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Bella Goth has her hair down and is looking at me, specifically. In a party full of Sims, where the only thing that stands out is a smelly baby crying in an abandoned bassinet, Bella makes her way towards the punch table bought exclusively using stolen Rosebud simoleons.
She throws her hair over her shoulder in a 2002 slow-motion computer graphics twirl and zeroes in on the Sim created for the occasion: Nikki Jones, a bourgeois aristocrat with a black strappy dress and brunette updo. As the two bond, green plus-signs stack overhead. Hunched over my screen with perfect 10-year-old posture, my eyes widen as I see two pixelated mouths melt into each other.
Bella Goth: the origin story
Dressed in a red dress, black tights, and a chunky silver necklace, Bella evolved over time, a pixelation fleshed out over 20 years into a now-certified bombshell. Before winning Bella over in four different iterations of the game, she was married to Mortimer Goth, their offspring Cassandra frumpy and unimportant.
Unlike my Barbie Dolls in the basement, who I’d have to untangle before my parents realized I had two girls (two girls!) kissing, The Sims provided an oasis away from reality. In the game, no one knew who I was. I traversed around my Villa with money I didn’t earn inviting neighborhood women over to flirt with me when my husband wasn’t home. As relationships unfolded on the side, I was careful to hide reality from fantasy. I’d position my husband and lover in different rooms so there was never conflict, and if one found out about the other, well then I’d just drown them in my backyard.
We never moved past flirting, but the act hung heavy in my soul, a looming dread that my parents would somehow figure out how to load my saved game. I was never sure how they’d react but I knew it wouldn’t be great, given how Catholic teaching inveighed against the sort of sin happening inside our shared Dell desktop. I carried my family through iterations of the games, convinced my heterosexual lineage would survive any tribulation. I didn’t realize how bored I would grow of my elementary/middle school crush Grant Dostal until the graphics in The Sims matured alongside myself.
Grant Dostal: The Sims husband reject
Grant was my Sims husband, though we never talked in class. I ran after him in the playground, and cornered him to ask if he liked me. Unsurprisingly, when the girl who chases you with rocks as a means of flirting asks whether you like her or not, the answer is usually no.
Embarrassment and heartache reached every corner of my life as I furiously recounted in my journal how fed up I was. I prided myself on being different from the girls, a ‘tomboy’, and could not place how that difference isolated me. I didn’t feel pretty in dresses and didn’t feel noticed by boys, waiting for years to be plucked out of my friend group as pretty instead of weird, a Bella in a sea of Cassandra’s, her goth, recluse daughter.
Back at my Sims manor, I was the queen to an empire, a hoard of Strangetown ladies I had secret affairs with, determined to get the entire town pregnant. I told only my journal, unsure if my friends would stop inviting me to sleepovers when they realized I made my Sim a guy so I could hook up with women. It never occurred to me as anything other than following curiosity, something I’d later psychoanalyze as an adult until my brain went numb. Here, I was desired. Grant didn’t want me in The Sims, so I flew solo in The Sims 2, setting my aspiration to Romance.
I never fit other’s needs until finally, I did.
The Sims 3: pick your own adventure
The Sims 3 introduced traits that enabled players to flesh out Sims to a greater degree than had been possible using the previous system of personality points. I married the Sim iteration of my real-life boyfriend and asked what traits my character would have. I picked charming for him and he picked handy for my female sim, a blonde bombshell emulating the real-life Me – for reasons implied. I texted updates on our family and grew bored with lulled responses, confused by why living out our hypothetical marriage at age 19 was not an exciting prospect.
I forgot about our family and leaned back into Bella, watching me woohoo with a woman for the first time. It wasn’t saucy or exciting – the mod blocks the ability for players to see Sims actually get it on – but it did feel liberating, following through with something I didn’t have the courage to do when I was younger. I went through the motions without my mother breathing down my neck and stepped from The Sims into life, making the rules up as I went.
In real life, I could see green bars stack on top of each other after every vodka soda I split between girls at parties, and increased my chances of kissing them by repeatedly hitting the flirt button over and over. My boyfriend didn’t care that I snagged devious vixen Bella Goth as a freshman in college; he only cared three years later when I snuck out late to meet up with a girl I met as a senior.
Back in Iowa, I sit on the couch scrolling through Hinge as I consider my hair on Build-a-Sim. It’s short in real-life and long in the game, the kind of compulsive heteronormativity I don’t miss, and don’t feel the need to meet nowadays. My parents watch the Masked Singer and I tell my mom “your daughter’s a lesbian” out of nowhere for the millionth time that week just to get a reaction.
Living in the same house as my parents for the unseen future, 2020 came with a layoff, the end of the world, and a ton of free time, no pressure to be anywhere or anything. “Stop saying that word,” she responds, scooping ice cream from a bowl motioning for the remote. I’m combative now, old: the genderqueer kid who can meet their parents at eye level. “Why do you hate that word mom, hmm? Do you hate that I’m gay?” I fight back. “We know you’re gay and we don’t care,” she says flicking her hand back and forth, “now can you please hand me the remote?”
Meggie Gates is a writer and comedian living in Chicago, IL. Their work has appeared in Bitch Media, Chicago Reader, Consequence of Sound, and Reductress. They've had four shows at Second City and just started a substack they'd love for you to subscribe to.