On June 30, 2020, Candywriter released a gay pride-themed update for their popular life simulation mobile app, Bitlife; as a longtime fan of the game, I was greatly disappointed. The update was downright offensive, and as of September, the game (which updates quite frequently) remains unchanged.
According to the Apple App Store, the June 30 update added the following (and much more that went unmentioned in the store’s summary):
- “Accessories: introducing hats/headwear and sunglasses! Everyone starts out with a surprise selection!
- Win new accessories by completing live challenges!
- Be born to same-sex parents
- Define your gender identity: cisgender, transgender, non-binary, or genderqueer!
- Gay dating app
- Gender dysphoria
- Surrogacy is a new fertility option for couples of all types! Choose wisely!
- Better support for same-sex parents in generational lives
- New textual content
- Many tweaks and refinements across the game
- A healthy dose of bug fixes”
Most notably, the mechanism for defining your character’s gender identity also provided a framework for changing your character’s pronouns. June 30’s update 1.38 provided an option for they/them pronouns but by July 2, Candywriter recalled the change in update 1.38.1, stating: “Adopting third person plural pronouns to refer to non-binary characters has wreaked havoc on the game’s writing. Rather than spend weeks re-writing these strings, we are going to adopt the singular gender-neutral zie/zir/zirs/zirself in the next update!” When players cited their discomfort with the decision, Candywriter claimed that “it was either [remove plural pronouns] or have messed up grammar across the app,” repeating the age-old adage of transphobes reluctance to use a person’s correct pronouns: bUt GrAmMaR?! Even though singular they pronouns are grammatically correct, it seems like the developers of Bitlife prioritize fixing grammar issues, whether real or imagined, over the comfort of their queer customers.
The developers went on to say that “unfortunately the plural they/them/their changes the verb form and we have literally tens of thousands of strings in the app that would have to be reevaluated and rewritten to make that work.” But if this was the case, why would they even offer this in the update, seemingly without testing? It seems pretty clear that Candywriter was trying to capitalize on Bitlife’s queer fandom without providing us with the content we asked for, or even with simple respect. Fans knew it too, and offered their sympathies, suggesting alternate solutions or simply stating: “I’ll keep the messed up grammar thanks.” Still, Candywriter ignored their calls, tweeting glibly, ”can’t please everyone.” In response to criticism, the development team continued to play defense on Twitter, tweeting at a fan: “You’re gonna call us “transphobic” after the update we just put out?”
However, in the face of Candywriter’s incompetence, I want readers to know that singular they pronouns are not impossible in video games, including life simulators. I would point them to the Gender Less mod for the Sims 4 by developer Fogity. Even without the support of a development team like the one Bitlife has, Fogity created a free mod that simply removes all gendered pronouns from the text of the Sims 4 game. A gender neutral game is not some pie-in-the-sky aspiration; it’s been done before (by a single developer, for free).
Even disregarding Bitlife’s failure to accommodate their nonbinary fans, there are still problematic elements of the game that have yet to be addressed, and fans haven’t hesitated to point them out. After the developers refused to take responsibility, players pointed out that the game has many more transphobic elements than just the lack of singular they pronouns.
“Like legit,” said one fan, Mark, “I’m a transgender person who’s actually hurt by not having the fertility option for transgender people and upset you’re not gonna use they/them pronoun, I’m disappointed my favorite game is legit a bit transphobic but yeah ok fine I’m not ‘pleased’.”
Even with the inclusion of transgender options in the game, Bitlife still intensely and unnecessarily emphasizes birth sex, even when that differs from gender. All characters have their assigned gender at birth listed as part of their profile, even if this doesn’t align with their identity. If a trans character receives gender confirmation surgery, the format changes still to “transsexual.” Institutions characters are sent to are based on their Assigned Gender at Birth (AGAB), with nonbinary characters still being sent to binary institutions like single-sex schools and prisons.
Additionally, the game offers two dating apps. One is simply called “dating app,” where your character will see potential dates screened by whether your character has declared themselves to be straight, bisexual, or gay. The other is an entirely separate queer dating app, where you can choose from the following options: “female, male, genderqueer, nonbinary, transgender female, and transgender male.” This promotes the incorrect view that trans men and trans women are not “real” men and women.
The game features plenty of other less than positive aspects of queer life. For example, the pride update now features gender dysphoria, and criminal penalties for being LGBTQ, with no options for asylum. Many players, including myself, have doubted whether such a thing should be included in a life simulator which is, at its heart, a fantasy. I also question why only queer players and characters are subject to this sort of gritty realism. Plenty of awful (but realistic) aspects of life are not replicated in the game; this need to “authentically” represent traumatic experiences seem to only affect the LGBTQ-related aspects of the game, and that makes Candywriter’s continual excuses seem all the weaker.