I’m a ridiculously wealthy, married lesbian scientist who owns a three-storey home and who can make a Baked Alaska for 35 guests in 20 minutes. I’m a talented Renaissance woman and every morning, I have an affair with the woman who delivers my mail.

Except I’m not. Because I’m a socially awkward ‘straight’ ‘girl’ in grade 5 with anxiety, zero baking skills, and I’m getting my absolute ass kicked by early puberty.

I started playing The Sims in 2003. I was obsessed, and I wasn’t the only one: the franchise has sold nearly 200 million copies to date. Players could design mansions, make babies, use “MOTHERLODE” to instantly make bank or take the ladder out of the pool so their Sims would drown.

Ladder removers all grew up to be emotionally unavailable daters, change my mind on this.

My first Sim was a tomboy teen, April. She wore a white singlet with a plaid tie over the top, baggy jeans and a baseball cap over long hair. Yes, I had subconsciously recreated virtual Avril Lavigne.

It’s moments like this I’m really surprised nobody told me I would grow up to be very gay.

Where school was giving me panic attacks, April was a social straight-A student. Where playing guitar would get so overwhelming I’d have to sit down and count to ten, April killed it. One day, April brought a friend Jemima home. Among the options to interact was “Flirt… Sweet Talk”. My heart raced and I nervously looked over my shoulder.

How Playing ‘The Sims’ Helped Me Realise I’m Trans

I clicked it and as April ‘seductively’ (not really) leaned in, tiny hearts appeared around them. And that was it. The game didn’t shut down, you weren’t screamed at by anyone, April didn’t burst into tears from guilt – queerness just existed as normally as heterosexuality did. In this world, queerness was a valid and safe option.

Despite several tell-tale signs I was queer – mainly being obsessed with t.A.t.U’s lesbian school girl erotica All The Things She Said video clip – I internalised the messages around me that it was wrong. The Sims became my virtual safe space – I could freely and safely explore my sexuality. I could ‘Woohoo’ whoever I wanted in my tacky love bed (essentially a regular bed, but a giant leopard skin love heart). We were at least 10 years off marriage equality, and my Sims were married gays with babies who would magically appear in floral arrangements. This gave me a really confusing education about lesbian sex, but I loved every second of my virtual queer life.

By the time I was playing Sims 3 in 2010, I realised I was relating more and more to my boy Sims. I thought I was creating the dreamy boys I wanted to date, but in hindsight, I was creating the dream boys I wanted to be. Playing as a boy felt exciting and validating.

How Playing ‘The Sims’ Helped Me Realise I’m Trans

Author and public speaker Nevo Zisin had a similar experience. “I think being able to design and create a male Sim and to kind of vicariously live through him gave me the freedom and opportunity to experience some kind of gender euphoria at a really young age,” they told me.

My boy Sims felt like an extension of me. I could choose a career, have romance and enjoy life – but as a boy. In other games I was playing, my gender options were “hot buff guy” and “hot skinny girl”, so the variety of gender expressions I could play with opened up a world of options I didn’t know were available to me. Playing girl and boy Sims whenever I chose felt like the freedom I was looking for IRL.

The Sims acted as a sort of gateway to gender exploration in other ways. I created a male Habbo Hotel character to interact with a virtual community of ~actual humans~ (sorry if you’re reading this and I catfished you in 2010). In real life, I began dressing more masculine and pulling all of my hair back behind the closed door of my bedroom and picturing myself being a famous heartthrob boy band member.

Those thoughts fell to the wayside until 2015, when through volunteering in LGBTIQA+ spaces, I met a tonne of trans and non-binary folks. The more I looked into what genderqueer and non- binary identities looked like, the more my heart grew. Tonnes of research and self-exploration led to Meredith Music Festival in 2016, when I came out as non-binary.

Exploring your gender through video games is a common experience for a lot of trans folks. A virtual space to try different gender expressions at the click of a button, especially when it might not feel safe to do that in the real world.

Ivy, a transgirl in Naarm, had this experience playing a Barbie Underwater Adventures PC game. “I remember playing this game whenever I could, because it gave me such gender euphoria as a 3 and 4 year old,” she told me. After dreams about being Scuba Barbie, Ivy remembers “feeling sad I wasn’t actually Barbie, or now looking back with more foresight, not allowed to have my gender recognised as a girl at the time.”

Visual artist Ashika found that exploring the dyke-ist options in Tony Hawk Underground 2 was key in unlocking their non-binary identity. School teacher Kay told me that their equivalent was Runescape. “I chose a male character and was essentially able to assemble my fantasy version of myself.”

How Playing ‘The Sims’ Helped Me Realise I’m Trans

Sims has paved the way for LGBTIQA+ inclusion since 1998, when a queer game developer coded same-sex relationships back into the game’s formula after it was deleted. Sims 4 upped the ante with pride flags, gender neutral bathrooms, rainbow outfits, and an updated Make-A-Sim.

Although you still have to choose a binary gender, you can choose masculine or feminine expressions, clothing styles and a sliding scale of voice. You can choose if your Sim gets pregnant or impregnates (lol) others, and if they sit down or stand up to use the bathroom.

Mish-mashing these options together, experimenting with clothing and giving my Sim my dream name was such a refreshing and affirming experience. Having complete autonomy over who my Sim is has helped me reflect on who I am, despite it being just a virtual dollhouse.

Even though IRL Dani is a hot mess who can’t paint, is outrageously single, cooks depression meals and would probably respond awfully in a house fire, Frankie is a hot, successful, wealthy queer who has their shit together. Their exploration of gender in a safe world that doesn’t judge or vilify them is sometimes all the respite I need while I’m feeling awful.

Plus thanks to a recent expansion pack, they’re now a sexy vampire who’ll live forever.

Dani Leever is an Australian freelance writer. You can follow them on Twitter here.

Image: EA Games