Fans of The Sims were excited when Grant Rodiek, senior producer on The Sims 4 and the voice of The Sims on Twitter, recently announced that EA is on the brink of introducing disabilities into the game. “Give us a little time. It’s important”, he tweeted.
This is regarded as a welcome gesture by most people and at first glance it seems completely unproblematic. Who would not want to see something as real and widespread as differently-abled bodies included within The Sims? Disability is a part of the variation in humanity and continuing to exclude people with disabilities from The Sims seems as strange and perverse as it would be to exclude non-white people.
Why Is There Controversy?
Of course, nothing is ever simple. While a Twitter poll on 19 September showed that 70% of more than 700 voters were in favour of disabilities becoming a part of The Sims, agreement quickly began to break down over what counts as disability and what types of conditions should be included.
Disagreement over the inclusion of disabilities quickly revealed a minefield of anxieties, tensions and political sensitivities that reveal a lot about the status of disability in the popular imagination.
A Hierarchy of Anxiety
At the least controversial end of the scale is the idea of sims in wheelchairs. Nearly everyone agrees that wheelchair-using sims would make a valuable inclusion in the game and discussion has centred on the mechanics of how to make it happen – steps and stairs will need the option of being replaced with ramps and elevators.
In the middle of the scale of controversy are conditions which are physically limiting but which are typically late-onset, unexpected and plausibly linked to lifestyle. For example, one Twitter user felt that the ‘lifestyle diseases’ of middle age would make a huge contribution to making The Sims feel more realistic. They explained that they have a character who is a writer and who doesn’t exercise. Sooner or later, in the interests of realism, it should be possible for that character to develop heart disease and experience both a heart attack and its long-lasting, life-limiting effects. While this gamer’s experience of The Sims would be hugely enhanced by heart disease, another begged for it not to be introduced. ‘My father has just had a heart attack’, she explained, and one can see her point. While some people use The Sims as a creative tool for crafting more or less realistic dramas, others want to be soothed, distracted and entertained. It’s hard to imagine anything less soothing or relaxing than logging in to The Sims at the end of a traumatic day of visiting your dad in hospital as he tries to recover from a stroke or cardiac arrest, only to be confronted with that exact scenario in your game.
This type of anxiety draws a couple of interesting things to our attention. Firstly, it highlights the different ways that people play with The Sims. Perhaps because it is so open ended and flexible, this being its distinguishing feature and the mark of its success, there’s no easy way to understand what gamers are actually doing with it. Your experience of The Sims is not like mine. Secondly, it’s very revealing of what people actually have in mind when they imagine sims in wheelchairs. To the extent that at least some people are upset about the lifestyle diseases of middle age, while seemingly nobody is upset about sims in wheelchairs, there are clearly some mental gymnastics going on, being that those lifestyle diseases can be what landed you in a wheelchair in the first place. What’s being revealed by this hierarchy of concern, then, is a whole unspoken story about how sims in wheelchairs got there. If they aren’t being struck down by some catastrophic life event then the alternative is that they have limited mobility from birth. If they aren’t disabled by something ‘lifestyle’ then the disability is congenital and therefore less morally loaded (there’s no way in which the sim could have done something to ‘deserve’ it). Let’s also note the semiotics of the wheelchair and the way it functions as a sign for ‘disabilities in general’, which is why a person in a wheelchair forms the International Symbol of Access, used not to signify ‘access for people in wheelchairs’ but access in general for anyone who might have problems accessing or using any facility, which could include elderly people, mothers with infants, and so on. As a society, we’ve allowed the wheelchair to become a sign for any state of being which is going to result in accessibility issues.
At the top end of the scale of controversy are mental health conditions. It seems that only a minority of gamers want these to be included. It might seem fairly intuitive that introducing mental health problems such as bipolar disorder, depression or schizophrenia would instantly add a certain depth to the game which has not previously been present but the reactions of gamers tend in the other direction. That is, they are concerned that the game or its players will not make the game more serious but will make mental health issues more trivial. The concern seems to be that mental health problems have a fragile status in terms of people taking them seriously, believing that they even exist, mocking them or faking them to get attention. This situation is not likely to be improved by making mental health problems available as a toy for the less aware or responsible gamer to play with.
