Modding: The Alteration of Social Constructs and Aesthetics in Skyrim

In the world of video games, mods allow users to create alterations of any given game’s original elements and they are an increasingly popular method to add more unique and shareable ways to play video games. These modifications create different dimensions that allow users to expand and enhance their experiences while interacting with video games. Freedom of expression is one of the largest factors associated with the growing popularity of mods in the industry because, while some mods are created by the big gaming companies, the majority of mods are created by the players themselves. These amateur-produced mods can be controversial due to some reinforcing sexism and harmful gender roles, but they also create alternate versions of the game they are modifying and hence allow gamers to break the constraints of mainstream aesthetics and social constructs by creating characters and world spaces that better reflect their needs and preferences. That being said, Skyrim will be explored in terms of its mods and their effects on society, with emphasis on the importance of transforming social constructs in order to reach freedom of expression, as well as considering gender and race in the context of the game’s complex standards.

Mods became valuable when players used their skills combined with their passion and creativity to produce something additional for the gaming community to enjoy. According to Julian Kücklich’s article “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry,” modding only became popular in the 1990’s: “while Castle Smurfenstein (1983), a modification of the classic Castle Wolfenstein, is commonly seen as the first mod, modding did not come into its own until after id Software’s publication of the Doom source code in 1997, and the subsequent development of level editors such as WorldCraft by the players themselves”. The world of modding may have changed since the 90s but certain aspects remain the same, such as the fact that mods require the possession of the original game to work properly, which is beneficial for the companies’ investment. In a way, the gaming industry’s economy is dependent on mods that need the original game because they incite players to invest in it. For example, Doom mods provided id Software with a prolific remuneration, as mentioned by Kücklich.

Some popular mods include Counter-Strike, Half-Life, and Team Fortress, as reported in “Modding: Amateur Authorship and How the Video Game Industry Is Actually Getting It Right” by Ryan Wallace (221). The most successful mod, according to Kücklich, is Counter-Strike in 1999. Counter-Strike appears to be a total-conversion mod which is completely divergent from the original version of the game, in that it is stripped from its original “rule set, appearance, and game mechanics of a commercial product,” as reported by the article “Spare the Mod: In Support of Total-Conversion Modified Video Games” in Harvard Law Review (791). Although mods can change a game completely, they also bring the gaming community together. Mods that require active participation from the players are generally welcomed due to the passionate sense of community: “…the genre of games known as multiplayer online battle arenas, or MOBAs, was first created and made popular by mods of Blizzard Entertainment’s Starcraft and Warcraft III. The most popular MOBA, League of Legends, now has over thirty-five million players and is the most played game in the world” (Wallace 222). Accordingly, the popularity of multiplayer games shows the involvement in which people participate which is thanks to mods as they allow the freedom to create anything without constraints, and ultimately bring players together.

While modding is generally portrayed as a hobby and modders are not remunerated for the work that they do: “successful modders, such as Counter-Strike’s creator, Minh Le, enjoy a celebrity status that enables them to find employment in the games industry[. On the other hand,] many modders are either uninterested or unable to translate the social capital gained through modding into gainful employment. The precarious status of modding as a form of unpaid labour is veiled by the perception of modding as a leisure activity, or simply as an extension of play” (Kücklich). The common unemployment among modders can be seen as controversial due to the amount of publicity that they bring to the video games that they alter through mods which can then be freely used by the companies, often without credit to the modders. Even though the lack of monetary gain is usually not a positive side of it, modding is now a necessary aspect to video games because they encounter fewer restrictions than the big video game companies which subsequently allows modders to challenge the social constructs that are mimicked from real life through the medium of video games.

A long-standing staple of video game character design has been the idealized human figure. Male characters tend to be buff, tall, and handsome, while female characters are voluptuous, with small facial features and luscious hair. If the game does not offer customization options, then the main character is most likely male and white. Character clothing also emphasizes standard beauty ideals in ways that can be alienating, especially to female players, such as casual clothes and even battle armor which are designed with sexual appeal in mind. While these trends have improved a little in recent times, they still remain prominent in popular video games. Character customization has become more popular and has allowed players to create the type of characters that they want to see or feel that they most identified with, but many insidious conventions still remain.

