A Musings on A Research Theme: Disruption

A take on the Research centres theme of disruption, but I combine it with ‘modding’ and including sexual content.

Modding & Disruption: A Practice Emerging Explicit Sexualities

A more focused, shortened version of this post can be found on the BCMCR’s website: BLOG POST.

Fairly recently, I had the pleasure of being an audience member at a conference held by the MultiPlay network. The theme of this conference was revolved around “Sex and Romance in Video Games” – one closely related to my own research. But I say “audience member” like it was a physically lived experience – like much of academic life still today, it was a virtual conference. Remember the first few days of the pandemic in which we had to translate all our practices to virtual-based learning – a “disruption” in its own right? For some reason, I do not anymore – perhaps that disruption had brought forth something beneficial that I’ve come to adopt and can no longer think of a “time before.” I live in an online space now, with a new ‘lifestyle.’ Whilst this opening may seem like it has no relation to what the title suggests about the content of this post, this is purposeful if not disruptive itself. For me, to say “disruption” outloud almost sounds negative, as when you search the term up online, it seems to allude to a disturbance in an ‘accepted state’ – something occurs that ruins the “moment.” But I think the allegory of this reflective introduction is one that shows what can occur through a “disruption”: I have found a new identity, and my approach and interaction with online spaces has changed for the better. So, perhaps there is some value to be found in disruption than just an interference that leaves us in a worse state than before. So, I ask, can disruption be a way to bring about change for the better?

Provoked by my own love for the idea of “chaos”, in my research lately I have been thinking about how sex and sexuality attribute to kinds of disruptions within gaming, especially when it did not exist in the space originally. This was even further inspired by the conference’s keynote presentation, which had discussed the use of ‘mods’ in the experience of games. Mods: modifications made by gamers, developers and alike, that bring about a change in how a game operates or is presented (Sotamaa, 2010; Wysocki, 2015). Hold on, did I not just define disruption as something that brings about a change within an “accepted state”? So then, the act of modifying a game – whether changing mechanics for fun, desiring a particular character appearance, or even fixing problems neglected by developers – is itself a form of disruption. Through ‘modding’ a game, a new experience is made for players that wasn’t originally there (Postigo, 2008: 60) – disruption must have value then, as it has transformed our interaction within the game, most likely for the better. I find it even more baffling that my view of mods in terms of disruption is different to parts of the games industry. My personal perspective of modding aligns with the idea that it allows for more interaction from fans that ultimately becomes a meaningful and valuable output (see Sotamaa, 2010; Hong, 2013; Hong and Chen, 2014) – especially when ‘modders’ solve issues neglected by a developer or offer an experience absent from the game originally. Yet much of the industry finds modding disruptive in a negative sense, as by using ‘modded content’ you are found to be in violation of an End User Licence Agreement (EULA) (Wysocki, 2015: 208). So generally, the view of mods in terms of its disruption is dependent on your position.

Gaming culture is no stranger to disruption though. Generally, if you are going by a firm view of games, to play one is to accept there are certain limitations and aims – there is an unspoken expectation to follow a kind of ‘rule system’ but whether those expectations are followed is something else entirely. Take the idea of cheating – you “disrupt” the game’s accepted normalcy and exploit the space to “win” in some way. A self-serving form of disruption as the ‘cheater’ finds value in knowing they will “win” no matter what. What about trolling or griefing: purposely ruining the play experience for others through certain actions (Condis, 2018: 16-25; Jørgensen and Karlsen, 2018: 2) – again, disruption is given value through self-fulfilling behaviours. These are transgressive acts that could even be punishable in some game spaces, but to those cheatingtrolling or griefing, they find entertainment in their disruption. Like modding, they transform the experience…just not for the better. I am not here to justify these actions by arguing that we should think about them in this “positive, transformative” view: I look upon them as disruptive to my interaction with games as I do when I am subject to homophobic abuse when playing online games. What I am alluding to is the point I made at the start: disruption brings about a change that alters our experience, but in the case of these acts compared to modding, the “illusion” of playing a game for fun breaks and suddenly the game is no longer enjoyable…

Modding, though, brings about a new engagement and it is within this overlap of sex, sexuality and modding that I am most interested in discussion the idea of disruption. Sex in game spaces has disrupted our interaction in a myriad of ways: birthed relationships, brought about socio-political change, or even be utilised as a weapon of violence. This is not just something particularly based in modern video games, as these behaviours go even further back to the days of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) and the early online networks (see Brathwaite, 2013). However, the use of mods that feature sexual content – or any employing aspects relating to sexuality – has resulted in the emergence of sex within games that it did not feature originally.