There are also concerns around accuracy. How realistically can The Sims depict mental health problems? Twitter user Kai said “I don’t see any way for them [EA] to do it right … I get that people want representations of themselves but most of the sims gameplay is stories we have in our own minds.” While this is a fair comment, one could argue that sims shouldn’t have any psychology but in fact they already have psychological traits which no-one seems to regards as a problem, maybe because they aren’t given mental health labels. In The Sims 4, sims can be Gloomy which seems to be different from depression only in degree and severity. No-one seems to have a problem with the Hot-Headed trait even though it strongly implies problems with impulse control. The Glutton trait seems to be one step away from compulsive eating. Sims with the Loner trait are not very far removed from social anxiety. Importantly, riots didn’t break out when EA introduced the Insane trait in Sims 3, even though it seems to do exactly what gamers are worried about in regard to mental health. ‘Insane’ is an imprecise, antiquated and rather insulting term that produces a collection of behaviours in sims such as mood swings, dressing inappropriately and talking to themselves. That said, a recent development in The Sims 4 that EA didn’t make a big news story from was the recent re-naming of the Insane trait – it’s now called ‘Erratic’. This was a quiet adjustment to the game that may make a big difference in terms of how sensitive and responsible the game is perceived as being.
Even though The Sims is essentially an offline, single-player game, concerns about trivialisation do seem to have some reasonable basis. Sims players love to invent challenges – ways of playing the game which impose objectives and artificial constraints on gameplay. In 2014 a Sims player invented something called the ‘Insane Asylum Challenge’ and posted instructions for play on the Sims forum. It is perhaps a mark of how much things have moved on in the last four years that something like this would probably not pass without comment if it were invented today. The Insane Asylum Challenge was as tasteless as it sounds. Make a group of eight sims, all with the Insane trait, who will share a household. Clearly the expectation is that it will be a chaotic and trouble-filled dwelling. Just to help things along, the challenge instructs players to make a house that has too few beds, hardly any objects which could provide skill or entertainment, a cheap stove and no fire alarm.
In the name of research, I watched a YouTube video in which a gamer takes on the Insane Asylum Challenge. His expectation was that chaos should break out with comedic results and he was mildly disappointed when not much happened. His eight characters interacted with each other pleasantly, watched TV, cooked without incident and didn’t provide much to laugh at. Driven by the need to find out whether his experience was somehow anomalous, I loaded up my copy of The Sims 3 and quickly made a scaled-down version of the challenge household, featuring six ‘insane’ sims (with their other personality traits randomly selected) and adequate furniture. I then let the game run with absolutely no intervention from me, to find out what happened. These sims got along beautifully. They were mostly pleasant to each other, tolerated each other’s criticism and even bonded when they found out that the person they were talking to shared the Insane trait. Even my two characters who were also burdened with the Inappropriate trait did well, perhaps because Insane sims don’t respond to interactions as one might expect. That is, when one sim behaved inappropriately towards another who was insane, the insane recipient acted as though nothing out of the ordinary had taken place and the relationship appeared not to be damaged and in some cases was even assisted. In no time, friendships blossomed among my six ‘insane’ sims, with one pair of Good Friends and one pair of Best Friends emerging almost immediately. It was not so much an Insane Asylum as a Therapeutic Community. The insane sims got along far better in this harmonious household than they generally do as members of non-insane families.
The therapeutic community was a happy and unexpected discovery and yet it doesn’t alter the fact that the Insane Asylum Challenge was a horrible idea from the outset and not far removed from bear-baiting. Provoking mentally-challenged sims to fight with each other and then laughing at the results is not the sort of use of the game that one would hope for or that EA can endorse. Consequently, it’s easy to see why fans of The Sims would have reservations about mental health issues being introduced. These are not trivial matters and it is a certainty that a large proportion of sims fans struggle with some type of mental health issue (because this is true of the larger population of people in general) while another proportion of fans will want to mock and make light of those same issues.
Can mental health issues be represented in games responsibly?
