To date, Natalie, a woman residing in Perth, Australia, has been downloaded 10,289 times.
Natalie is an open-source mod in fantasy role-playing game Skyrim, one of the most popular games on Steam with one of the most active modding communities in video games. Anyone who purchased Skyrim for PC has complete access to Natalie's digital incarnation. Dressed in modest peasant garb and punctured by two lip rings, Natalie can be persuaded to trail a player's avatar from one end of Skyrim's open world to another, or to stay home, occupying herself with domestic tasks.
Those who download Natalie in Skyrim know her by another name: "Enjoy My Girlfriend."
That's what Rhys Ian Harris, a 24-year-old modder and Natalie's real-life ex-boyfriend, dubbed the mod he created from Natalie's image. Anyone who wants a female companion to dutifully tend to their Skyrim character can conjure Natalie, whose base race was originally "Temptress." Not long after Harris, who goes under the handle "HarrisModifications," debuted her in April 2014, a male host on MxR Mods, a Skyrim mods YouTube channel, sampled "Enjoy My Girlfriend". His review (NSFW) features Natalie stirring a pot of yellow liquid over a fire and then being slashed in the face face six times.
Natalie declined to be interviewed for this story. Harris claims she was "100 percent fine" with him uploading his creation.
It's not hard to see why most gamers design characters in their likeness. Watching a bulked-up, mega-powerful version of yourself wreck hoards of monsters and save the world can be pretty great. Investing yourself in a game is also much easier when it's you actually holding the sword and jamming it into enemies' stomachs.
But over a series of interviews with Harris and others like him, it would seem designing and controlling avatars that resemble significant others past and present can add a special twist to the gaming experience. For some, using an avatar of their lover, or at least interacting with their digital incarnation, is a benign way to get more into a game, or even add a fun dynamic to their real-life romance. Others, it turns out—the majority of whom are men—enjoy the thrill of subduing and controlling avatars of lovers past.
XCOM 2, a 2016 sci-fi strategy game where players command squads of characters, lends itself to this sort of digital puppetry. "Hobbes" first created a character resembling his then-girlfriend in 2012, when Firaxis Games released XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
On missions, players create and maneuver a team of soldiers who tactically take out waves of aliens. The player is cast as the team's "commander." The idea, Hobbes and others like him said, is to capitalize on the game's advanced customization options to toggle characters' uniforms, hair, face and personalities to resemble lovers ex and current. A few created entire military squads composed of their ex-girlfriends, which is a little eerie, since XCOM 2 is notoriously hard: When a character dies, she does not respawn.
Hobbes evoked his then-girlfriend with blue eyes and dark blonde hair, gathered into a bun. For her name, Hobbes wrote in his favorite endearment. Over his shoulder, Hobbes's former girlfriend, who could not be reached for comment, watched him "play doll," in his words. It wasn't long before assailants approached, besting Hobbes and his XCOM team. The medic was already dead.
Hobbes remembered his girlfriend watching herself get critically injured and then killed. "She stayed silent," he told me, "which said a lot."
They were his girls. It was his job to shelter them against opponents.
When XCOM 2 was released earlier this year, Hobbes thought it might be fun to modify a squad of 10 soldiers to resemble all of the women with whom he has ever been intimate. ("Except the crazy or egotistical ones," he said.) Seven died.
"Some of them definitely deserved a better death," he mused.
Despite intentionally setting out to develop a team of former flames who would almost inevitably perish, Hobbes says that he became quite attached to these digital representations of his exes. Designing them after women he had known intimately inspired in him a certain protective compulsion. They were his girls. It was his job to shelter them against opponents.
Henry, a 20-year-old factory worker, also installed his girlfriend in his XCOM 2 game, only at her request. Together, they perused XCOM 2's hairstyle and eye color offerings and determined which combination best fit Lena, now a sniper in his XCOM 2 fantasy. Three missions later, she remains alive, but only because Henry diligently guards her, removing her from combat when she's below 10 percent health.
"I'll move her more slowly or keep her with the group or slightly behind," he explained. "If she survives another mission, it's not just like, 'Oh good, I still have this soldier.' It's like, 'Oh good, I still have my girlfriend.'"
Henry also enjoyed the added thrill of telling her, "Dude, you're a shit wrestler," or, "You're a badass alien killer!"
The lack of research on why gamers would install their loved ones into their digital escapisms indicates that the phenomenon is either not pervasive or openly discussed, according to cyberpsychologists like Nick Yee, who studies motivations behind gaming. Relatively unknown outside of media theory circles, however, is so-called Lara Croft syndrome, which describes heterosexual men's affinity for dominating deadly—but physically desirous—female bodies from a third-person viewpoint.
Lara Croft, who's in the minority of female video game protagonists, is famous primarily for two things: her badass fighting moves and perky, D-cup breasts. Both qualities might intimidate the average male gamer. The act of governing such a woman might make him feel super-powerful, ultra-masculine. Playing Tomb Raider, in other words, can provide him an opportunity to assert male dominance that he may never have outside digital worlds.
One female Second Life resident, let's call her "Avi," suffered the side-effects of Lara Croft syndrome when her ex, a popular content-creator in Second Life, modeled an avatar body closely off hers.
"It was my shape he used for the base shape for the stuff he made," Avi told me. When she dumped him, Avi said he used her shape on in-world posters advertising her digital avatar body, which was for sale to other Second Life residents, without her permission. Worse, she added, over the course of a few months her ex began to alter her shape—inflating her ass, shrinking her waist, stretching her legs.
"He was full of rage that I was done with him," Avi told me. "He took me and then 'idealized' me in his own image. Creepy."
Yee thinks that while Lara Croft syndrome is a workable theory, the underlying motivations for playing your lover might be more complicated.
