A Sims character created using the Melanin Pack 2 and hair from @EbonixSims. Image courtesy Amira Virgil

Video games can shape our lives. But sometimes, we shape them in return. This podcast episode takes a closer look at one of the video games featured in the exhibition Never Alone: Video Games and Other Interactive Design: Will Wright’s The Sims. Since its release in 2000, Wright’s game has captivated users around the world, including Brooklyn-based content creator Amira Virgil.

Virgil’s introduction to the game was through its second iteration, The Sims 2, which she played on her “raggedy little Dell PC” as a teenager. She describes the game as “a digital dollhouse,” in which users create characters and shape their lives.

Will Wright. The Sims. 2000

Will Wright. The Sims. 2000

Despite her appreciation for the game, she knew something was missing. For years, The Sims offered a limited skin-tone palette that made brown skin appear “gray and ghastly.” Virgil recalls someone telling her that the skin tones from The Sims 4 Vampire Pack were identical to the darker skin tones native to the game. “They couldn’t tell the difference between the vampire skin tones and the dark skin tones. And I was like, see?”

In 2016, Virgil released the Melanin Pack for The Sims 4, which brought a broader range of skin tones to the game. But Virgil did more than just modify The Sims—she transformed it. With the Melanin Pack add-on, users could finally create characters who accurately represented the range, hue, and vibrancy of brown skin.

To hear more about The Sims, Virgil’s work on the Melanin Pack, and the impact of video games on our reality, click on the SoundCloud audio below.

Amira Virgil. The Melanin Pack 2. 2016

Amira Virgil. The Melanin Pack 2. 2016

See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.

Amira Virgil: I’m on the plane, and the flight attendant was like, “Oh my God, I love Sims. I love to put them in the pool and take the ladder away.” And I was like, damn! Not you telling me you like to kill them! [Laughs] I did not expect that. I was just trying to get to Cali, I didn’t expect to hear a Sims murder story in the middle of the afternoon. I was like, I don’t even know if I wanna sleep for the rest of this damn flight, because you just pulled up on me with a Sims horror story. [Laughs]

Hi, my name is Amira Virgil. I’m 28. I’m from Brooklyn, New York. I’m a content creator, a streamer, a community and project manager, and the creator of the Melanin Pack of The Sims 4.

The Sims is what I’d like to describe for people who are new to it as a digital dollhouse. You’re creating these little people, you’re telling their stories, and you control the trajectory in which the stories go. You can create a young woman, make her look however you want her to look, give her whatever job. You can either directly control their story, or you can passively control their story, or you can just create them and leave them on autopilot.

One of my earliest memories playing Sims—this was in middle school. I remember being in the house on my raggedy little Dell PC. It used to load really slow. I used to have to preheat my PC! I had to turn the game on, and then go do chores and come back, and then the game was fully loaded. And I remember discovering all that you can do in the game and all the possibilities—how spicy Sims 2 was! And how messy the game was already out the box, and the soap opera–like storylines that the game came with.

There’s so many different avenues of creativity within The Sims. You can build and decorate and create these beautiful homes, businesses, venues. And then the storytelling aspect of it. People sit down and actually write out stories and tell stories on social media and places like Tumblr or even Facebook.

Creating content for other people to download is a big thing. Creating content for yourself is a big thing. So that’s another outlet people find fun, making custom content, we call it CC mods, short for “modifications.” Things such as custom walls, floors, paintings, hairstyles, makeup, clothing that wasn’t created by the developers of The Sims. I love the unique spin it allows you to put on your characters and your gameplay. There’s so many different fun ways to stay creative and to keep the game relevant and that alone kept me on the game for years.

The Melanin Pack is a skin-tone pack that I created for The Sims 4 to bring a broader range of brown skin tones with contrast and with vibrance. I think the breaking point for me personally was digging through 60 pages of custom content skins, and either not seeing anyone create darker skin at all, and the two or three skin tone packs that had darker skin, the skin was really gray and ghastly.

