Gabby* was in fourth grade when her friend dropped the bomb. “There's this game called Sims,” the girl said. “You can let people do stuff to each other.”
Thus began a ritual: Gabby would head to her friend’s house after school, and they’d fire up The Sims on the PC in the living room. When her friend’s mom was around, they’d keep it PG. But when she left to run errands, all bets were off. “It was a very forbidden fruit thing,” says Gabby, now 28, referring to WooHoo.
“WooHoo,” for the uninitiated, is The Sims’ word for sex. Generally, the game uses plain English to describe the various things you can make its poorly-rendered, highly gestural characters do: Take Bubble Bath, Greet New Neighbor, Watch TV. But WooHoo, well, that’s too taboo. “I just remember thinking, yeah, that is something that no one should be doing,” Gabby says. She even avoided the topic with other friends at the time. “It wasn't until I got to college, or even now, when everyone's like, ‘Yeah, I definitely made my Sims WooHoo.’ I'm like, ‘Oh, okay. I wasn't a freak.’”
For people — particularly girls — who came of age in the aughts, The Sims offered something unique. It was a living dollhouse, a virtual place where young millennials could live out their fantasies of adulthood. Design a character who looks kind of like you but older and prettier and with bigger boobs, enter the cheat code “motherlode” until you’re flush with Simoleons (Sims money), and you’re off to the races.
“It wasn't until I got to college, or even now, when everyone's like, ‘Yeah, I definitely made my Sims WooHoo.’ I'm like, ‘Oh, okay. I wasn't a freak.’”
Amanda*, 27, recalls she and her friend building an opulent five-story house, which their virtual avatars shared with their families and their boyfriends: Zac Efron and Taylor Lautner. They also made their Sims WooHoo, whether just to see what a couple’s baby looked like, or to watch them in the act. “It's super funny because they're making all these outrageous sounds, speaking Simlish,” Amanda says, referencing the Sims’ delightfully absurd language. “We were super innocent. I think we were just realizing we were having actual crushes on boys.” At the time, Amanda felt a little guilty: Her friend’s family was Catholic, and religious iconography decorated the office where they played. In her young mind, “Jesus was watching over us do that.” (She felt Jesus’ judgment even more when she killed her Sims by, say, having them go swimming and then deleting the pool ladder. Almost everyone I spoke to for this story devised elaborate ways to kill their Sims, but that’s an impulse to be explored at another time.)
Writer Rax King was one of the few bold enough to go on record for this story, because, in her words, “everyone already knows about my horny relationship to The Sims” — one of the essays in her book Tacky, titled “The Sims and the Heart-Shaped Bed,” addresses this topic. Her friend showed her WooHoo when she was 9 or 10, and she remembers it being a useful outlet for her curiosity. “I think at that stage we really weren't talking about sex. I think we knew that it was something not to be discussed, but then The Sims gave us this secondary outlet where it wasn't porn,” King says. “Our parents knew we were playing The Sims. That sort of made it okay, but it was still very obviously sexual.” Many parents were oblivious to WooHoo, despite The Sims’ “T for Teen” rating; “How did we let that happen?!” my own father said on a recent phone call, after I explained the premise of this story.
Some ended up making their Sims have sex before their parents had a chance to give them the talk. Piper Hill, 26, remembers first playing The Sims at friends’ houses, back when he was around 7. “My friend's older sister had the expansion pack where they had the fancy hot tub thing,” he laughs. “I was like, ‘What's going on in there?’” Gabby had a bit more knowledge, but not much. “I thought it was just naked people kissing or naked people sleeping together, and then a baby would happen,” she says. “It wasn't until probably high school where I was like, ‘Wow, why was I doing that to my Sims that many times?’”
All things considered, WooHoo was a pretty tame way for kids to explore their budding sexuality. In the original version of The Sims, released in 2000, “WooHoo” amounts to some cartoonish, discordant vocalizations and what looks like two lumps chasing each other under the covers of the infamous Heart-Shaped Bed: a purple and red monstrosity with a big quilted heart for a headboard. “I thought it was an adult, very sexy bed,” Becca*, now 32, recalls. “It wasn't for sleeping.” The Sims 2, released in 2004, got slightly more explicit. Thanks to its much-improved graphics, the hookup spots proliferated. “I tried to make them WooHoo everywhere,” Gabby says, “and I remember feeling like I unlocked some achievement when I made them WooHoo in the shower.” Even then, though, the game was still very PG-13: Anytime The Sims were naked, their breasts and Barbie-like genitals were obscured. Some in-the-know players figured out how to switch the censoring off, but that was more useful for seeing your Sims in the shower than in bed. “They were still under the covers,” King says. “It didn't help.” (Nowadays, if you’re looking to watch your Sims get nasty, there are ways.)
Setting aside the shame that some young girls felt as they made their Sims WooHoo on repeat, the game is actually a remarkably judgment-free space in retrospect. Not only were same-sex and polyamorous relationships totally kosher, but Sims are only able to have enjoyable, consensual sex: they don’t get STDs, and they can only get pregnant if the player selects the “Try for Baby” option (Sims condoms, apparently, are made of steel).
And though Sims can and do reject one another’s advances at times, it’s always possible to win back their affection. That safety net was a godsend for an adolescent Becca, who’d panic and end the conversation if a boy asked her out on AIM. In The Sims, she could see her avatar at ease with her dream boyfriend. King had a similar experience. “There are people when you're in sixth and seventh grade who are dating and who are making out with each other or sometimes going farther,” King says. “And when you're one of the people who isn't doing those things, you feel left out in a really bad way. That was something that The Sims was good for, allowing me access to this fantasy universe where I wasn't left out of all that stuff. I was the center of it.”
“That was something that The Sims was good for, allowing me access to this fantasy universe where I wasn't left out of all that stuff. I was the center of it.”
There are times in life when it’s particularly useful to access another universe — often, when you’re seeking to explore who you could be. For a prepubescent girl, that might mean imagining yourself as a beautiful woman with a happily ever after. But for Hill, who first got obsessed with the game at 19, it was much later.
At first, he spent his time cultivating chaos: building a mansion that defied the laws of physics, systematically breeding his purple Sims with NPCs (nonplayer characters) until he’d made a “disgustingly large family tree” of purple people. Then something clicked. Something about him, not his Sims, purple or otherwise. “On a whim, I made my character a guy and used he/him pronouns. It was seeing [those pronouns] said so many times, every time I got a promotion or did any life event — that kind of thing was honestly life-changing and what made me realize that I needed to actually come out,” Hill says. “Also, my character would be in relationships with guys and girls and I was figuring out what that meant.” After coming out as trans, Hill would take the natural next step: making a Sims musical about self-creation. It’s still in early stages, but he’s written a couple of the songs.
“The Sims, in the crazy options that it offers, is a really useful tool for creating realities or fantasies or whatever that you want to see,” Hill says. “And then it makes those spaces of possibility seem less impossible, and then you can shape the world that you actually live in to look a little more like the world that you want it to be.” You might not actually end up dating Zac Efron one day, but maybe you’ll land a hot date to the prom. And you’ll definitely get to WooHoo.
*Name has been changed.