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Fitness Skill of 0:
Female Body Generation in The Sims 3

The tagline for the 2000 release of The Sims promises a “People Simulator.” A micro-scale counterpart to Maxis’s SimCity, players manage the lives of “sims” - or “people.” By the time The Sims 3 released in 2009 a slew of technological possibilities were open for the “people simulator,” with players able to adjust minute physical attributes or combine personality traits in fascinating ways. But the purported simulation of “people” becomes questionable when the limits of that simulation are drawn into focus. If The Sims simulates people, what category do those who are unable to be generated in the system fall into?

Analyzing the procedural limitations of The Sims 3 is valuable because the game is meant to closely replicate “real” human life, including in the sculpting of a sim’s body. Rather than reflect cartoonish exaggerations of bodies found in avatar creation in World of Warcraft or Nintendo’s abstracted Miis, a simulation like The Sims 3 should generate “actual” human bodies. The Sims 3 expresses its values in the spaces where it fails to reflect these realities of the body. One facet of this applies to female sims’ potential sizes and shapes. These bodies in The Sims 3 are procedurally constrained around hegemonic ideals of feminine beauty via the character creation sliders and sheer lack of choices in regards to body types. Fans can use mods to subvert these ideals, although the mods still function within the context of the overarching system.

That overarching system is centered around Western, particularly American, ideals of beauty. Despite the reputation for hypersexualization, a content analysis of the female body in video games found that “females in video games had significantly larger heads, but smaller chest sizes, waists, and hips than the average American woman” (Martin 831). Norms of beauty are quite plastic, differing between genders, races, and ages, but the spectrum of the female form in The Sims 3 centers on this idealization of a sylvette figure associated with white femininity. (Overstreet 92) When the base game of The Sims 3 is meant to evoke the image of American suburbia - the video game equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting, with little families occupying picturesque houses in a quaint town - it should follow that the physical forms of the sims derive from a similar cultural model. (Fernández-Vara) In this context, a particular range of thinness or general body size is evidenced in The Sims 3’s character creation sliders by the aforementioned idealized size being the average around which the sliders expand.

In Create-A-Sim (CAS) sliders alter some of the most detailed aspects of a sim’s body, from nose size to neck thickness. There are two categories of sliders: overall sliders that control a sim’s entire body proportions (Fig. 1) and specific sliders that control individual areas of the body without any relation to other parts. The latter category is limited to facial sliders; the former category is occupied by four sliders for females sims: one for horizontal body size, one for fitness, one for muscle definition, and one for breast size. The body sliders do not control body structure, instead simply increase the body mesh’s surface area (or in the case of muscle definition, it alters the skin texture). These CAS sliders are not just the tools a player uses to create individual sims, but they also form the system by which The Sims 3 generates new sims as they are “born.”

Fig. 1 The Sims 3 Body Sliders

While the sliders seem apolitical, merely a mechanic by which players generate their simulation, “the video game avatar body becomes a metaphor through which we engage with the rules that are imposed on our own material selves... Like real world regulatory systems, the interface often naturalises the ideological framework” (Beattie 367). The sheer lack of sliders to change sizes and shapes severely restricts the number of female bodies that can be generated. Those that can be generated are limited - there is simply only so far the slider can go. For example, the overall body size sliders reach a limit that mostly only increase the size of the stomach; the line where the largest possible body size is drawn cannot be considered “obese” in any American cultural mindset.This is not a manifestation of intentional procedural rhetoric, rather one created by outlying factors, but it still creates a system of values. As Beattie says in reference to avatar creation:

Avatars are both constituted and constrained by the code that defines them. The code conforms to the limits set by designers, but those designers are also constrained by the context in which they develop code, especially by limitations on development cost. Developing code for avatars is extremely expensive and becomes more so as avatars become more detailed and players expect more realistic behavior and appearance. More options increase code development costs exponentially. (363)

Certainly The Sims is beholden to processing power and development cost so that the complete simulation of something so vast and nuanced as the human body is difficult to fully explore, but the bodies that are in present in The Sims reveals privileging of thiness. Someone has to make a decision as to where to limit body size; someone has to decide that a chunk of the American population cannot be generated in The Sims. Despite giving players the opportunities to create non-thin bodies, the adherence to realism leads The Sims 3 to favor thin bodies by making them the crux around which all other bodies are created. (Martin 829)

However, these values are not truly conveyed through gameplay. There are few in-game consequences for fatness. Unlike a game such as Fable where morality and sexual desirability are directly linked to body size, The Sims remains fairly neutral. (Beattie 358) Being fat has no sway over a potential partner’s attraction to a sim or present any other social barriers. The closest procedural value judgement is in the in-game system of weight loss and gain as both are inextricably tied with exercising and eating. There is a simple feedback system: eating more increases weight, working out decreases weight. While a sim can become fat from overeating, fatness can also be a genetic trait (determined by the player’s choice of CAS sliders or through passing down fat “genes” from parent sims). In such a case, the sim regains weight faster than other sims, an almost nuanced expression of fatness as more than just the result of some sort of decadent lifestyle.

