I was aware pretty early on in MALS 72200, Contemporary Feminism, that my research site, EA’s The Sims forum, would not embody a working definition of a feminist online space. It is inherently disqualified by its roots in capitalism, as a digital platform developed by a game company for discussion and promotion of its product. However, I was still curious what interventions could be made on a corporate platform, considering the key concept of The Sims as a game is inherently human.
My initial methods for occupying my space were observation and autoethnography. Considering the tight rules and hierarchy within my space (new members are denied permission to start new threads, post links and media, or customize their profile until validated by other users who “like” their comments, as part of an anti-trolling measure), I did not feel comfortable disclosing my project or role as a participant researcher. It seemed highly likely that, if I mentioned that I was researching the space and would be reporting my findings, my account would be shut down by moderators who have the clearance and privilege to do so unannounced. Thus, I studied myself and my own experience as a marginalized player navigating the forum. As a longtime fan of the Sims who has led many interesting discussions with other “simmers” (an affectionate term for regular players of the game), I’ve found that users’ motivations and gameplay are often quite varied and intensely personal. I visited the forum regularly (at least 2 times per day) over a couple of months, searching for terms that seemed likely to pull up the types of discourse I was seeking: “queer,” “gay,” LGBTQ,” “trans,” “African American,” “Black,” “Black simmer,” “Black hair.” The longer I spent on the site, the more tailored my terms became. I noticed that “LGBT,” absent the Q, was more commonly used on the forum, as was the term “ethnic” to describe sim characters of color. If I wanted to see discussions of gender identity and expression that weren’t turning up when I searched “trans,” I discovered that a premade character named Darling Walsh has generated a lot of gender-relevant discussion for their seemingly androgynous style of dress and appearance. I also realized that most of the discussions related to race took place amongst lamentations regarding natural hair options in CAS (Create a Sim) mode, and/or posts about custom content that developed in response to user dissatisfaction in this area.
Though it felt like focused discussions of marginalized simmers’ concerns and experiences were few and far between, implementing these search terms demonstrated that they were quite vibrant when initiated. As a collection of users with varied identities, interests, and motivations for gaming, it seems elements of solidarity and connection are possible on the Sims forum. I began this project thrilled to participate in online discussion of this game that is important to me and has prompted intriguing discussions with people in my social circle. But this enthusiasm waned as the site’s limitations as a contender for an intersectional feminist space made themselves evident. These vibrant gatherings of marginalized simmers (and/or people interested in critiques of a game emulating the social and cultural dynamics of our world) were frequently interrupted or curtailed by users decreeing the topics “too realistic” or too complicated for something that is “just a game.” As a forum member, I witnessed this numerous times: examples include a thread that expressed frustration over the lack of ‘townies’ of color (townies are non-player characters, NPCs, who occupy the Sims neighborhoods), and another that ruminated on the potential for thoughtful physical and cognitive disability representation. These posts got derailed by defensiveness and provocation from users who considered such queries unnecessary and potentially threatening to their utopic interpretation of the game, to the point that a moderator closed them for the sake of peacekeeping. These topics drew a consistent audience, but were always at risk of being disbanded. And yet, these are the elements of the game, and its players, that pose the most generative questions to me as a queer player of color seeking to imagine better digital futures. If we’re thinking about play and resistance, it seems here that the oppressive silence of “mindless play” is actually what needs resisting, as marginalized users seek to complicate and resist the stultifying narrative of “it’s just a game” that is weaponized to shut down valid analyses of the game and their experiences.
In “Hello Avatar,” Beth Coleman describes x-reality as “an interlacing of virtual and real experiences” then expands the concept to “a world that is no longer distinctly virtual or real, but, instead, representative of a diversity of network combinations.” In light of this forum’s restrictions and possibilities, I shaped my x-reality as a space that would allow such conversations to exist in the virtual and the “real” through engagement with Sims players in person, over the phone, and via email. This was part of my attempt to keep discourse unfiltered, achronological, and (somewhat) unregulated. I considered elements that I felt were lacking from the Sims forum alongside elements of shared experiences that my participants and I considered most comfortable. For my in-person gathering, this included selecting a setting that was familiar, noncorporate (to an extent, but of course we were meeting on colonized and stolen land) and private—Hayden’s apartment. We were intentional in constructing no set schedule of what had to take place, or how. We had food, drinks, music, and television, an embodiment of a typical relaxed atmosphere for our group. I had spoken with both participants prior to this session to gain their consent to be photographed, videotaped, and to have their gameplay recorded. This session basically became a collaborative tutorial/walkthrough of the game with Hayden acting as the primary manipulator of controls while Anne and I offered verbal input. Hayden’s relative unfamiliarity with the game (alongside two more experienced players), led to a very exploratory gameplay, one that took the shape of a novice discovering new terrain with occasional guidance.