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was made in consultation with mental health professionals. It simulates aspects of psychosis, particularly hearing disembodied voices and a confusion between reality and hallucination. The consensus seems to be that this was a good way to depict psychosis (observe the generality of that term versus something like ‘schizophrenia’).
Depression Quest was polarising. Leaving aside its role in the gamergate controversy (the impartiality of reviews being a separate issue), it can be seen as a heartfelt, first-hand account of the experience of depression and a well-intentioned attempt to share and educate. On the other hand, not everyone with depression endorsed it. Inevitably, some people complained that it did not match their experience of depression and also that there was inadequate character development – it’s hard to care about a collection of symptoms with no discernible human character to experience them. “It’s like being sad for a toaster that was accidentally dropped” said one Steam reviewer.
There’s real insight in this comment that extends to The Sims. What it reveals is that some games are played from the inside and some from the outside. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice succeeds because Senua has a cultural background, a homeland, a life story, a personality and set of believable motives. She is a character who is played from the inside – we feel her fear, her loneliness and determination. She’s a fairly complete human with or without her psychopathology and we play the game while occupying her life as well as her body.
In contrast, The Sims is played from the outside. Despite the existence of personality traits and game scenarios which are supplied by EA, sims do not arrive with fully fleshed-out biographies and complex internal psychology. This is left to you as the player to supply with your own imagination. Most of the ready-made personality traits and aspirations don’t give the player much to work with. Although they are a good idea, they tend towards being trite and action orientated. When we consider traits like ‘Bro’ (can ‘bro hug’ other bros and become energised from watching sports), ‘Neat’ (becomes happy when performing chores) and ‘Romantic’ (flirty, needs romantic interactions), it is clear that what passes for a personality in The Sims is really a way to anchor moods to in-game activities. In contrast, if we take even the slightest glance at personality traits as identified by psychology, we can see that they are much more nuanced. For example, the ‘big five’ personality traits include openness to new experiences and conscientiousness (tendency to plan ahead). These are obviously relatively difficult to encode so we shouldn’t be too hard on EA in that respect but at the same time players of more deeply psychological games or RPGs such as World of Warcraft could probably tell you how open-minded or conscientious their main characters are, which The Sims doesn’t lend itself to quite as readily. Herein lies the eternal paradox of characterisation in video games. It is a problem similar to that of narrative. Too much coded-in narrative and personality and you are giving the player constraints rather than freedoms. Too little and gamers will complain that the characters felt flat and story lacked depth. It’s a difficult balance to get right and no one solution will satisfy everyone. However, the fact remains that the experience of playing The Sims is rather detached – a little like keeping pet mice which you then observe running around in their cage, feed and occasionally offer new toys. Perhaps this is the reason why mental health issues are relatively more difficult to portray responsibly in The Sims than they would be in another game which is played more from the point of view of a single character. That external perspective means that the player has relatively less invested in any one character and less of a sense that they are real people – again, this is something of a paradox because ostensibly The Sims is wholly about people. It is perhaps part of the reason why players of The Sims have delighted in perverse behaviours such as drowning their characters in swimming pools, helping them set fire to their own kitchens and electrocuting them by having them repair the TV or dishwasher in the absence of any repair skills.
Disabilities – yes or no?
The balance seems to weigh heavily in the direction of ‘no’ to introducing mental health problems into The Sims and ‘yes’ to physical disabilities. Mental health can probably be adequately catered for by inoffensively named personality traits which add some depth to sim personalities without inviting mockery. At the same time, this still leaves a few problems unanswered with regard to physical disabilities. Players seem to want disabilities to be included but only if they are present from birth and not incurred as a result of catastrophic life events or lifestyle habits. This could mean that if EA begins to include disabilities, as it probably will, these will be limited to token disabilities such as wheelchair use and not incorporate more ambiguous physical disabilities which actually represent the larger proportion of disabilities from which people actually suffer. What’s more, they will likely be restricted to the external signs of disability, such as wheelchair use, and not be linked to the causes of disability such as genetic predisposition or life-limiting illnesses such as diabetes. As for whether sims will ever be able to receive medication, therapy or in-patient hospital treatment or whether they will be forever stuck with their problems, we will have to wait and see.