The player-avatar relationship is multifaceted, and avatar aesthetic is a large component of this relationship. In this respect, there are many ways of seeing things: the ‘dramaturgical’ aspect, in which players role-play characters who are not meant to represent themselves as a type of performance (Nørgård 3). Players can create a story and character that they want to see, and a more personal aspect in which they use avatars as “self-representation and identity-play” (Nørgård 5). A ‘Prosthetic’ aspect also exists, which involves less personal investment. This aspect deals with players extending “their bodies to avatars and into the digital sphere by using avatars as prosthetic tools, vehicles, puppets, or body doubles.” The player controls the avatar as a puppeteer would a puppet (Nørgård 4). For all these aspects, mods can be an important creation and customization tool that helps the player expand their character beyond the pre-set options. It is worth noting that self-representation doesn’t necessarily mean creating an identical copy of your real self. In a way that is very similar to the ‘dramaturgic’ aspect, people can chose to tweak their personal representations to their unique tastes and create an idealized self-image.

As an example, in the largest Skyrim mod archive, there are over 2000 armor mods, 350 hair and facial mods, and over 2500 models and textures mods– a majority of which are environmental textures, but these also include facial complexion, body skin tone and shape, and other cosmetic mods. It cannot be denied that a lot of these mods fit into preconceived notions of beauty and masculinity, and sometimes exacerbate these notions to an uncomfortable degree. There are mods that alter the female walk animation to make it more attractive, as well as a vast quantity of skimpy armor mods (up to 400 at nexusmods.com) and mods that modify the female body shape. All previously mentioned aspects of the player-avatar relationship, the ‘dramaturgical’, the ‘prosthetic’, and the self-identifying aspect, come into play in these cases, as players perform learned social and cultural practices.

Without taking mods into consideration, Skyrim does include a complex character editor which allows players to manipulate many aspects of their avatar’s appearance, particularly their faces. In other aspects however, such as the way that armor appears on the avatar and the animations of the avatar, the player has no options other than what is preset based on the race and gender that they choose. These disparities in players’ options have inspired many mods that augment almost any conceivable aesthetic aspect of an avatar in Skyrim. For example, there are skyrim mods wherein female armors do cover essential body parts, but still feature feminine waist and breast shapes. More specifically, “Practical Female Armors” by JZBai changes all female armor models to the default male versions by flattening the breast plate and covering the legs, except where they reasonably accommodate the different shape of the female avatar, essentially creating a gender-neutral armor set for Skyrim.

It is suggested, in the way that their animations and equipment are designed, female avatars in Skyrim are designed to be subjects of sexual admiration rather than figures in their own right, to be embodied by the player as their male counterparts are. Like many other RPG games, Skyrim features two separate armor designs for each piece that can be equipped in game: one for male models and one for female. Consistently the female versions show more skin, are less practical, and exaggerate and emphasize female bodies. The “Simple Female Running Animation” mod by Clepsa changes the run animation for female avatars in the game. The default run features a conspicuous hip swaying which is off putting to many players, and further makes a suggestion that the female avatar is a sexual figure to be watched, but not necessarily embodied. Clepsa’s mod makes the animation more subtle, as though to more accurately reflect a person running cross country.

The appeal for this mentality of the female avatar as an object is evident in the many, extremely popular mods for the game that further sexualize female avatars (and other NPCs) in outrageous ways. Mods like: “Feminine Running and Dash Animation” by xp32 which exaggerates the run animation even further, and “Sexy Vanilla Female Armor for UNP and SevenBase with BBP” by Crosscrusade which changes all armor for female characters into various metal bikinis. Many cosmetic mods are less political than the few previously mentioned ones, such as mods that add aesthetic features to the game for both male and female avatars like new hairstyles, facial features, and clothing. “Freckles for Females” by realadry adds an option to give an avatar freckles, although conspicuously only for female avatars. It may be a simple detail, but it is a common feature of the human population that is absent from the default character creation system.

Some players of Skyrim have noted and been disappointed with the fact that the gender and race chosen by a player has very little effect on the way that the game is actually played, minor consequences for dialogue in some cases, but ultimately the plots and main story arcs of the game ignore these aspects of the avatar. This is an area of the game that could benefit greatly from mods, in that it would change the game to make these player choices of race and gender have significant impact on the story of the game, or on the way that a player is able to move in, and interact within the world. Admittedly, this would be a massive project for anyone to undertake, and as far as we know, no such mods exist, but this kind of detail could be an extremely valuable dimension for a player to connect with their avatars in a new and meaningful way.

While mods typically enhance overall player experience when they are added onto the original game, not all mods aim to improve a player’s experience. For example, some mods can distract a player from the theme of the original game or completely rewrite the game altogether without adding to the original plot. As such, creating additional content for a game may positively or negatively affect the overall player experience, particularly in terms of a lack of consideration for female characters and their character development. The most well-known mod example is “Hot Coffee” – that is, a mod designed for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (“Spare the mod” 793). Hot Coffee added an additional mini-game wherein the main male heterosexual character could have sex with his girlfriend. The company that owns Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Rockstar, removed this mod for the game; however, another modder soon discovered the code for Hot Coffee and reactivated it. As a result, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ERSB), an organization that enforces age and content ratings for video games, was forced to change the rating from Mature (M) to Adults Only (AO) because Rockstar did not remove the mod completely. Given that AO games are not saleable to the general public, many major video game retailers had to recall the game from their stores due to this rating change, resulting in a loss of profit.