Video of Anne coaching Hayden on using group commands for sims.
One of the circumstances that define/distinguish in-person community gatherings is the ephemeral nature of the space; the gathering begins, exists, and at some time must end (though I would argue digital spaces have similar rhythms). In light of this ephemera, I set up additional extra-temporal spaces after the in-person Sims party: an email exchange with Anne, who attended the live session but was not handling the controls, and a collaborative Sims playthrough and interview with another friend, Leslie, via Facetime. Anne is a writer with a deep love for the fiction of her childhood; both of these elements are key components of how she plays the Sims, and how she talks about it. Thus, she preferred to capture her solo gameplay for me with an email and accompanying screenshots:
During my phone interview with Leslie, she discussed cognitive dissonance in terms of how she wants to play the Sims, and how her households usually take shape:
Audio of Leslie’s Phone Interview, 05/08/19
LESLIE: I feel like my gameplay is, when I actually play it, is different than what I think it is. So I feel like when I’m actually playing it, it’s very aspirational. So I end up making people that I think are attractive to meet and fall in love with other people that I think are attractive and have a pretty house, have a family, and have fulfilling careers. [laughs] I feel like if I was actually going to take advantage of the game, I would make like, more diverse characters. Not in terms of appearance, but some shitty people and some sneaky people, and some lazy people and people who are like, you know…worthless…I also don’t like exploring and figuring out new things [laughs] so I’ll watch other people play.”
Curiously, though she is someone who I perceive to be extremely “online” (my definition here is someone who absorbs much of their news and pop culture through digital outlets, and who is very aware of online trends/phenomena), Leslie was adamant that she doesn’t participate in online spaces:
ASHLEIGH: Have you ever, um, discussed the Sims online and done any forum stuff, or like, Livejournal communities, or anything like that about the Sims?
A: Okay. Just no?
L: No, I don’t participate in online spaces! When’s the last time you ever saw me tweet?
L: I am an observer, though, so I’ll like, watch people play the Sims on youtube, I’ll watch people…I’ll read people’s Tumblrs about the Sims, and that kinda stuff.
As someone who primarily engages with the internet by watching, Leslie didn’t feel she was qualified to call herself a participant in online spaces. This sentiment reminded me of our class’s recent discussions on civic participation and civic engagement; namely, what is considered “enough” to consider oneself a participant in an online space? Is presence enough? How does (perceived) passivity and lurking hold differing connotations based on context? In this context, Leslie’s inclination to lurk is predicated on a discomfort with exploration of unfamiliar digital terrain, and a skepticism regarding the (un)safety and unpredictability of online spaces. When discussing the possibility of improving those conditions, her attitude towards more interactive modes of existing online shifted:
Audio of Leslie’s Phone Interview, 05/08/19.
L: I feel like it would be very fun to play the Sims with people that I know, like I would love to play the Sims with you. But as much as that sounds like fun, it sounds like an equal amount of a nightmare to play the Sims with people I don’t know. It seems like it would be an open invitation for like, harassment and just, weird shit…and because there’s so many different…it’s not like there’s an objective, right?…It seems like there would need to be a conversation about that before, so like, if you and I were playing, we would want to [say] ‘Okay, we’re gonna play it like a relational kind of thing.” My sims are gonna come over and like, hook up with your sims, or annoy your sims! But it’s all gonna be in good fun.”
In other contexts, lurking can be unhelpful for a collective at best and dangerous at worst. Lurking can mean oppressive surveillance of online communities with intent to hack, imitate, doxx, or censor. Or it can mean evading accountability when it comes to contributing to an online space by keeping oneself actively absent. I think it’s worth interrogating the contrasting modes of lurking for surveillance and survival, which is something I will be bringing into my future work.
My series of spaces and collaborations surrounding the Sims provided a rich, generative environment for me to explore concepts of personhood, reality, community, and feminism in the digital space. I found that most of my participants, though unaware of the term “x-reality,” were receptive to it and discussed ways in which they were living it already. Facets of my participants’ “real life” identities are absolutely in conversation with the ways they navigate and show up (or don’t) in a digital gaming space. Per our class discussions, I believe my work has shown that in many cases, a feminist liberatory space is not one of identity fragmentation. While I remain skeptical of the possibility of a true intersectional online feminist space, I do believe that highlighting and discussing these topics with my group set a shift in motion for how we interpret and navigate our online worlds.