I was like, okay, I like my skin tone. I don’t have any self-hatred issues, anything going on with my darker skin, so why is it that I always lean towards making lighter-skinned characters in video games? And I was like—yo, because when I switch the settings to darker, it’s so gray and ill. I don’t look like that. So I kind of just always tried to find that safe medium, which left me with lighter-skinned avatars and characters—in not just Sims, but most things I played with those types of options.

A lot of creators in the Sims community do not have Black and brown people in mind when they make content. Biggest example of this: I would download a lipstick. Looks good…until I make the Sim closer to my skin tone, and now it’s like white splotches all around the lips. You don’t really see it on the lighter Sim, and then the moment you make the Sim darker, you begin to see all the imperfections and all the issues.

There’s a big issue with clothing. You would, like, up the sliders to make the Sim more curvaceous, clothes wouldn’t fit. Because the people who create the clothes, they were not creating it with curvier body types in mind. It was just, “I made this for the default skinny body type.” Same thing with hair.

So as a consumer, if you create third-party content, not just for Sims, but for any other game, please be sure to test it on all skin tones, all body types.

I’m always hearing about how the Melanin Pack—by itself—has kept people playing the game. And honestly, me included. Because I was tired of not being able to accurately tell stories and have that representation. And that was why I felt like I had to hop in Photoshop and kind of figure it out.

Video games do play a huge factor in inherent biases and how we are perceived in the world. One of my favorite things to say is that gaming is a form of media that we consume, the same way movies are, the same way music is, the same way the books that we read and the magazines that we pick up shape our perception of the world around us. Games fall under that. And how people are represented within gaming, it does spill out into the real world and how people are treated in their day to day.

I feel like things like colorism and the lack of access to adequate skin tones in games drives a lot of people to create characters that don’t accurately represent them. So they start to value themselves less and feel like maybe that they’re less attractive. And they tend to lean towards features and skin tones that are different from theirs.

Even with all the discussion that I have about the Melanin Pack, that’s a big thing I notice. People almost never make darker characters—even when they are darker. And even when in some scenarios, the character is supposed to reflect them.

A big issue that I’ve encountered a lot in the Sims community, which is what led me to create the Melanin Pack and also create the Black Simmer, which is a forum and a space for Simmers of color. Because as a Black person who played The Sims we dealt with a lot of racism, lot of microaggressions, lot of nasty comments online. It would be comments like, “Oh, her nose is too big or her butt is too big.” And it’s like, there’s people in real life that look exactly like this Sim, right? So I created that space so people can have peace from that.

I’ve created multiple different communities from gaming and it’s definitely something that I constantly encourage my peers to do. Just finding that space and community, finding those people to kind of sit down and have fun with and not have to deal with how volatile and how just ruthless the Internet and the gaming space can be sometimes.

For years, I was the only person in my friend circle that played video games until now as an adult. Being a content creator and a gamer as a Black woman can be very lonely. So, the Noir Network is a content-creation space I created for Black women and femmes in gaming to share knowledge and have someone to lean on, someone to talk to, to reach out to, to ask for advice on how to step into content creation on a professional level. This is something that was definitely very much needed.

My wisdom tidbits is a quote that my mom loves to hit me with, which is: Be the change that you wanna see. Don’t be afraid to hold these developers accountable and ask questions. Because there’s no reason why I went through 60—60 web pages—of years and years of skin tone content, and still couldn't find anything.

But me holding the developers accountable and having these discussions and doing interviews was what led to the Sims team actually seeing what I was saying and eventually releasing an update with a hundred-plus skin tones with different undertones. If you want to, go be a game developer. You don’t have to see someone that looks like you doing these things either. Just go do it.

Better representation is needed for so many different groups of people. I’ve been gaming for over 20 years, and it’s high time that more demographics are being thought of when these games are being created. It’s time for gaming companies, gaming developers, to evolve. We need variety. We need spice. We need change. We need something different.

Amira Virgil is a Brooklyn-based gamer, streamer, content creator, and community manager.

This episode was produced by Arlette Hernandez and Joan Horn, with original music by Emma Jackson and sound design by Brandi Howell.

MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies.