Since its inception nearly 25 years ago, The Sims franchise has consistently been one of the most progressive in games. The first entry in the series, The Sims, was among the first video games to ever present same-sex relationships–particularly in a way in which players would play an active role within them. In recent years, The Sims 4 has repeatedly made headlines for its free updates which have included robust gender customization, a greater variety of skin tones, and most recently, the ability to give your sims fully customizable pronouns. However, just as important as large-scale, progressive updates, is a company’s dedication to ensuring authenticity in every aspect of the game.
In The Sims 4’s latest expansion, Horse Ranch, Native American and Indigenous cultures served as the inspiration for many of the game’s new recipes, clothing styles, and housing options. But rather than simply grasp at the patterns, ingredients, and history of these diverse communities, Maxis sought to do its due diligence, and reached out to Indigenous screenwriter, novelist, and sensitivity reader Stacey Parshall Jensen. GameSpot recently had the chance to speak with Jensen about her work on the expansion, her voyage into the games industry, and some of the misconceptions about sensitivity work.
GameSpot: I would love to hear a bit about how you met The Sims 4 team. What was that experience like? What was the process of talking to them and working on the expansion?
Jensen: First of all, I just want to say it was a really wonderful experience. I had the most fun, really. They’re an amazing group of people. But how it worked is I was under contract as a sensitivity reader for Electronic Arts for a bit and had been doing [work on] some other games as needed. Then Brian [Schubert, lead animator at Electronic Arts] came to me and was like, “Okay, they’d like to bring you on for this specific project, this is what it looks like, and you would be needed to review any of the elements that are Indigenous themed.”
And they were starting from the point of development–still figuring out the story, basically who are the characters, where are they going to live, and what does that look like. It was really exciting because in addition to the sensitivity reading and the cultural consulting work that I do, I am a storyteller. I’m a writer. I have [a Master of Fine Arts degree] in creative writing and an MFA in screenwriting, so I know story. So it was very cool.
Honestly, I didn’t think that there would be a place for my work in the gaming industry. I had never thought that far until I saw there was a post on Twitter. But Electronic Arts was looking and I had to stop thinking about it. I was just like, “Oh, yeah, they’re telling stories. Of course. And good for them that they were saying, ‘It’s time we make some changes and we want to do better and be more inclusive.'” So part of this was new for me, and the other part felt very much in my wheelhouse because we’re talking about story.
The people that I met [at EA] were just amazing. To have a group of people say, “Okay, this is what we want to do, but we want to do it in the most respectful way we possibly can.” And it was right down to teeny tiny details–the designs for the furniture, patterns and stuff. That was really great, being with a group of people who are so curious and then also so dedicated to being respectful and authentic.
So was this your first instance of doing this sensitivity work on a video game?
Jensen: Yes. I had done some sensitivity work with graphic novels, playbooks, and guides for video games, but as for the actual part of reviewing as it is developed, this was the first time.
I wanted to talk to you a bit more about the expansion itself. So how did your Indigenous heritage influence the expansion? What parts of it can you point to and say, “I did that,” or “I see my past in that?”
Jensen: Actually, there’s a lot of places, which is really wonderful. But first, there had to be a discussion about what region the Indigenous people in the game were representing, because we know there’s, what is it, 500 and some different tribes? And we’re all very different. So we had to break it down to an area.
I have a true love for the Southwest. I’m one of those people who “fell in love with the enchanted sky,” like they say. But I also wanted to find ways [to incorporate other cultures] in the most generalized, yet respectful, way. Because we didn’t want to pick just one. But we did want something that fit a particular area, so one of the first things I was able to do was really influence where we were choosing as far as a region goes.
We then specifically began looking at the clothes and the designs for the clothes–who would wear what when and what that would look like. And that included the research of making sure I’m getting it correct for that area. But then also just what I know, being Indigenous and being part of an Indigenous community. I know what works and doesn’t work, and about the range of care, hairdos, and skin color–not everybody is one colored tan. There’s a wide range of [everything]. So we were able to talk about that and put that in.
Something that I think that’s really unique is the time that we spent talking about the cooking–about the three sisters stew, or fry bread. And one of the things that I found really unique, because I’m also learning about the game and how the game is set up, is that for the fry bread, there’s no way that sims can take a fork and turn it over. You can fix fry bread and put it in the pan and stuff, but there’s [only one] way in the game to flip it. And my comment was like, “Oh you don’t make fry bread that way. That’d be extremely dangerous to take a pan of fry bread and try to just flip it.”
So we had a talk about, “Oh, so what does that bread look like? How can we make it work? Does it work this way? How would that fit on the plate?” I mean, it was amazing to have those kinds of little details and those kinds of discussions around fry bread. So many of us [have our own versions and stories around it]. I have my grandmother’s recipe, which I passed down to my daughter and to my niece and her kids. Fry bread is a really big deal. It means a lot to us. And so it was really great to see them include that–something that’s so unique to Indigenous culture–and do it as correctly as they can, as authentically as they can.
Were there any specific storylines that were meaningful to you? That you maybe saw parts of yourself in, or that you really kind of wanted to get in the game?
Jensen: Not specifically. I didn’t necessarily see my history, as my history is very different and I grew up here in Minnesota. I didn’t grow up on the reservation. My mother took us kids away from there. But I have this true love and honor for horses and a connection to them. And so the idea of creating this ranch [with] multiple generations–seeing the old rancher with the gray hair and the boots and the blue jeans and knowing the influence that they would have on this ranch with the young kids–that, I feel, is really beautiful. And it’s something that I believe is really important in almost all Indigenous communities that I know of. The way we treat our elders, how we connect with the members of our family, and definitely the intergenerational part of it, [is something] we hold so highly. So seeing that in the storylines–which is something that I didn’t introduce, the team brought that up themselves–was great.
I know you said that you’re newer as far as consulting in the video games industry, so I’m curious what made this experience unique for you? What makes you want to continue doing this work?
Jensen: The biggest thing is when I think about how many people are going to be touched by it. This is a huge opportunity to reach millions of people about Indigenous culture. It seems like the more work I do, the more I learn how little a lot of people know about Indigenous people. Whether they have some romantic idea, they think we’re gone, or they have some idea that all life looks like this because of that one bad movie they saw or something, they may not be aware of the beauty in the family and the beauty in the culture. [They might not know how our] houses look and where we would live. They may be missing all of that. So here’s an opportunity in someplace that they might [not expect]. Where that [knowledge] is not something that they’re purposely looking for. They don’t go out to research for themselves, “What do Indigenous communities look like in the Southwest?” They may not be doing that, but with this game, they’re going to get all of this stuff and it’s authentic. It’s respectful, it’s beautiful, and it’s genuine. And so when I stopped and thought about how many people we can reach, that made it very exciting. I’ve never been part of something that reached that many people.
And for me, I feel like this is a service that I do. This is my teeny tiny way of being part of this massive push for inclusivity, [strengthening] race relations, and learning more about Indigenous people and about people of color–[to] create worlds that are based on the world we actually live in. This is my small part of it, with my sensitivity work and the diversity work that I do. So it was just a huge opportunity to know that there’s going to be that many people that are going to learn something and in a really enjoyable way. In a way where they don’t realize they’re learning it, but they are. They’re just like, “I’m creating this world. This is cool.” But you’re also understanding a bit more. That’s really important.
Was there anything else that you wanted to add or any other thoughts that you had about the expansion or your work on it?
Jensen: No, just the fact that–and this is reiteration, that it was a really wonderful experience. And hopefully other games will see opportunities in their storytelling to be more inclusive and to be respectful. Because like I said, a lot of people don’t really understand what sensitivity readers do, and for me, it’s an opportunity to learn. I work in a way where I never say, “You have to change this and you have to do this, and you do that.” It’s not censorship. It’s not stepping on someone’s creativity. My goal is to help someone tell a better story.
This was a story that The Sims 4 team wanted to create. And so my job was, “How do I help you elevate that to get to something better? [How do I] get to what represents this vision you have in your head in the best possible way so you can tell the story in the most creative and fun way?”
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