Xmiramira’s Melanin Pack Revolutionized The Sims 4 — But It Was Only The Beginning

·14-min read

“I wanted to be a damn lawyer,” laughs Amira Virgil during a recent Zoom interview. “I never thought this was a thing.” By “this,” she means a career as a professional gamer and streamer. Because as it turns out, we had the cheat codes all along, and it is in fact totally possible to play video games all day and all night for a living. (Sorry, Mom.) But Virgil isn’t just your everyday streamer — she’s actually creating a more equitable, more inclusive gaming space through the creation of custom content.

Even with the very serious childhood career goal of practicing law in mind, Virgil, also known as Xmiramira online, has always been drawn to the world of gaming. After her mom noticed that her youngest would pass hours of the day watching her older siblings shout and cheer playing video games, she purchased her baby girl her very own console (a classic Super Nintendo), and then, the love affair began. Virgil quickly burned through what she describes as “kiddie games” like Super Mario and Goof Troop before challenging herself with first-person shooters in Call of Duty and Halo, quickly becoming known as Thee Gamer amongst her friend group.

Not that she’s uber-competitive or anything. “Some people enjoy the rush of beating something really hard, but I’m not that person,” Virgil assures me. “I play for fun, to de-stress and unwind. And I like things that are not too easy but not too difficult either.” That desire to toe the line between being able to keep her brain on neutral and pushing herself with mind-numbingly stressful gameplay led her to the one game that can really swing either way: The Sims.

The earliest iterations of the Electronic Arts game launched in 1989 with SimCity, giving players the chance to build and sustain their own metropolis. By the early 2000s, the gameplay had evolved to be less city planning and more soap opera, focusing on the human aspects of the Game of Life: getting married, climbing the career ladder, and dealing with freak accidents, like drowning in a pool with no ladder to escape — you know, the usual. Though Virgil was originally drawn to the fast-paced nature of SimCity and its sequels, The Sims allowed her to tap into her inner storyteller. With each character that she conjured in Create-A-Sim, a new story was born, and Virgil was in charge of every twist and turn that would follow. She could be a bloodthirsty but flirty vampire looking for their soulmate (The Sims 2: Nightlife) or, more in line with her real-life entrepreneurial leanings, an ambitious upstart selling gelatin at their bakery for a thousand simoleons (The Sims 2: Open for Business). Anything — save for an open world concept — was possible.

“I thought The Sims was amazing when I first got into it,” says Virgil wistfully. “I was like, Oh my God. You can do this, you can do that. It was definitely groundbreaking to me at the time.”

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But as she got deeper into the world of The Sims, playing the second, third, and fourth (and current) generation of the EA game, Virgil began noticing something unsettling: it was damn near impossible to create Sims who looked, well, like her. The Sims offers up many options for customisation, but like so many other video games, the pickings were slim for people who weren’t white and thin. From a limited number of body part presets to an embarrassingly deficient skin tone spectrum that left darker-skinned Sims looking more like “who did the body,” The Sims was lacking in a major way when it came to inclusivity. Custom content (CC), or downloadable user-created mods, helped somewhat, but the selection was still in want of more, and the meagre options began to dampen Virgil’s experience as a Simmer.

“It’s literally a life simulation game,” Virgil says. “Everybody should be able to simulate life at the most basic level in a game. People pay for The Sims to be able to make a skin tone that doesn’t make my Sims look casket ready. We know colourism is everywhere, so with gaming, darker people are forced to make lighter characters all the time because the darker skin tone options never look good. You’re always grey or always oversaturated.”

“It was getting in the way of the gameplay,” continues Virgil. “I couldn’t create the type of content I wanted to or tell my stories my way. Whenever I wanted to make a Simself, it was impossible because I couldn’t get the body type right. I couldn’t get the nose, the skin tone, the hair — none of it looked right. And I thought, Damn, if I’m having this problem, how many other people are feeling this way, too? What can I do to fix this?

Always the problem-solver (“I’m a very firm believer in being the change you want to see,” she says. “Got that from my mom.”), Virgil decided to take matters into her own hands by turning to the ultimate source of knowledge: Google. Because she’d taught herself how to do graphic design at the age of 13, Virgil was already familiar with Photoshop, so she found that it was only a matter of playing around with various colours and textures in the editing program. Thus, the Melanin Pack was born.

