Back in the days before I played Dragon Age or Mass Effect, before I knew what a dating sim was or had any idea that games could represent relationships more complexly than Mario and Peach, I had The Sims.
The Sims has come a long way since its first iteration, adding more complexity and interactions to a pretty simple formula—playing god and micromanaging the lives of digital humans. As a pre-teen, this game was my entire life; I’d spend hours building houses, designing clothes, and creating soap opera-worthy backstories for my little Sims families. Evil twins. Magic potions. Rampant infidelity.
And kissing. Lots of kissing. The Sims was one of the first games to feature same-gender relationships not as an implication, but as a matter of fact. At E3 in 1999, Maxis’ live demo accidentally included a passionate kiss between two women in the background of a scene. Being twelve, I didn’t attend E3. I found out that you could make two same-gender characters kiss by accident, and that changed everything.
I grew up in a highly conservative town where kids handed out soda cans with Bible passages written on them at lunch. My sex ed was abstinence-only—in seventh grade, my class was told that condoms are a tool of the devil and that if a girl kisses a boy with tongue whatever happens after is squarely her fault (there was no alternative; girls, of course, only kiss boys in small farm towns).
Prior to The Sims, I don’t remember a single instance of same-gender relationships in any piece of media other than Xena: Warrior Princess, and even that was couched in subtext and secondary reasons for makeouts.
I don’t remember how I discovered that my lady sims could kiss other lady sims, only that it meant my digital love stories got increasingly more complex. Nobody was off-limits; while certain families upheld stable family structures with only the odd genie or lawn gnome incursion, others kissed their way through the entire town just because they could, breaking up well-established families like the Goths or Newbies. It’s not that I didn’t know same-gender relationships were possible, only that I’d never seen them before. I hadn’t yet stumbled upon Will and Grace and any media targeted at my age group was still spouting the idea that girls only kissed boys.
Vanilla Sims was about as vanilla as it comes. Your sims could kiss passionately while Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” theme plays, but that was about as risqué as it got. After enough kissing between sims of different genders, occasionally you’d get an option that asked, “Should we have a baby?” My terrible sex-ed was at least informative enough to let me know that skipped a few steps, but the Livin’ Large expansion filled in the gaps.
I got Livin’ Large as a gift specifically because House Party had a woman jumping out of a cake on the front of it and was deemed inappropriate for me. My family thought of The Sims as training for real life—at some point I remember having a discussion with my grandparents about how the game’s real intent was not the wild stories I was inventing with it, but rather the practical lessons of budgeting and house management, never mind that I rarely played without spamming “rosebud;!;!;!” a few hundred times. The unintended side effect of purchasing me Livin’ Large instead of House Party was that it exposed me to things far more risqué than a woman jumping out of a cake, because this expansion was the introduction of the Vibromatic Heart Bed.
As a young and innocent girl of a certain age with only the barest knowledge of sex gleaned from whispers and novels that straddled a thin genre line separating them from romance, I still ought to have had some idea of what a vibrating bed was for. I imagined, like “personal massagers,” it was meant for an aching back—probably good for sims with low comfort levels, right? Only then the option to “play in bed” appeared.
What happened next was something like Nina Freeman’s excellent how do you Do It?, only with sims and repeated clicks on the “play in bed” option. I was intensely curious about what was happening beneath those sheets—the game played sounds of giggling, growling, and dogs barking, which was more than my adolescent brain knew how to handle. I had some vague idea of what went on, but no clear idea beyond that it involved kissing and no clothes.
And then I remembered cheats. “Move_objects on” was a savior for stuck sims, as well as great for resetting negative moods and screwing with NPCs who unwisely wandered onto my lots. It was also, I discovered, a perfect method of sneaking a peek beneath the heaving sheets of my sims’ Vibromatic Heart Beds.
What I found there wasn’t particularly titillating—sims getting down to business had some kind of strange crotch-bumping situation happening while tenderly stroking their companion’s head. Without nude mods (which I didn’t know existed and probably would have been too freaked out to bother with—I was already in a state of near-permanent blushing from my exploits with the heart bed and cheat codes), naked sims were something like naked Barbie dolls. Perfect for satiating my pubescent curiosity, but not so scandalous as to send me running for cover.
Witnessing the sex lives of my many promiscuous sims was no substitute for adequate sexual education, given their bizarre position, lack of protection, and the general ambiguity of what was going on in the Vibromatic Heart Bed. It got worse in Hot Date, with the introduction of new interactions, like making out and cuddling. The rest of the game fell away as my sims kissed and slept their way through all the neighborhood sims and Townies—how many lovers could a sim attract before death? Could I get a sim to sleep with every character they encountered?
At some point I discovered real romance novels, the ones with all the euphemisms and graphic bits rather than WooHooing and ambiguously ruffling sheets, and moved on from the lurid stories of my sim families. My love for the series lives on though my interest in making my sims get it on has waned. Later installments have introduced public WooHooing, time travel sex, and the ability to seduce the Grim Reaper, and while I may no longer be interested, The Sims is still likely introducing legions of curious teens and pre-teens safely to the strangeness of the ambiguous WooHoo.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.