Virginia never imagined she'd be telling a Black woman it was okay to wear Black clothes.
As an African with lighter skin, Virginia had feared accusations of cultural appropriation when she first started making traditional African outfits for The Sims 4. Though she had spent the first 12 years of her life in West Africa, her mixed-race origins marked her as an outsider, and she worried people might see her creations as inauthentic. That only made the response she received to one of her West-African wedding dresses all the more surprising.
'I'm African-American, I'm Black, but I don't feel strong ties to Africa,' read the email. 'Would it be cultural appropriation if my Sim wears it?'
Virginia was stunned.
"I was like, of course not!" she recalls. "You're a Black person asking me if you can wear clothes that were created for Black people. That's your culture that was stolen from you, and you're asking if you're allowed to have it back? You should wear it with pride!"
For Virginia, that moment was a real eye-opener. The Sims might be a video game, its clothes stitched from 1s and 0s, but here was proof that a simple digital garment could make a big difference. Clothing, whether it be physical or not, allows people to explore their identities, to express themselves in ways they can't through words alone. Being able to facilitate such self-discovery is one of the reasons Virginia began The African Sim, her African-focused Tumblr for The Sims, in the first place.
"A lot of African-Americans, some of them feel a connection to Africa, but some feel slightly ashamed," she says. Recalling the West-African wedding dress, she continues, "I won't say that I made [the woman] feel connected, but it did make her realize something about her roots that she had been denied. That felt good."
Virginia's career in cultural fashion began out of a desire for self-expression. After spending her childhood immersed in African culture, she couldn't ignore the severe lack of traditional African fashion in The Sims' wardrobe. With nobody else attempting to rectify the issue, Virginia was left with no choice but to take matters into her own hands.
Little did she know how important her creations would be.
"Most of the people who visit my site or look at my stuff, they aren't actually Africans--they're African-Americans," explains Virginia. "They're African-Americans who grew up removed from their culture."
Having spent their lives surrounded by Western culture, many of her African-American visitors yearn for a way to reconnect with their African heritage, and wearing the traditional clothes of their ancestors is one way of doing so. Sometimes, though, it's not feasible to wear traditional outfits in real life, and that's where The Sims comes in. The game provides a safe space to explore one's cultural identity without fear of prejudice and ridicule.
"Westerners tend to view [Western] culture as superior, or at least the only acceptable [one]," says Virginia. "People still find it strange if you show up at a formal event wearing traditional clothes. They say it looks shoddy, you look like a hippy or something. It doesn't have to be like that, it's very disrespectful."
Beyond the cultural connection, traditional West-African garments often carry significant meaning to the wearer. Clothes are typically tailor-made for an individual, with the colors, patterns, and embroidery chosen according to tribal affiliations or to represent particular aspects of that person's life. Wearing these garments is more than an expression of culture; it's a way of honoring your life, your society, and your spirituality. For someone to deem that inappropriate is to deny who you are.
"You might not think it's appropriate," says Virginia, "but for someone else it very much could be. It's something where we have to expand our minds."
African fashion isn't just about the clothes; hair plays an even more prominent role in cultural expression.
"The hair issue is important," says Virginia. "It's even more important than the clothes, because it's what your body creates."
African hairstyles often carry significant personal meaning. There are different styles for different occasions and different celebrations, and some can take many hours to craft. This made it all the worse when colonial America subjugated the African people as slaves, denying them the means to care for their hair and often forcing them to shave it off. Even decades on, the suppression of natural African hairstyles continues.
"For a Black person to look acceptable in White society, for them to look respectable and get a decent job, they have to take a certain kind of hairstyle which is flattened," explains Virginia. "You couldn't get an office job with a really bad-ass afro."
This stigma isn't helped by the lack of African hairstyles in many of today's games. In The Sims 4, for example, none of the base hairstyles reflected those of a natural Black woman. Black hair tends to default to curly, with numerous variants each with their own designations: 2A, 2B, 2C, 3A, 3B, 3C, and so forth. The only semi-appropriate hairstyle in The Sims 4, though, displayed no such nuance. In fact, it more closely resembled a potato than natural hair, which isn't so surprising given it was originally modelled on a cauliflower.
To combat this stigma, Virginia has created and curated her own gallery of African-American hairstyles, allowing Black Sims to look, well, Black. The reception from The Sims community has been heartwarming.
"There's an immense empowerment in saying 'this is how god created me, and it's fine. It's beautiful, and I accept it.'" says Virginia. "A lot of my African-American friends who I've made through Simblr [Sims-focused Tumblr] are saying, 'My mother was so insistent that I had to look decent, that I had to stop wearing my hair like this. That I had to straighten it and so on and so forth. And I feel good now, I feel so accepting of myself that I can be who I am. I'm okay like this.'"
While Virginia laments the poor state of cultural representation in games--and media in general, for that matter--she understands why it is the way it is.
"I don't think [The Sims 4] was purposely created so there weren't a lot of options for Black people," says Virginia. "But people tend to create what they're familiar with."
This is why Virginia feels an almost moral obligation to raise awareness of African culture. Growing up with a part-Filipino mother and a family of both Black and White siblings, she was painfully aware of the unfair advantage her lighter skin brought her. That disparity has driven her to act as a bridge between Western and African culture, breeding understanding through awareness.
