Deep down, Rayvon Owen already knew he was gay when a classmate introduced him to the Sims back in 2003, when they were in sixth grade in Richmond, Va.
“I grew up in a very conservative, religious home; my mom was super strict and over my shoulder a lot, and when I started playing the Sims I would show her this happy typical family with a white picket fence,” he said in an interview last week. “And she was like: ‘Oh good, I like this game. You get a job, you manage money, get a wife and kids.’”
Owen laughed. One of the most popular games in the world, the Sims has for two decades provided young people a virtual social sandbox to explore the joys, terrors and mysteries of adult life for the first time. While puerile toxicity does characterize some precincts of gaming, the Sims has long been at the vanguard of mainstream entertainment inclusion simply by giving players choices.
“So I had one neighborhood in the game for when my mom was watching,’’ Owen continued. “But little did she know that then I had my real neighborhood where I was married to a guy and living in a home with a man — or several men — and doing all these promiscuous things that were totally unthinkable in the real world I was living in, growing up in the church and all that.”
Owen, 29, a singer now living in Los Angeles, did not discuss his sexuality publicly until 2016, after appearing as a finalist on “American Idol.” This week he is scheduled to debut as the host of a different reality television competition: “The Sims Spark’d,” a new show based on the game, which arrives Friday on TBS. New installments of the four-episode season will premiere on Fridays at 11 p.m. as part of Turner’s ELeague brand and will arrive on Buzzfeed’s Multiplayer YouTube channel the following Mondays.
While competitive e-sports have long been broadcast around the globe, “Spark’d” is poised to become the first mainstream reality show based on an electronic game. And as a reality show, it hews closely to the tried-and-true formula popularized by hits like “Project Runway,” with 12 contestants competing in various in-game challenges — “Design two rival families from different neighborhoods,” for example — while vying to win $100,000.
For contestants — 10 women, two men — the series draws mainly from Sims content creators with significant followings on YouTube and Twitch. While there are some relatively minor conflicts, “Spark’d” is not heavy on interpersonal drama. The cameras don’t follow the contestants back to their hotel and the overall vibe of the show is wholesome rather than salacious.
Instead, the show focuses on allowing the contestants to tell stories in the game that reflect their own lives and experiences. Issues of gender, sexuality, race and class figure heavily.
In that sense, the true narrative emerges from the personal meaning the game seems to hold for both contestants and judges, almost all in their 20s.
“The theme of the show and the game is you come as you are and play however represents you,’’ said Tayla Parx, 26, a singer and songwriter who is one of the judges. “For me as a bisexual Black woman, I always found the game really valuable.
“Being able to play with family dynamics and sexual dynamics, it’s made to explore the boundaries of you in a way that’s really beautiful. The worst that can happen is you rebuild again if you don’t like it.”
Will Wright, already an acclaimed game designer as the creator of the popular and influential SimCity, first conceived the Sims after his family lost its home to fires in Oakland, Calif., in 1991. In its planning stage, the project was called simply “Dollhouse.” In the years since the first version of the game was released, in 2000, the basic premise has remained the same: Give players the ability to create some fantasy rendition of real family life. Players create various characters, known as Sims, and homes and then direct them as they desire.
“It’s all about, how do we make the game reflect the world we live in?’’ said Lyndsay Pearson, the general manager of the Sims for the video game company that publishes it, Electronic Arts. “The world we live in changes and the stories our players want to tell change and we embrace that. For the show, that’s really what we want to come through.”
The game series has allowed players to pursue same-sex relationships since its inception, but did not allow all couples to marry until the Sims 3 was released in 2009. Four years ago, Electronic Arts updated the game in its latest version, the Sims 4, to include more flexible gender customization options. In addition to letting players create digital characters with independent gender options for clothing preference and physical frame, the game now allows players to choose whether a particular Sim can become pregnant, can impregnate other Sims or neither, regardless of gender. The game also lets players decide whether a particular Sim, regardless of gender, can use the bathroom standing up.
Within the game, individual computer-controlled characters interact with one another without regard to gender or racial appearance until they are prompted by a human player.
“I was in early middle school when I first played, and now I’m in my late 20s, and here we are on TV,’’ said Kelsey Impicciche, a judge on “Spark’d,” best known to Sims fans for her Buzzfeed YouTube series on the game’s unofficial 100 Baby Challenge. (The challenge relies on extremes of fertility possible only in a video game.) “Over the years, the core of the game has stayed the same, but the big difference is that the community itself is more diverse and the Sims are more inclusive.”
The game series has sold more than 200 million copies and more than 10 million people play every month, according to Electronic Arts. About two-thirds of players are girls and women between 13 and 30, the company said. Craig Barry, the chief content officer for Turner Sports, said the show was a good fit for TBS’s ELeague Friday night programming window as the network tries to expand its coverage of gaming culture beyond hard-core e-sports.
While a reality show based on the virtual world of a computer game might seem tailor-made for the quarantine era, Electronic Arts developed and filmed the series last year at the company’s Bay Area headquarters.
In early 2019, multiple teams at the company coalesced around the concept of creating a structured contest based on the Sims in an effort to both energize existing players and recruit new ones. The company settled on a traditional reality competition format after enlisting established reality producers, including Allison Tom and Richard Hall (“The Amazing Race,” “Ex on the Beach”) — each now an executive producer on “Spark’d.” While the Buzzfeed online distribution deal seemed clear once Impicciche signed on as a judge last year, the television deal with Turner didn’t come together until early June, Pearson said.
Electronic Arts executives said that the TBS slot was meant to showcase the Sims for nonplayers and hard-core gamers while the Buzzfeed YouTube window is aimed at the game’s core audience of young women and adolescent girls. Many designers and experts believe that women gravitate to simulation games like the Sims because the sense of control players have over their virtual worlds may provide respite from the challenges women often face in a male-dominated society.
Jeanette Wall, a 28-year-old music executive in Brooklyn who identifies as queer, began playing the Sims when she was in elementary school in Oklahoma. She said it is the only electronic game she still plays regularly and that her latest project in the game is a “lesbian commune.”
“I didn’t have any dolls to play with, and the Sims was this total digital dollhouse for me, and I guess it still is,’’ she said. “The elements of control over the environment are so important — especially for queer people and women — because at various points you feel like your life is so totally out of your control, especially right now when the world we live in is in shambles.”
“Hearing about the show,” she added, “it’s like you didn’t really realize how many people were playing the game all this time for the exact same reasons you were.”
Owen, the host, welled with tears as he discussed the program.
“Honestly, the game was always a therapeutic experience,” he said. “The show is fun and it’s exciting to host, but there is a deeper meaning that relates to this whole journey of coming out and getting into a place of self-acceptance, not just for me but for a lot of people.”