Where Are the Disabled Sims?

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Danielle Marascalchi is a senior at Emerson College in Boston, studying visual media arts. Her long-term goal is to contribute to the diversification of mainstream media through the inclusion of strongly written characters of minority groups. Her short-term goal is to complete the entire Mass Effect series by the time she graduates.
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When I say that I am a mega fan of The Sims franchise, that is not an exaggeration. Over the past fifteen years I have bought every released game pack, stuff pack, and expansion pack EA has to offer. I spend hours browsing mod forums to find the perfect outfit that fits my Sim’s personality, and I put way too much thought into interior design. I am practically addicted to the game franchise, so when I say that The Sims has neglected a major aspect of simulation gaming, it is not without a bittersweet taste in my mouth.

I am talking about disabilities. In a game franchise that is centered around simulated living, the creation of a universe intended to mimic the real world in which players can be and do and create whatever they wish, the utter lack of disabilities seems at best odd and at worst a willful neglect of a community that already sees a lack of representation in modern media. One in four adults live with a disability in the United States – 61 million people (CDC, 2018). The Sims has never been more inclusive to its player-base; this is why the exclusion of a major population seems so abrasive.

The representation of minorities in contemporary video games has always been abysmal; games that feature characters that are racially diverse or are members of the LGBT community are few and far between, though numbers have been on the rise within the past decade. The amount of disabled characters, however, has remained stagnant. Researching games that feature disabled characters leads you to list after list showcasing the same ten or so examples over and over again, most of which are non-playable secondary characters. Meanwhile, searching “Best Video game characters of all time” leads you to a list of some of the most popular video games ever created. Of the characters featured on the list: 27 are white men, 12 are non-human men, 9 are white women, 1 is a man of color, and all 50 are able bodied.  The Sims is not alone in its lack of representation, but the game’s omission of the community strikes harder than most.

Games that feature disabled characters are typically narratively based; characters are often treated as flavoring, added diversity to an otherwise homogeneous cast. These characters are often one sided, their disabilities add-ons, not a meaningful way to add substance or depth. In RPGs or closed games, disabled characters can often be underdeveloped simply because they are not the focus of the story. This means that in the rare cases where disabled characters are positively portrayed in a game, they are often an afterthought. Games that are relatively open like The Sims should be able to incorporate disabilities without having to worry about forming a fleshed out narrative for them, as The Sims relies heavily on the player’s personal imagination. With no plot to follow, there are fewer opportunities for disabilities to be pigeonholed into stereotypical character attributions. Maybe it’s because The Sims’ world so closely mimics ours already, that the lack of disability seems out of place in its reality. Or maybe the lack of disability in The Sims seems so glaring because of the message of inclusivity and unlimited potential that The Sims tries, but fails, to send.

It could be argued that The Sims represents a utopian society, one in which a player can create whatever they want. Want a single dad sim that is an astronaut that loves to cook and is also an amateur botanist? Done. Fancy playing as college roommates that live in a single room apartment that also happens to be haunted by the ghost of a famous scientist? It might take a while but you can get there. You want to create a billionaire fashionista that lives in a mansion? Easy, just use the “motherlode” cheatcode. But want to play as a wheelchair user, a blind sim, or a sim with a learning disability, and the possibility of being whoever you want is gone. The fact that disability does not exist in The Sims universe paints a very clear picture of utopian desirability; disability has no place in the perfect world.

It is an intrinsic aspect of our able-bodied society to be uncomfortable with things that are unknown to us, and this discomfort easily seeps into the content that we produce. The Sims’ suburban utopia is an example of this. The perfection of The Sims’ world is linked to the player’s ability to create a world in which every choice that they make revolves around making a sim succeed in life and be happy. The point of the simulation is to portray what a good life looks like: growing up, creating a family, career development, happiness. The Sims’ portrayal of a perfect world doesn’t erase negative emotions or bad life events like divorce or the death of a loved one, but it does erase disability.

You can’t choose to be disabled in real life; you either are or are not. By eliminating the choice to be disabled in The Sims, and forcing every sim into an able-bodied person, developers push the narrative of disability as being undesirable, and disabled people being incapable of happiness or success. Take it a step further, and the lack of disabled sims tells disabled players that they themselves should not want to be disabled in their own lives. That in their perfect world, they wouldn’t be disabled, that in order to achieve grandiose dreams, they can’t be disabled. Vampires, ghosts, aliens, even mermaids walk the streets without a second glance by fellow sims, but seeing a sim with a disability would be shocking. This idea frankly punches a hole through my suspension of disbelief. Instead of erasing disability to create the perfect world why not erase the ableist stigma that views disability as something that needs to be erased?  Disability itself isn’t a choice, but the opportunity to choose to be disabled in a game like The Sims would support the ideal that disability does not equate to a failed life lived.

