simulated progress

We asked the team behind ‘The Sims’ all about the game’s new, inclusive pronouns

For many people, “The Sims” is a playground—a life simulator where you can get any job you can imagine, get married, and get abducted by aliens all from your dream house. For queer people, “The Sims” can be a safe, virtual space to explore your identity without judgement or fear. And as of May 24, “The Sims 4” has made it even easier for LGBTQIA+ players to express themselves by introducing customizable pronouns.

From now on, right when you boot up the game, you are no longer prompted with, “Hello, my name is” but “Hello, my name and pronouns are,” putting queer identities front-and-center. Alongside the text fields for first and last name is a dropdown for pronoun selection. The default pronoun options are He/him/his, she/her/hers, and they/them/theirs, and there is a fourth option to type in custom pronouns (containing a filter for profanity). Currently, the first version of the feature is available for English, and more translations will be added over time.

To make sure this update was accurate, Maxis—the team behind “The Sims”—partnered with It Gets Better and GLAAD. We spoke to “The Sims” executive producer Phill Ring and associate producer John Faciane about that research process, the challenges to pushing this feature through, and the players who helped make it all happen.

With a game like “The Sims” where you have this big sprawling world and so many updates that the team could be making at any time, what was the process for choosing this one?

Phill Ring: So this has been something that we’ve been thinking about for a little while now. It’s something that we wanted to include in the experience. It was driven by a number of factors, but some of the key elements are—it’s something really important to members of our team. We have a very diverse  group of people working at Maxis, and with that comes being able to bring their lived experiences to the experience, to make a more robust experience for our players and pairing that with the kind of conversations that we were seeing in the community.

…So we are always looking at a number of factors, what we think are going to be the best releases for our players that can have the most impact. This is an area that was really important for us because that idea of anything in the DEI [Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion] space and people being able to see themselves, and seeing them can tell the stories that are personal to them is always really important to us.…

Over the years, “The Sims” has made a lot of moves toward inclusivity. Was this new feature any different from other inclusive updates?

John Faciane: The biggest difference probably is about how upfront we were about this early on in the process of active development. Like Phil said, we’ve been thinking about this for a very long time, it’s been very near and dear to a lot of us, especially those who are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. But this time around, we were seeing not only internally us advocating for this, but we also saw players saying that on Twitter and social media, and we really felt like it was time for us to be upfront about it and put our best foot forward and start talking with the community about what they’d like to see….

I know for a lot of people who maybe aren’t familiar with how game development works, this might sound like an easy fix—just changing some words. Can you speak to the logistical challenges to implementing this update?

John Faciane: The game is eight years old right now, and it was in development long before that. And over time, yes, we’ve updated many things. There are some systems that are a bit more complex, one of them being text. And we’re not only shipping in English—we have 18 supported languages in the game. With that, there’s a whole bunch of technology that goes into certain words in the game, with something that’s highly customizable, like a character creation tool, like CAS [Create-A-Sim]. And for example, we had to offer a way for players to be able to alter those pronouns for the characters that they’ve created. And we have these things called localization tokens in the game, which is basically a programming term for interchangeable bits of texts that go into the text strings, and we had to have this tool be able to recognize what those tokens were and what the players are showing are their customizable pronouns and changing them out while the game is running.

That being said, this is version one of the tool. We were able to get this out pretty quickly for players. So there’s going to be instances where maybe the wrong conjugation of a pronoun or a verb shows up. …We’ve tested this fully, but we’re looking for suggestions from players on how we can continue to improve over time, because in situations like that, we’ll have to go in and manually update some things. But yeah, those are just some of the challenges that we have just for English. Other languages—whole different ball game (laughs). Every language deals with this differently.

In terms of working with It Gets Better and GLAAD, what was the research process for this update?

John Faciane: Yeah, so we started out doing our own research on the game. We did a deep dive into the game, into different areas that gendered language touches, specifically around pronouns and other areas for this feature. We are focusing mainly on pronouns, so you’ll see other instances in the game still using gendered language like mother or father or brother, sister. But we did that kind of research before we went to It Gets Better. And once we talked with them, we shared the research that we had, our thoughts on the designs, and then from there they provided us the research that their organization does and some of the advocacy they do about educating folks about gender identity and expression and how important that is. That was how we started things off, and then from there as we progressed along, we had a couple of checkpoints where we shared updates on the design and got feedback from them on how we were doing.

Since the announcement of this feature, what has the response been from fans?

Phill Ring: When we started talking about this, there was excitement that this is something that we can bring to players and that can help them with their storytelling and that personal nature that “The Sims” experience can have where you can tell stories that are really personal and that connects you to the stories that you’re telling. So while we’ve got this little bit of a moment now just before we are gonna release it to players and let them have a first attempt at these new stories they can tell and we’re really looking forward to the feedback.

So I’m hoping there’s gonna be some excitement. I hope there’s gonna be lots of people looking at the depth of what they can do with the system and stories they can tell of that personal nature. But also, I really hope that people can then start to see that kind of additional representation, particularly in the climate of the world that we’re in at the moment. I think some positivity is something that I’m hoping to see from the community, but as John mentioned we also love the feedback. We’d love to hear what they like about the update and also what tweaks and adjustments they’d like to see as well, as we can use that to help us take our next steps to improve the experience from players.

Is there anything else that comes to mind that you’d like to share about this update?

Phill Ring: So I think the only thing I’d like to add is, we talked about the community feedback and that kind of loop. Just from an entirely personal perspective, I am always thrilled by the stories and the engagement that we hear from people who “The Sims” has helped them work out who they are in the world to some extent. And so this is another opportunity for us to be able to help give people a safe space where they can start to figure out their own identity and figure out the different aspects of their personality and be able to test some things out.

I think we have such a wide age range of people who play “The Sims,” and we know that there’s some of those key moments where people are developing, they’re trying to figure out the world around them. And I always just get really excited and it’s one of the things that really motivates me and drives me is when I hear those stories, people who say, “‘The Sims’ really helped me. It helped me through this time.” …So hopefully this is another moment where people can use these custom pronouns to help understand the world around them, to some extent.

John Faciane: Yeah. Just echoing that, like visibility and representation matters. Big thing that helped me actually come out as a gay man was seeing more representation, not just film television, but also on games as well. So I just hope that we’re able to provide that through this feature for some folks who may not be in a place or situation where they’re comfortable doing that outside of the game, and then eventually become comfortable doing that in the real world.