinned Sims or Sims with afro textured hair—black Sims—is much harder than it should be.

Every time I get a review code for an expansion for The Sims 4, the first thing I do is take out all my mods and custom content so I don't have any conflicts and corrupt my save files. Then I open Create-A-Sim and brace myself. My mod folder is 2.5 gigs now, and growing by the day. What's in there isn't anything fantastical or outlandish. I'm not downloading the mod that adds drugs or the mod that lets you murder. Almost everything in that folder is custom hair, skin tones, and make up. They are the tools that I use to make Sims that look like me. Without those mods in, Create-A-Sim feels like a wasteland.

"We are blown away by the incredible craftmanship of our mod community, and what they bring to the game, and the way they've expanded upon The Sims 4 experience," Pearson said in her video message. "There's no question that their contributions make the world of The Sims better. However, we know this doesn't absolve us from continuing to grow and improve as well."

The story of how I play The Sims 4 isn't all that different from other black players. In order to make Sims that look like them, they have to download—or make—an expansion packs's worth of content.

It all starts with skintones. From launch in 2014, it was clear that The Sims 4 did not have enough skin tones, and not nearly enough ones to make Sims with dark skin.

The Sims has been a champion of diversity and inclusion within the video game industry, especially when it comes to LGBT representation, but when it comes to black Sims, it's always been lacking. The first Sims game had three skin tones, and the second had four. The Sims 3 had a color wheel and sliders, allowing Simmers an enormous amount of fidelity over the color of their Sims' skin, though all the options meant that the game had some issues with loading textures. The Sims 4 went back to swatches, and while that isn't the end of the world, the swatches the game has are lackluster, even after four more darker skin tones were added two years ago in 2018. Right now, of the game's 35 total skin tones, 10 fall on the darker side of the spectrum. Another 10 make up the game's unnatural colored skins for aliens and vampires, while the rest are a rainbow beige.

There are a few issues with the skin tones as they appear in the game. First, there aren't that many of them, leaving Simmers who want to make dark skinned Sims with few options. Second, the ones that do exist don't look very good. Many Simmers have described the overall effect of these skin tones as "ashy" or "pale" looking.

"The major issue with the skintones in the game is a lack of depth and vibrancy," Shelly, a black Simmer and custom content creator who made the petition that went viral, told me over Discord chat. "The skins have little to no undertones, and the black and brown swatches are very dull. They almost look sickly. Black people all around the world come in so many different shades and colors and undertones. And specifically for myself and other dark skinned individuals, it is near impossible to make us accurately without custom content."

Black Simmers have been asking for more and better skin tones since the game's launch. The on and off campaign really took off when protests against police brutality in the United States took off in May. At the time, many corporations, including video game companies, made statements committing to better serve their black customers. Electronic Arts, the company that currently owns the Sims franchise, made such a statement, and so did the Sims development team. "The Sims is committed to creating the world as it should be, one that is kinder, more connected and built on representation and inclusion," the The Sims's development team's statement said.

Since then, the community support for black Simmers has avalanched into an unstoppable force. In June, Shelly made a petition to the development team, asking them to add more skin tones. As of time of writing, it has nearly 85,000 signatures. Using the hashtag "EAListen," Simmers have tried to get a response from the development team about the issue.

Support for this cause grew from just black Simmers, to the fandom as a whole. Major figures in the community, like YouTubers Plumbella and Lilsimsie, have also spoken out on the issue.

"It's something that I've realized I probably won't ever be able to fully understand," Nando, a Simmer who makes mods that are based on various non-European cultures, told me over a Discord call. Nando isn't black, but said that it was important to him to speak up in support of this cause.

"The community has woken up, especially after Black Lives Matter," he said.

While some players appreciate that white members of the fandom are taking a stand, other Simmers feel disgruntled that it has taken so long for the community at large to see this as a real issue.

"It hurts. It hurts to say, but I really only feel like [the fandom] all got riled up because more of the white creators in the community are speaking up on it," Danielle, a prominent Simmer and content creator who goes by Ebonix Sims, told me over a Discord call. "A lot of the time it has only been black creators and people of color who have been speaking up and the outcry has fallen on deaf ears."

Some Sims players were encouraged by Pearson's message last night.

"This is what happens when you use your voice! This community came together and this issue is finally getting fixed," Shelly tweeted. She immediately noted, however, that the change would have been impossible without the help of Danielle and Xmiramira, another black Simmer who's mod the Melanin Pack added over fifty brown and black skin tones to the game, and who's also featured on Spark'd, a competition reality show based on The Sims.

Other Simmers also noted that it still remains to be seen how the promised changes will roll out, and some in the community are wondering what role black Simmers like Danielle and Xmiramira will have in the implementation of these changes going forward.

Skin tones are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to representation in The Sims 4. Black Simmers also had issues with the game's afro textured hair—there's not a lot of it, and not all of it is even passably good—as well as the game's make up, which looks awkward on all of the game's existing dark skin tones. Black Simmers have created a vibrant and passionate community to fill this gap, making incredible hair, makeup and skin tones to make up for what the game lacks. But the point of The Sims is to be able to make anyone and live out every kind of lifestyle. What use is a dollhouse that can only support one kind of doll?

"I think actually owning that and saying, 'you know what, we haven't done good, but we're going to do right by this and we're going to do an overhaul of this' is actually the best thing that they could do," Danielle said. "There's nothing more enlightening than growth and self-actualization and knowing that there's actually room for you to do better."