The Sims is one of the most popular god-simulation games on the planet. I’ve been playing it since the original Sims game, when babies were made by passionately kissing a bunch of times in a row and children never grew up. Nowadays, Sims 4 is making progressive strides in the world of inclusive gaming. The creators want everyone to feel like they can see themselves represented in their Sims and tell more diverse stories than ever. Most recently, a patch removed the rigid gender binary in the Create-a-Sim workshop. Now you can customize your Sim’s gender, their ability to be pregnant or make others pregnant, and if they prefer masculine or feminine clothing. It’s not total gender customizability, but it’s a new and significant move in the name of inclusivity and representation. We can customize our Sim’s age, education, occupation, and where they live. Sims now come in all colors of the rainbow (literally). Sexual orientation is determined by the player’s will. There are Vampire-Sims, Zombie-Sims, Fairy-Sims, Witch-Sims, Plant-Sims, Werewolf-Sims, Mermaid-Sims, and Alien-sims. So why haven’t the creators touched religion yet? Well, there may be a few reasons, and none of them are great.
Why doesn’t The Sims series include religion? Well, MJ Chun, one of the producers of The Sims, has answered this question.
For us, because it’s such a storytelling game, one of the things we don’t want to do is make judgments. The danger of making a game that is international, that crosses so many ages, is that tagging clothing a particular way is a slippery slope in terms of making judgments. If you give the long flowing dress a moodlet because you’re more attractive, then somebody would wonder “Why not the pantsuit?” It limits players’ storytelling ability. I think it’s the same deal with religion. It’s a game for everyone. It’s like public schools. Public schools are for everyone. We don’t want to impose on anyone’s storytelling. We don’t want to make a judgment on anyone’s particular way of seeing the world. This is your game, your story. If the player decides that they’re going to tell a story of a particular sim and religion happens to be a part of it, that’s the story they’re telling. But we’re never going to insert that into their gameplay.
Some people might be satisfied with that answer, but I find it lacking.
The creators of The Sims already have made all kinds of judgments about the kinds of stories their consumers can tell. Without cheats or mods, Sims start out living Western lifestyles, in places that might be found somewhere in America. They speak made-up “Simlish”, but they cook western foods and listen to Western music (even Simlish versions of actual American pop songs). Non-Western elements are largely found in expansion packs. Furthermore, the game mechanics preference certain sexual identities over others. There’s never been an option to create a celibate or asexual Sim; the closest you’d get is “Unflirty” or “Dislikes Children”, but even those aren’t foolproof. The very nature of creating a game like The Sims necessitates that the creators must make judgments about what’s included.
But Chun isn’t talking about simple choice judgments, he’s talking about moral judgments. Chun wants to avoid making a moral judgment about particular religions and risk offending millions of people. However, by not including religion, the developers are making a moral judgment about religion. By changing the way the game understands gender and biological sex, the developers were making a statement about the acceptance of people all over the gender spectrum, not just those who fit one side or the other. They were acknowledging that their consumers want to create characters who may identify as a woman but wear masculine clothing or identify as a man and have the biological ability to become pregnant. There’s no bonus or penalty for your Sim’s gender or sex, it’s simply something that just is.
The truth is The Sims series already includes morality without making moral judgments in its gameplay. You can create Sims that are “Good” and Sims that are “Evil,” but there’s no in-game penalty for playing an evil character. In fact, Sims who possess the “Evil” trait are rewarded when they steal candy from a baby, just as Good Sims are rewarded for giving money to charity. If I want to make thousands of
dollars Simoleans by working my way up the Crime career ladder and indulging Kleptomaniac tendencies, I can. If I want to fight crime and be a loving, wholesome spouse and parent, I can. Including religion doesn’t have to be any different than including gender identity, and it doesn’t have to come with in-game bonuses or penalties in ways that imply moral judgments.