There is hope, however, as rumors have been circulating since 2018, when Grant Rodiek (@SimGuruGrant), a senior producer at Maxis, shared tweets centering around the inclusion of wheelchairs and other disabilities (SimsOnline, 2018). Though the intention may be there, there has been a lack of real proof that these additions are in development. While it may be true that an update as important as this would take time to perfect, taking into account EA’s penchant for releasing new downloadable content for The Sims every year or so, that excuse quickly evaporates. Should developers choose to explore the addition of disabilities into their game (they should), there are many applicable ways to tackle the task. In fact some talented members of the community have already begun to produce additional content.

Browsing Mod the Sims, a popular forum where community members post custom downloadable content for The Sims, can bring you to a handful of Create a Sim characteristics from a blind eye overlay, to scars, to a range of prosthetic limbs. You can even find some basic traits for your sims, like anxiety, PTSD, or autism if you look hard enough. The problem with relying on the modding community to develop disability content is that it is unofficial, unregulated, and completely voluntary; therefore mods are often very basic or underdeveloped. Finding any of these mods requires specific searching, and downloading them one by one can be exhausting.  For players who are not particularly tech savvy, installing mods can be confusing, and there is no reliability on whether or not any of the mods actually work or not. I have yet to find a mod that adds any new content, like workable wheelchairs or blind or deaf activities, but I am holding out hope for an ambitious modder to step up to the challenge. While the inclusion of surface level mods may be enough for some people, and is certainly a great addition to the game already, disabilities should be at the forefront of the game’s development. In order to expand disability representation to its mainstream audience, the developers must include disability into the base game or run the risk of disabled sim content remaining largely unknown.

There are too many types of mental and physical disabilities to name, let alone program into one game. That doesn’t mean that adding wide-ranging disability representation into The Sims is impossible. There are a number of additions that would immediately improve, if not fix, The Sim’s representation problem. Physical disabilities ranging from cosmetic scars and birthmarks, prosthetic limbs, mobility disabilities, to deaf and blind sims are completely within the realm of possibility. Mental disabilities such as autism or learning disabilities are completely possible to program and include. All of these disabilities could come with their own moodlets, animations, and activities to go along with them. The question is how? How should EA’s developers begin the rigorous process of research, design, programming, marketing, and distribution? I am here to tell you: I do not know.

I am not a game developer, and can’t claim to know the intricacies of game development from beginning to end. I am an able-bodied college student that is interested in furthering the portrayal of a community that is massively underrepresented in a field that I love. It is not my goal to single-handedly fix The Sims franchise, just to pinpoint a problem and call for action. Who better to work though the problems I have presented than disabled simmers themselves? The disabled community is full of diversely talented individuals, who, with necessary accommodations are just as capable as anyone else in procuring employment and succeeding in their chosen field of study. Saying this, the disabled community has an average employment rate of less than 20%.  Working with the disabled community would kill two birds with one stone; it would give the disabled community an important opportunity to break into an accessible work environment (developers often work from home on their own schedule)  and it would ensure that new disabled content for The Sims is socially aware, respectful, representative and fun.

It is admittedly impossible to include every single disability in the world into one video game. But it is possible to add basic symptoms that many disabilities share in order to represent the most that they can. Part of the beauty of The Sims is the ability for the player to mix their imagination into their playstyle. Any sim can be in the music entertainment career, but only my sim can be a classical pianist that moonlights as a global popstar on the weekends, because that is what I imagine her to be. The same can go for included disabilities. While it may be impossible to specify certain disabilities, the inclusion of a wheelchair can take on hundreds of disabilities that the player can project into their game because of shared symptoms. This unique ability of The Sims to meld gameplay and gamer intention makes it possible for the developers to avoid grossly stereotyping disabilities, and allows for the inclusion of nuanced characteristics and characters that differ from player to player.

As I was growing up, I would create sims that I admired, women that I wanted to be. A cool fashionable sim that was a master artist, a master hacker, who also dabbled in the astronomical arts. I filled my simmers with people I knew, people that I wanted to know, and people I wanted to be. My perfect world does not exclude those with disabilities, and neither does a lot of able-bodied and disabled players alike. While the chance of all of these suggestions being implemented outside of theory is slim, it is still important to prompt developers into imagining what is possible. It is important to show them what we, as their consumer community, expect as players and as people. Why stop at the basics when we could have it all? It may be a lofty goal, but it is one that I believe could be accomplished with the support of the community and the desire to expand a beloved game to encompass all that play it.

 

References

CDC: 1 in 4 US adults live with a disability | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC. (2018, August 16).

Farner, S. (2018, July 24). Disabled video game characters.

Search Results for prosthetic. (n.d.).

Smith, R. (2019, June 27). The Sims 4 introduces first trans character with Island Living.

The Top 50 Video Game Characters of All Time. (2019, July 17).

The Sims Team Could Be Bringing Disabilities To The Sims 4! (2018, September 11).

Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary. 26 Feb. 2019.