Ultimately, the CAS sliders express values about the body. Rather than make an absolute moral judgement, The Sims 3 functions under a system that centers on American cultural norms of thinness as crucial to physical desirability. Pace succinctly explains that,
While the presence of these transferred embedded values may not be intentional, the values are inherently not neutral and should be addressed. Current avatar creation interfaces force users to conform to the embedded values chosen by the small, privileged, and elite group of players and designers responsible for the creation of these virtual worlds. (205)

Perhaps in a small way, mods created within the many Sims communities online can subvert these values. The players capable of creating mods can still be classified within the category of an elite since they have both the time and the means to alter meshes, animations, and user interface. However, the mods themselves are still subversions of norms, increasing the depth of body creativity.

Several Sims 3 mods exist to expand upon the CAS sliders and alter sim body structure, going into even deeper minutia than the base game. Two mods offers more specific control over body parts size for female sims, including breast, stomach and thigh sizes. (Fig. 2) Another mod allows players to rotate a sim’s pelvis, altering the underlying body structure. (Fig. 3) These mods are subversive in that they not only expand the potential for players to express bodies that deviate from white American norms or possibly express idealized bodies from other cultural contexts, but also force the game to use the newly expanded body sliders in its generation of new sims simply because the mods have been installed. A sim born after the installation of the stomach slider mod could be procedurally generated with a huge stomach and by passing on their genes, their children may also have the modded stomach size.

Fig. 2 Adjustable Female Breast Sliders Mod

Fig. 3 Body Shape Sliders Mod

Ultimately, though, these mods still operate within the values expressed in The Sims 3 base game. They are alien bits of texture and meshes that occupy spaces which are sometimes jarringly foreign, particularly when an unmodded sim encounters one fleshed in the trappings of mods. Even if a sim’s simulation can be altered, there is a sense of what “belongs” to the aesthetic of The Sims and what does not in the overarching system.

There are also a number of other situations in which The Sims expresses American cultural beauty norms. For example, facial sliders tend to be more detailed than the body sliders, but may be equally centered on constructions of beauty around white-associated facial features. Male sim bodies are framed by the idealized “triangle” shape of a male body in which broad shoulders taper into slim hips. What’s more, The Sims 3 is firmly seuxally dimorphic, with two distinct sexes of sims having separate sets of sliders and physical choices for primary and secondary sex characteristics. Much like body slider mods, some mods exist to expand the facial sliders and reduce sexual dimorphism by including incorporating male pregnancy, but these cannot fully surmount the underlying systems of The Sims 3.

It is the complete exclusion of disabled sims that is an especially telling expression of body norms and deserves more exploration. There are no sims in wheelchairs, no sims without four limbs, no blind sims, no deaf sims, not even a sim with a temporarily broken arm. If asked, a designer for The Sims 3 would most likely sincerely deny that physically disabled sims shouldn’t be present in the game. Instead, they would offer an explanation similar to Beattie’s: that there are are too many potential permutations of the body in this regard to be thorough enough within their financial and developmental constraints. (Beattie 363) This is yet another expression of values about who is a “person” in this supposedly “people simulation.”


Works Cited

Beattie, Scott. Fatness and Fable: Regulating the Interactive Body in Video Games. 1 Vol. , 2011. Print.
"Body Shape Sliders." Mod the Sims, 6 Jan. 2014. Web.
“Create-a-Sim: Adjustable Female Breast Sliders." Mod the Sims, 9 July 2010. Web.
Fernández-Vara, Clara. “Performance in Video Games.” Game Studies I. New York. 6 November 2014. Lecture.
MARTINS, Nicole [b1] (analytic), et al. "A Content Analysis of Female Body Imagery in Video Games (English)." Sex roles 61.11-12 (2009): 824-36. Print.
Overstreet, Nicole M., Diane M. Quinn, and V. B. Agocha. "Beyond Thinness: The Influence of a Curvaceous Body Ideal on Body Dissatisfaction in Black and White Women." Sex Roles 63.1 (2010): 91-103. Print.
Pace, Tyler, Aaron Houssian, and Victoria McArthur. "Are Socially Exclusive Values Embedded in the Avatar Creation Interfaces of MMORPGs?" Journal of Information, Communication & Ethics in Society 7.2 (2009): 192. Print.

Games Cited
Maxis Software. (2009). The Sims 3. [Windows], Electronic Arts, U.S.A.