- As a kid, Elspeth Wilson played “The Sims” obsessively when the real world became too much.
- She explored her bisexuality in the game by flirting with all genders and hosting same-sex weddings.
- Wilson later realized her passion for “The Sims” was also a celebration of her autism.
When I was growing up, I hated loud noises, got incredibly distressed if plans changed, and often had huge meltdowns if I got overwhelmed. At the time, I didn’t understand why these things were happening, and no one else did, either.
When I moved to a new secondary school because I got a scholarship, I spent so much of my time trying to appear normal and likable that by the time I got home, I was too tired to pretend to be anyone other than my natural self.
It turned out that the truest version of myself was let out in the study at the end of my parent’s living room. This was where the family computer lived — my only access to the internet and video games.
I was an only child, and when I walked through the front door, the first thing I would do was rush to the swivel chair and listen to the cheerful loading music of my favorite game: “The Sims.”
I loved the possibilities in “The Sims.” Away from the casual homophobia that was a regular part of my school life, it was a world where you could have a romantic liaison — or a “WooHoo,” in “Sims” parlance — with anyone you liked. There were no limitations on girls marrying girls. It was also a world where I could vicariously indulge my creative interests, becoming a millionaire novelist or selling enough paintings to buy a mansion.
It was pure fun where I didn’t have to worry about doing the “right” thing or being judged. It gave me a lifeline of joy and provided hints that a different future was possible.
If there were people out there who were willing to create a world like “The Sims,” then maybe there was more hope than I felt in my day-to-day existence, where I repressed my crushes on other girls.
Slowly, the pleasure and imagination of ‘The Sims’ began to creep out of the study
I started to feel calmer and less likely to descend into uncontrolled sobbing if I experienced too much noise or too many bright lights. I knew I had a refuge to return to when I needed it.
I began to tell my parents stories about my “Sims” families, including those with parents of the same gender, testing the waters and seeing how the words felt on my tongue. I’d been worried about how my parents would react, but they always listened patiently.
When I played “The Sims” with some of my school friends, it helped me realize that maybe there were more people like me out there than I’d thought — even if I wasn’t quite sure who I was yet.
One of my friends and I would run upstairs to her family computer after school and take turns controlling the mouse as we grew business empires, built commune-style families, and flirted with everyone. We didn’t even need to talk about what we were doing; there was an unspoken comfort in not having to keep up with the performances or pressures of school.
One time, I made my “Sims” characters have a lesbian wedding and used that situation to ask my friend if she would ever kiss a girl in real life. When I was growing up, there wasn’t much discussion about gender identity or sexuality, but “The Sims” had opened up possibilities that weren’t discussed in the mainstream.
‘The Sims’ helped me feel more comfortable coming out as bisexual
I believe that having a safe space to explore the parts of me that were invisible — or that society refused to see — eventually led to a change in how I behaved and acted in other aspects of my life.
I had a place to experiment, to think about who I was and whom I liked, away from judgment and discrimination. So much of the figuring out my identity had been done in an intimate, joyful space — either on my own or with trusted friends. By the time I was ready to tell people I was bisexual, I was confident and unwavering in who I was and how I felt.
The game also helped me understand my autism
In my 20s, I started to read about neurodiversity and autism. I discovered that many autistic people had what are called “special interests,” where they want to learn everything possible about a subject and spend as much time with it as possible. It’s kind of like a crush — if a crush were on a subject instead of a person.
In an instant, things slotted into place. My affinity for a game that had given me a reprieve from so many difficult things in the world — sudden noises, unpredictability, heteronormativity — was not only a sign of my own neurodivergence but also a celebration of it. In hindsight, “The Sims” appealed to many of my neurodivergent traits, like a wish to be in control. It satisfied my autistic joy before I even knew what that meant.
Now wherever I am, wherever I go, I know that I have the comfort of a virtual world to escape to if I need it. But now I need it less and less because “The Sims” already gave me vital tools and long-lasting reassurance. It lives on in my mind and in my body, and it goes much deeper than pixels on a screen.