The biggest problem that remains is the question of how to do it. If the very act of including something in the game implies a moral choice, how in the world are we going to include religion? If you just go with the three Abrahamic faiths, what do you say to Buddhists? And for the ones you do include, how do you portray them so you don’t offend millions of people? Even if the creators decided to consult actual religious experts for help (which, let’s be honest, barely happens with other forms of media), they’re going to have to draw the line somewhere. Then the question becomes, “Do we offend the Orthodox or the Pentacostals?” That’s not good. Instead, why not leave out every real-world religion altogether? It’d be easy to capitalize on what’s already in the game.
We have a few bits and pieces of canon religious mythology, the most important of which is the existence of an afterlife. Ghosts are a significant element of the game. You can create, become, or romance and marry a Ghost-Sim. Sims can release a pesky ghost into the “Netherworld”, so it won’t come back and bother you again. The Grim Reaper appears whenever a Sim dies, and often there’s a chance for you or a loved one to bargain with it. When Sims get frustrated or their “needs” get too low, they’ll throw a tantrum and wave and shout at the sky, in your direction. Players are both God and conscience to their Sims. Sims can do yoga or martial arts (depending on the iteration of the game) and if they get good enough at meditating, they can levitate and teleport. So we have a God, an afterlife, and meditation. That’s plenty to work with. If we need a religious symbol, why not the plumbob? It’s everywhere else in the game. Really, it’s not that The Sims is devoid of religion, it’s that the creators don’t want to formally acknowledge it.
We can get an idea of what Sim religion might look like by only using elements currently in the game lore. Demonstrably religious and irreligious Sims could be given “Believer” or “Skeptic” personality traits, respectively. This way it’s easy for players to avoid the religious elements of the game altogether. At the most basic level, all religions deal with questions of either the afterlife, suffering, or both. Both types of Sims may have stronger or longer-lasting reactions to seeing a Ghost-Sim. Believer Sims could get a positive buffer for reading or writing religious books, while Skeptic Sims might get bored or see their Fun stat drain. Witnessing the death of another Sim or being abducted by aliens might give both Believers and Skeptics a “Belief Crisis”, not unlike the “Midlife Crisis” from The Sims 3. A “House of Sim” public lot could be a center for meditation, reading, or community gatherings. It’d be a great additional option for Sim weddings, too. Impoverished Sims could get a free meal at these lots. Believer Sims would get a positive buffer for visiting these lots, and wish to visit them when they haven’t for a while, not unlike Artistic Sims wishing to visit the art gallery.
There are two keys to making Sim religion a successful addition to the game. The first is that developers would have to walk the line between indulging hurtful stereotypes while creating a fictional religion that is recognizable as religion. Hurtful stereotypes of theists, atheists, and particular religious groups should be avoided. Giving Skeptics a positive buffer in science careers might make sense on paper, but unless there’s a similar career buffer for Believers in another career (that isn’t in itself offensive), it’s just going to feed into the hurtful stereotype that religious people are stupid. Adding a Sim Religion career might be a way to solve this issue, but I’m still not entirely sure. The other key to making religion work is that any additions like public lots or careers must be open to all Sims, regardless of the traits they possess. Any Sim can visit a House of Sim, join a Believer career, or read or do things that would be associated with Sim religion. This way the developers would maintain some distance from making a “judgment” about religion as a whole through the game while still leaving religion’s storytelling potential an available tool for players.
Acknowledging and creating a Sim religion would be the best next step in the direction of further diversity and inclusion. It might look like Sims don’t have a religion, but that’s not real representation, even for atheists or anyone without a religion. Including a fictional, in-game religion would allow people to create Sims that actually are atheists, as well as believers. If Sim religion was treated like a personality trait, and not like race or gender, players would have the ultimate ability to opt in or opt out to the way the game’s religious elements affect their Sims. Most Sims lead morally grey lives; they don’t possess the “Good” or “Evil” traits. Why not treat Believers and Skeptics the same way? Religion doesn’t have to be a Pandora’s Box of problems; it can be a way to celebrate diversity as well.