Already we can start to pull the threads of disruption at this as there has once again been a change in the “norm” of the game. The most infamous example I could offer immediately is that which this blog is named after: The GTA: San Andreas “Hot Coffee” mod, where players were able to access a minigame that featured a playable sex scene. It goes further than that though, to something I alluded to at the beginning: a new identity and engagement. Modders have gone to further lengths by creating nude skins, create their own relationship and sex mechanics and more for games that did not feature any. It is not inaccurate to state that the mainstream industry is quite prudish when it comes to sex – rating boards, censorship, and other structures that have aided in viewing sex as obscene and taboo. That is not to say that all sexual mods are “appropriate” but my point is that through these mods, the game space has been disrupted to bring out a form of sexuality. I return to the conference’s keynote speech: modders are themselves content-producers and through the use of sexual mods are either expanding the “reach” of games or providing some form of juvenile entertainment (see Wysocki, 2015 – keynote speaker). Whichever, or both, there is still a disruption occurring.

We can sum up the relationship between sex and game modding with a passage from Wysocki (2015: 206-207):

‘So modders undertake this labor to add content they desire to engage in, which they feel is missing from their gaming experience. If the developers will not program it in, they will put in the time to ensure that they get it.’

If a game is not providing an adequate sexual experience for players, then players bring it upon themselves to generate the experience, especially with an industry that still has its reservations about sex and sexual subculture. That’s not to say there is no explicit sexuality offered by mainstream games and companies: ‘sexual content in video games ranges from the completely abstracted to the explicit’ (Brathwaite, 2013: 11). The problem is that this “explicit sexual content” is often still hidden from view (an easy example to offer would be God of War 3 that featured topless women but cut away to a shot of NPCs during the sexual encounter (Wysocki, 2015: 207)). So, if the industry won’t “go all the way,” why then don’t the players themselves instead?

This is not a piece that justifies the entire practice and output of sexual modding as, like the allegory of the conference’s keynote speech: when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you. There are some sexual mods that can be just as disruptive and damaging to our play experience, and ourselves, as that of griefing or cheating. The point I am trying to get at is that the generation of sexual mods shows a desire for their place in video games – and players are willing to disrupt the “original state” of the game to get it. Having the inclusion of sexual mods has allowed for sexual identities to exist within the space of games in a way previously inaccessible to them, approaches and interaction to games has changed. That can’t entirely be a bad thing, right?

People, players and alike, have found a new value in this disruptive practice of modding: sexual liberation and expression. Yes, it is not perfect and always ‘positive’ (I can second that notion of the abyss staring into you…) but the general idea of modding bringing about a form of identity and culture in a space that had sought to deny them of it is a pretty meaningful idea, especially when sexuality has had a difficult relationship with games. So, taking (sexual) modding as a disruptive practice that allows the emergence of explicit sexuality, I ask again: can disruption be a way to bring about change for the better?…

…Relatively anyway.

A Post-Reflection Rant:

There’s more to be said about this, I know there is. I can already see how power dynamics may relate to this, the erasure of sexual identities – particularly that of a queer nature – and the accessibility to (safe) sexual spaces. Perhaps I’ll return to this in the future, continue pulling at the threads to see where this idea of sexual modding and disruption may take me…

References and Further Readings:

Brathwaite, B. (2013) Sex in Video Games. s.l.: Brenda Brathwaite

Condis, M. (2018) Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks & the Gendered Battle for Online Culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Hong, R. (2013) Game Modding, Prosumerism and Neoliberal Labor Practices. International Journal of Communication, 7, pp. 984-1002. Available at https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1659/900 [accessed 16 Feb 2022].

Hong, R. and Chen, V. (2014) Become an Ideal Co-Creator: Web Materiality and Intensive Laboring Practices in Game Modding. New Media & Society, 16(2) 290-305. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444813480095

Jenkins, H. (2006) Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, H. (2008) Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Jørgensen, K. and Karlsen, F. (2018) Introduction: Playful Transgression. In: K. Jørgensen and F. Karlsen (eds.) Transgression in Games and Play. Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp. 1-9

Postigo, H. (2007) Of Mods and Modders: Chasing Down the Value of Fan-Based Digital Game Modifications. Games and Culture, 2(4), pp. 300-313. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1555412007307955

Postigo, H. (2008) Video Game Appropriation through Modifications: Attitudes Concerning Intellectual Property among Modders and Fans. Convergence, 14(1), pp. 59-74. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1354856507084419

Sotamaa, O. (2010) When the Game Is Not Enough: Motivations and Practices Among Computer Game Modding Culture. Games and Culture, 5(3) 239-255. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/155541200935976

Wysocki, M. (2015) It’s Not Just the Coffee That’s Hot: Modding Sexual Content In Video Games. In: M. Wysocki and E. Lauteria (eds.) Rated M for Mature: Sex and Sexuality in Video Games. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 194-209.

Author: harriresearches

After graduating from the University of Lincoln with a BA in Film and Television, Harrison continued his studies at Birmingham City University, completing an MA in Media and Cultural Studies which is where he first became interested in studying video games. He has since began conducting his PhD at the university exploring the concept of sexual play in queer pornographic video games, focusing on agency and player behaviours. He is interested in researching: explicit constructions of sex and sexuality in games, queer gaming cultures, ethnographic work, sexual scripting, gay pornography, and sexual subcultures.

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