Amira Virgil, known as Xmiramira on Twitch and YouTube, felt something wasn’t right with The Sims 4. Virgil, a content creator and video game streamer, is also a storyteller. Her YouTube page is filled with playlists of soap-opera style Sims 4 Let’s Plays in which she crafts narratives to accompany the actions of her characters in the game. She’s like a showrunner, acting as producer, director, script writer, and, ultimately, God, controlling her characters as they move through a world she created using The Sims 4 and its elaborate library of expansion packs. But something just wasn’t right about the characters she was creating. Something was off.
It was the skin.
“There’s like this gray, ashy-like undertone, and looking at it is the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard for me,” Virgil told me over Zoom. “Where’s the undertones? Where is the contrast? Where’s the vibrance?”
There’s a long, rich tradition in gaming communities of modifying a game to add features it doesn’t have. Most times modding introduces some humorous element or small, but impactful quality-of-life change. Black players and players of color have used modding to address when a game fails to account for players who aren’t white. Fed up with the color of her Black characters, Virgil decided to learn how to mod The Sims 4.
The Sims 4 is a life simulation game in which players can build and control their own little world. Players can create characters (known as “sims”), choose their personalities, put them in homes they can customize and decorate, and give them jobs, spouses, and children. There is no objective, no way to “beat” or “win” the game. It is a creation engine equipped with so many options that there’s no limit to the stories a player can craft.
According to Virgil, The Sims 4 has a problem with “ashiness,” wherein a Black sim’s skin appears so washed out or gray that it looks afflicted with dry skin or “ash.” It’s a problem that’s aggrieved Black and brown Sims creators (known as Simmers) for a long time.
“We always like to make jokes about how sims look ashy as hell all the time,” Virgil said.
The Sims 4 has a reputation for being a game that allows players to express their most authentic selves whoever they are and wherever they’re from. It was one of the first games to feature homosexual relationships and more recent updates focus on everything from inclusive pronouns to adding items from cultures all over the world. Though likely unintentional, Virgil thought the way dark skin was represented in The Sims 4 didn’t live up to the game’s ethos. It had to be changed.
“I got tired of not being able to create the type of content that I wanted to create in The Sims 4,” she said. She wanted to create characters that “fit what I know people look like in real life.”
The Sims 4 boasts an expansive modding community dedicated to creating and sharing mods for just about anything a player would want in a life simulation game. Daunted by the prospect of needing to learn a programming language to mod the game, Virgil was pleased to learn the modding community had already created tools that would make her project a simpler one.
“I would use Photoshop to edit the skin tones, edit the files, and then use the programs that the community made to export and test.”
With the help of a Sims 4 modding program called The Skininator, Virgil created a pair of mods called the Melanin Pack 1 and 2, which feature over 50 different skin tones players can download and use to create Black and brown characters free of the scourge of ashiness.
Ashiness is a cardinal sin in the Black community. We pride ourselves in the vibrancy, variety, and richness of our skin, an emotion born in defiance of white supremacy’s ceaseless efforts to shame Black and dark skin. More than the physical condition of dry skin, ashiness has a deep cultural significance for Black people. When we want to insult someone, we call them ashy. When we want an expression of joy or health, we make references to being moisturized.
Virgil didn’t stop with her skin color mods. Makeup is another pet peeve of hers and The Sims 4 makeup options also left a lot to be desired.
“A lot of the makeup wasn’t made for darker skin tones in mind,” she said. “So for the skin tones that I made, I would create makeup [that went with them.]”
Virgil’s desire to mod The Sims 4 so that it better reflected Black culture and community spiraled out from skin and makeup to clothes and art. She’s particularly proud of a poster mod she made that features artwork from her favorite Black artists.
“I’d highlight them, put [their artwork] in the game, then they got like traction on their stuff,” she said. “It was like an exchange.” The mod became so popular it drew the attention of The Sims 4 developers, causing them to look at the art options they were offering.
“EA actually overhauled their base game with more inclusive art. Now there’s Black folks in the art, there’s people of color in the art. There’s queer couples in the art.”
The problem of video games poorly representing Black skin goes beyond The Sims 4. “It’s damn near everything,” Virgil said.
You cannot have a dark-skinned character in BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins. The game’s character creator does not offer skin tones darker than a paper lunch bag, unwittingly creating a video game version of the racist test in which a Black person’s “acceptability” or “desirability” was determined by how light or dark their skin was in relation to a paper bag. What’s worse is that the darkest skin option the game does offer results in a character that looks like a blotchy, ashen-looking mess who has never known the sweet touch of a moisturizer.
Even recent titles suffer from the same skin problem. Babylon’s Fall gained attention for being extraordinarily bad and for having a character creator with dark skin options that aren’t really that dark at all. Virgil’s quest to add improved skin tones to The Sims 4 meant more than correcting unappealing or unflattering colors, it was a matter of cultural significance — a small, personal way to rectify a mistake gaming continues to make regarding Black players.
“My mom always taught me ‘Be the change you want to see,’” she said. “So that’s what I do.”