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First released in 2016, the groundbreaking mod pack offered players 18 new skin tones (and undertones), two contour palettes, and melanin-friendly makeup options. It was an immediate hit, instantly garnering thousands of downloads by Simmers who were tired of their dark-skinned Sims looking ashy and lifeless. Finally, Sims of colour had some dimension to them and could look realistic because of Virgil’s modding.

“My good sis Mira is revolutionary, honestly,” gushes friend and fellow content creator Dani Udo (known in the Sims 4 world as Ebonix) via email. “She identified the issues of the lackluster colors and hues for darker skin tones,” says Udo. The pair met on Tumblr in 2015 and have been close ever since, instantly bonding over their love of (and frustrations with) the Sims 4. Like Virgil, Udo’s creation of Sims 4 CC that is true to the Black experience also stemmed from a disappointment in the paltry in-game options. Today, Udo’s site is a one-stop-shop for anyone looking to get their Sims together, with a downloads catalog that offers everything from box braids with baby hairs, fades, locs, afros, and so much more. “But Mira also highlighted just how poorly the makeup in game worked for darker skin tones and created makeup sets with them in mind.”

The Melanin Pack spoke to a real need in the Sims 4 community, and even EA had no choice but to acknowledge that Virgil had done something they could not. In 2017, the company invited her to Sims Camp, where influencers and community members get exclusive access to upcoming content. There, Virgil got a behind-the-scenes look at what actually goes into making The Sims 4, and the EA team also picked her brain for new ways to make its content more inclusive. That connection led to The Sims’ game-changing 20th anniversary update in 2020, which enlisted the help of Virgil, Udo, and other CC creators to release its official Create-A-Sim skin tone overhaul. The update featured a brand new system with over 100 different skin tone options that fell into four colour categories — warm, neutral, cool, and miscellaneous (for those with fantasy storylines in mind) — and could be adjusted to be darker or lighter via a slider. Other important in-game developments soon followed, including changes to existing hairstyles that made textures more realistic, the removal of restrictions on feminine and masculine bodies, the addition of new cultural content like ethnic holidays, food, and fashion, and more recently, customisable gender pronouns.

“The Black community always has to say something before things get done,” she shakes her head. “And if we’re being real, we’re usually the first people to open the door or to break the glass ceiling. It’s nice to be able to create opportunities for other people, but it kind of makes you wonder why these companies don’t listen to Black people in the first place? And why are we never considered in the original equation?”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone was excited about Virgil’s CC and The Sims’ new skin tone update. Some Simmers actually complained, decrying the move as “woke” and “pandering” as if the lack of in-game diversity wasn’t a real problem. Those criticisms sometimes stung even more than the racism and sexism she would receive on social media, Virgil tells me disappointedly, and being so visible quickly became overwhelming for her.

“An entertainment therapist once said that one human being is not supposed to consume so much stuff about themselves in such a small amount of time,” she says. “Like, that’s not normal. And there I was, just dealing with the thousands of comments and arguments, of people on Facebook and Twitter talking shit about me for days on end…In retrospect, that was a lot for me, I’m not gonna lie.”

That’s the unfortunate reality for Black women everywhere, but the misogynoir feel especially heavy in the streaming world. Ask any Black woman who streams online, and she’ll have more than a few horror stories about being harassed or bullied by strangers hiding behind their computer screens. Sometimes, the attacks are sexual in nature, sometimes they’re racial — often times, they’re both. It used to freak Virgil out when she first started streaming, but she’s since created a strict protocol for creepy trolls who try to invade her streams with toxicity.

“It was terrible,” recalls Virgil of her early days of streaming on Twitch. “But in recent years, Twitch has done a lot more to help moderate. And I know people are going to be mad at me for this, but I do like that they leave it up to the individual streamers.” The way its moderation system is set up is very robust, allowing streamers to set the rules of engagement for their respective communities. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. “Of course, Twitch could be better, but that’s also something that the people on that team are working on evolving.”

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Now that Virgil has been in the gaming and streaming world for so long, it’s important for her to expand her intention with her growing platform to be about more than just The Sims. She’s got a vision of abundance for not just herself, but for other Black women in the industry. When Virgil first started creating content years ago, there were no instructions or mentors to guide her along the way. The amount of gatekeeping in the industry was oppressive, she says with emphasis, with many of the more established, more famous content creators simply refusing to work with newcomers. That lack of community haunts Virgil to this day, and it’s the main reason she founded the Noir Network.