Skyrim contains two mods that divert the player from the intended purpose of the game by adding misogynist elements that ultimately degrade women, “SexLab TDF Prostitution” and “Animated Prostitution,”. Both of these mods are available for free on LoversLabs and NexusMods. “SexLab TDF Prostitution” and “Animated Prostitution” both allow male and female characters to talk to any random humanoid character in the game, remove their clothing, and engage in sexual activity with them with no hesitation or resistance. These mods imply that sex does not require the permission of a sexual partner to engage in, promoting the pervasiveness of misogyny and rape. Additionally, if a player chooses to be a female character that allows male characters to engage in sexual activity with them, this female character is rewarded for her ‘services’ to a male character with coins, clothing, or an addition skill points to buff the skill tree. These mods are clearly problematic for women as they promote a similar idea of the submissive female role in porn films that are forced to engage in sexual activity with males upon request, ultimately demeaning women.

Even though mods can positively affect the original game, in many cases mods negatively affect the game’s fundamental purpose by changing the uniqueness of the original product and making it feel more like a fan base operation as opposed to the breathtaking experience players originally had. Although some mods promote misogyny, other mods promote feminism, reimagining what the original developers created but fixing how they portray their woman in the game. Ultimately, mods allow gamers to create additional female-oriented add-ons to where they see fit but, unfortunately, most people who play games are heterosexual males, so when people, namely, female gamers try to promote feminism or equality through mods, some of these male gamers engage in misogynists practises and demean women by calling them names, stating that they are subordinate to men, and question their sexual orientation by implying that heterosexual females are not qualified to play video games.

To put it plainly, modding is a tool that helps with the adaptation of aesthetics and the reinvention of social constructs, such as gender and race, through the medium of video games. In Skyrim’s case, it is apparent that some mods are used negatively to enhance racism, objectification, and misogyny, or to share ignorance, often times consciously. However, it remains clear that mods are tools that encourage freedom of expression and challenge the components of games that attempt to direct a gamer’s playing to specific predetermined constraints. Self-representation in video game characters through modding allows players to take control of these constraints and expand them which also acts to counterbalance this enforcement of social constraints. It can only be hoped for that, in the future, mods will further alter strict conditions of video games while enforcing equity and equality, and eventually dismiss the concrete social constructs that are built into our society, destroy the mentalities that are difficult to dispel.

By Ariane Arsenault, Tyra Baltram, Wesley Clarke, Lauren Hamilton, and Maria Mon


Works Cited

Clark, Tim. “The Lack of Playable Female Characters in Assassin’s Creed Unity is More Than Just ‘Unfortunate.’” PC Gamer. Future US, Inc., 10 June 2014. Web. 29 Mar. 2015. <http://www.pcgamer.com/ac-op-ed/&gt;.

Gazzard, Alison. “The avatar and the player: understanding the relationship beyond the screen.” Games and Virtual Worlds for Serious Applications, 2009. VS-GAMES’09.   Conference in. IEEE, 2009.

Kücklich, Julian. “Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry.” The Fibreculture Journal, 5 (2005).

Lowood, Henry. “Real-Time Performance: Machinima and Game Studies.” iDMAa Journal, 2.1 (2005): 10-17.

Nørgård, Rikke Toft. “The Joy of Doing: The Corporeal Connection in Player-Avatar Identity.”  Philosophy of Computer Games 2011 (2011).

“Spare The Mod: In Support of Total-Conversion Modified Video Games.” Harvard Law Review. 125.3 (2012): 789-810. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.

Wallace, Ryan. “Modding: Amateur Authorship And How The Video Game Industry Is Actually Getting It Right.” Brigham Young University Law Review 2014.1 (2014): 219-255. Academic Search Complete. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.


Discussion questions:

1- How important is avatar/character customization for you, and have you ever used mods to do it?

2- What is the most valuable mod you have encountered, based on the additions or changes it has made to a video game?

3- Have you ever played Skyrim with mods? If so, which one is your favourite and why?

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One thought on “Modding: The Alteration of Social Constructs and Aesthetics in Skyrim

  1. A very interesting article! While modding, I have been thinking about a lot of issues regarding race and gender. My latest mod in Skyrim, a work in progress, is called “Cultural Diversity – Guards and Soldiers”.While struggling to deconstruct some sexism, I wonder: Can I, as a man, design a female as a protagonist? I would like some suggestions if possible.

    Like

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