Over five years, Yee collected research on over 35,000 MMORPG players for his Daedalus Project, a research initiative studying the psychology of MMORPGs. His findings suggest that men are three to five times more likely than women to gender-bend in video games, something cyberfeminists in the past have argued is simply a new way for men to exercise control over female bodies.
"Very few men would openly say that they play a female avatar to control female body, even if that was actually the case."
But when asked, the male gamers Yee surveyed consistently cited the most practical or instrumental reasons for choosing female avatars: It's more pleasurable to look at the back of a female avatar than a male one when playing in third-person POV, and feminine avatars get more freebies and presents in online games too.
The tonelessness of these responses, Yee added, is eerie, if not potentially misleading.
"When researchers ask this question, a lot of the time, we don't know whether gamers are just producing a socially-acceptable answer," Yee said. "Very few men would openly say that they play a female avatar to control female body, even if that was actually the case."
None of the male gamers I spoke with for this story said there was a kinky element to digitizing and controlling their former or current significant others.
"Perhaps these players are creating avatars so they have a 'thing' to look at and consider, to muse about and even yell at, as part of the coping process."
Jaime Banks, a Professor of Communications at West Virginia University who studies player-avatar relationships, doesn't think that "playing your lover" is necessarily gendered. "In many games male bodies are just as sexualized [as females']," Banks noted.
She cites two reasons why male gamers would conjure their exes or significant others in cyberspace: using them as "transitional objects" to ease trauma or a feeling of lost control after a relationship fractures, or as "evocative objects," Banks said, referring to cybersociologist Sherry Turkle's theory that, "We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with."
"Breaking up with someone can be a confusing and stressful time—and sometimes, being in a relationship can be confusing itself—it's not always easy to make sense of it," Banks elaborated. "Perhaps these players are creating avatars so they have a 'thing' to look at and consider, to muse about and even yell at, as part of the coping process."
"Creecher," whom I met on a gaming forum, can relate. He described his ex-girlfriend as a "scar" in his mind, adding that the avatars he designed to look like his ex after they split didn't help him cope.
"Quite the opposite," he said. It was a constant reminder of her presence. (He said she now lives in Skyrim and Eve Online, where she took the last name of his main character.) Creecher admitted that his habit of digitizing her "wasn't healthy" and seemed relieved to learn he probably isn't alone.
"Oh good," he said. "So I'm not batshit crazy."
I did manage to talk with one women who installed her husband's likeness in her digital escapisms.
Jacqueline Trudeau—her Second Life avatar's name—has resided in Second Life for over eleven years. Boat design is her main in-game occupation: For her business, Trudeau Classic Sailing Yachts, she meticulously crafts richly-textured sailboats and skippers in which Second Life residents enjoy romantic jaunts on the sea. Even though she pulls in some cash from her digital workmanship, her husband thinks it's a time sink. Needless to say, he doesn't play.
Trudeau, however, designed an avatar minutely resembling him. She uses it as a prop in her sailboat enterprise.
"I use him a lot for promotional photos," she explained. Trudeau's husband can be seen in-world wearing tight-fitting swim trunks and wraparound sunglasses, which, she explains, would never happen outside of the virtual world. He gets seasick, and moreover, they can't afford the expense of maintaining a boat. In online advertisements, Trudeau and her husband can be seen enjoying a twilight cruise, kissing on the deck of one of her sailboats.
"This is my way of getting him to come out on the boat with me," Trudeau said.
Kelvin D. Kramer, 54, also situated his partner in Second Life, arguing that the virtual world provides unique and unparalleled opportunities for romance. His wife's avatar, at 5'11", is a few inches taller than her real-life person, allowing her and Kramer, who is 6'3", to dance in the Second Life clubs at which he often DJs. (Kramer said in-world, she wears high-heeled shoes that she'd fall down in in real life.)
"We both really like music and have great rhythm," Kramer said, referring to their avatars. "But neither of us should really dance in real life. But we like the idea of dancing!"
In addition to taking his wife's avatar out on the town, Kramer plays dress-up with her Second Life incarnation, often logging in as her and taking her body shopping around Second Life's many boutiques. He's bought her flowy dresses, leopard print, Lovecraftian 1920s couture—threads she wouldn't feel comfortable wearing wear day-to-day, but would want to, he said.
"When she does log in, I like her to be surprised and pleased at her own appearance," Kramer explained. "In real life, I'd love to be able to go into a nice store and shop for clothes for her, surprise her with something she'd find flattering. That wouldn't work in practicality. I can pull it off in Second Life."
Saccharine avatar experiences can color in the broad outlines of our IRL relationships.
Escapism is often viewed as an individual pursuit, a way to engage in a private fantasy. As long as our loved ones are integral to our identities, however, they may hold places in our escapist landscapes, featuring as prominently in online role-playing as they would in our nightly dreams. There, abstracted from daily goings-on, we can reimagine our relationships to them and their influences on us.
Saccharine avatar experiences can color in the broad outlines of our IRL relationships. Imagining loved ones in fresh contexts with youthful faces has the potential to feed a real-life romance, though it possesses the added power of allowing gamers to reflect on past flames. Manipulating a lover's avatar without having to look them in the eye and watch them react to you could bring out some cold feelings.
Natalie and Harris broke up shortly after he made the mod—unrelatedly—which thwarted his plan to update it with new quests and voice acting.
Harris has since been banned from the mega-popular gaming mod platform Nexus Mods. Nowadays, when he calls up Skyrim, he adventures with Sofia, a fully-voiced follower mod companion. I asked Harris what Skyrim players should do now with open-source Natalie.
"What would I say right now?" he said. "Go download her and sacrifice her to Boethiah!"