The mission of the organization, which launched in 2021, is to help Black women in content creation find their stride. Membership sits at a comfortable 55 (not too shabby for a stream team that just started a year ago), and Virgil is in constant communication with the selected creators, offering up her resources and knowledge of the industry in every way she can. Because she knows firsthand how difficult it is to break into the streaming world, Virgil is using her savvy and her connections to build bridges and secure the bag for up-and-comers through her branding agency. When she’s not helping members brainstorm fresh new content for their channels, she’s calming their anxiety about trolls and introducing them to big names to partner with. Most importantly, Virgil is educating her mentees on their worth so that they can advocate for themselves when it comes to financial compensation. It’s easy for new creators to sell themselves short when seeking brand partnerships, and many brands will take advantage of that undervaluation by paying them a fraction of what they deserve. Not on Virgil’s watch.

“There’s a lot of gaslighting of creators that goes around, especially of Black creators, where brands want to make you feel like you’re maybe not worth what you think you are,” says Twitch streamer and cosplayer Jahara Jayde. “With Noir behind me, I can combat that because Mira makes sure that we know our worth.” Jayde got her start in late 2020, cosplaying characters from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and quickly gained traction as she continued putting her spin on various notable personas. Unfortunately, as her star rose, so did the negative attention from trolls, and she reached out to Virgil to get some advice on handling the vitriol. From there, the two connected, and Jayde has since become one of the most prominent creators within Noir.

“Joining Noir was really the first time where I was surrounded by a lot of people like me, and it helped me feel more grounded and validated,“ Jayde says. “And we’re genuinely making moves. I can’t understate the impact of the money, the exposure, the connections that we’re able to have because of this organization.”

Virgil’s hope is that the knowledge and resources acquired by Noir won’t just stay inside the organisation; she wants members to take the free game they’ve learned and put others on. She’s proud of the work that Noir has done and what members have been able to accomplish in just a year (which includes upwards of $50,000 in brand partnerships), and she’d love to see that level of success become the norm for Black women in streaming. Sure, she had to struggle when she first started, but content creation doesn’t have to be like that for those coming up. There are so many opportunities out there — you just have to be willing to do the work.

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So what’s next for Virgil? When I ask hopefully about another edition of the Melanin Pack — we’re on version four right now — her eyes get wide behind her oversized glasses, and she shakes her head vigorously, her afro tossing side to side. “Oh, girl,” she chuckles. It would be an understatement to say that she’s got a lot on her plate right now. Virgil is still working to grow Noir, but she’s also taking some time for herself to do things that don’t necessarily feel like she’s on the job. That includes creating her own Grand Theft Auto V roleplay server from scratch — which, she concedes sheepishly, is technically work. But Virgil wants to create a safe space for other GTA RP enthusiasts to engage with each other free of the toxicity that other roleplay communities are known for. She’s been sitting at her computer coding the server for seven days straight now, but she might take a break soon.

Well, maybe. “I’ll be honest with you: I don’t feel like I’ve ever really fully recovered from burnout,” Virgil admits. “But I have to actively find moments to rest. Just find some shit I like and lean into it. I got burnt out on The Sims, so now I’m having fun with GTA. I just find something else to get immersed in, or I just step away completely —  turn everything off, get on a train, and just go somewhere. I just get away from everything, and I come back feeling fresh and ready to work. Ready to get back to it.”

When you’re doing as much as Virgil is, rest and recovery are imperative. It’s the reason why you’ve probably noticed that she isn’t streaming as often these days — she’s trying to make sure that self-care is on her laundry list of priorities. And even though being Xmiramira the Content Creator can be a lot at times, Virgil wouldn’t have it any other way. She knows the impact of the work she’s doing, and she’s enjoying it, even when it gets hard.

“It’s just been an amazing, unexpected, wild ride,” Virgil smiles. “I feel like I’m always thinking, How the hell did I get here?

“I’m just hoping that people will look at my situation, look at my story, and say to themselves, If I don’t like something about this space, I can change it. I have the power to be the solution, ” she concludes. “That’s what all of this is for.”

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