"I was lucky enough to be familiar with African fashion and African looks and African hair up to a certain degree, more familiar than some African-Americans themselves, because I have lived there, and it had been a part of my daily life. My teachers dressed like that, my classmates, my doctor who attended me. That was normal for me."
For all her efforts, though, Virginia feels cultural representation has a long way to go. The stock-standard hero is still straight, White, male, buff and stoic.
"This is doubly harmful," says Virginia. "On one hand, people who do not fit in that category, because they are transgender or from an ethnic minority or just female, it's harder to relate to that character, and it's harder to see yourself in real life as being the hero, or being in that circumstance. On the other hand, the people who do fit in that category and who don't have much exposure to other cultures get used to seeing themselves and not other races, genders, or anyone different in similar roles."
In general, Virginia wants to see the inclusion of more than just different cultures; she longs for more representation for the LGBT community, for women, for disabled people, for ethnic minorities, and for the elderly.
"Life is composed of all of this. We have short people in life. We have tall people, we have people with disabilities, people of all walks of life, all origins. I would like to see more diversity in general, not just from an ethnic point of view."
The Sims isn't the only life simulator where cultural fashion is fighting back against ignorance and prejudice. Second Life, the virtual world still going strong nearly 14 years after its release, sports an entire marketplace of player-made content. Everything from a rentable Hobbiton to Predator armor to lingerie can be picked up for the right price. Most pertinently, however, is the diverse range of cultural clothing on offer. Garments from all over the world celebrate the rich tapestry of our global society--but it wasn't always this way.
The Dreaming Button, who preferred we not use her real name, joined Second Life shortly after she graduated from her Romanian high school. Fresh-faced and deep in the throes of self-discovery, Dreaming found Second Life to be both welcoming and diverse, introducing her to aspects of life she had never experienced. Foremost among these was Islamic culture. Many of the friends she made through Second Life originated from the Middle East, and Dreaming quickly realized that they were nothing like the stereotypes the media had bombarded her with. The more she learned about Islamic culture, the more she liked about it. In time, she started wearing a hijab around her house, the simple garment granting her a sense of elegance and empowerment she had never felt before.
Taking the next step, though, proved more difficult. Wearing a hijab in public can be a daunting prospect, especially in today's socio-political climate.
"I saw this happening to other Muslim converts in Second Life," says Dreaming. "They don't have the courage to go in the streets outside wearing this garment. So they start to wear it in the game. And this is what I did also. I started to wear it in the game, and get myself used to my image wearing a scarf, because it's so different, very different."
Much like The Sims, Second Life provides a safe space to grow your identity and become comfortable with who you are. Free of the limits of physical society, people tend to be more open-minded, more willing to accept those different to them.
"It's kind of funny," says Dreaming. "People should be embarrassed of going naked in the street, not embarrassed of wearing clothing in the street. But it happens. Even two days ago, I was out in town here in a mall. I was sitting with my son and eating. There were some very elegant ladies, one of them nearly stumbled. She was walking and staring too much at me that she nearly stumbled."
In Second Life, that sort of behavior is rare. Not only has the game granted Dreaming more confidence in her identity, it has helped her show others the value of Islamic culture.
"Most of the people that come to my store, they don't know much about the Arabic culture. They don't know much about Islam. [But] if I'm around, they ask me, and I'm happy to answer.
"I want the message to get out that Muslim people are just like any other people. That the culture itself is not something oppressing at all."
For Dreaming, wearing a hijab both in- and out-of-game is about more than just cultural expression, it's about freedom. Around the time she converted to Islam, she was hit with a series of auto-immune conditions. This wreaked havoc with her hair, thinning it out in spots and leaving her feeling uncomfortable with how she looked. Wearing a hijab gave her back the confidence to feel happy with her image.
Dreaming has heard similar stories from many people in Second Life. She has met cancer patients who wear headscarfs because chemotherapy has ruined their hair. She has met Jewish ladies who wear headscarfs, Christian ladies who wear them, sick people who wear them, all for their own reasons. Giving these people a way to reflect their realities in-game is what drives Dreaming to keep making her outfits, even as the pressures of being a single mother and looking after her sick father consume most of her waking hours.
Ultimately, Dreaming sees the virtual world as a powerful medium for spreading awareness and understanding, not just between different cultures, but among people in general.
"Second Life is good as a step between knowing and actually practicing something," she concludes. "Be it the language, be it the clothing, be it the behavior, anything."
Wishing for a day when games truly represent the world's tremendous diversity isn't enough. It is on all of us, developers and players alike, to follow the example of people like Virginia and The Dreaming Button and embrace the unfamiliar. It's not easy, as Dreaming acknowledges, but that shouldn't stop us.
"I learned to create things because I wanted to make them," says Dreaming. "I didn't already happen to know how to do this and start doing them. I just wanted so much to do them that I learned how to do them."
Issues of diversity go far beyond the games industry, but that doesn't mean we can't make a difference.
"We can approach things and change things even from a game," exhorts Virginia. "Some people say it's just a game, don't make a fuss, it's just a game. But why not make it a positive platform for change?"