Video game modding, the DIY alteration of games, stretches all the way back to the altered game Castle Smurfenstein. Made in 1983 for the Apple II computer, Castle Wolfenstein was a classic arcade-style game converted as a mod to Smurfenstein where Nazis were replaced with Smurfs hell-bent on taking over the world.
In the years since, modders have become an integral and symbiotic part of the gaming industry. The Valve-created Steam, an internet-based digital distribution platform for games, fosters an active modding subculture on its Steam Community pages. Bethesda Games offers mod kits for mega-titles including Skyrim and Fallout.
Despite women accounting for 44 percent of gamers in the US and 52 percent in the United Kingdom, the female modding community is rather small. But what they're doing is of great interest, given that AAA games aren't exactly designed with them in mind. Some might be modding to create more feminine characters, or to simply get characters looking more as they wish they would; others are just looking to infuse AAA games with more variety overall. Many of gaming’s female modders are active on Tumblr, including such prolific modders as Stealthic, Kalilies, Shockyy, and Elianora.
Hoping to gain some insight into the female modding community, The Creators Project reached out to girlplaysgame, a gamer who is actively modding Xbox and PC titles such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, Destiny, Skyrim, Bioshock and Fallout. girlplaysgame runs a blog appropriately titled Girl Plays Game, where she posts her mods and keeps people up to date on modding culture.
The Creators Project: How did you get into modding? That is, what brought it to your attention, and how did you get started? girlplaysgame: I first became aware of modding via Tumblr. I would follow all these video game fandoms like Skyrim and Mass Effect and wonder how some people were posting characters who looked so much cooler than mine. When I realized you could do all sorts of things with mods, I went out and bought a gaming PC (I was 100% Xbox 360/Xbone before I started modding). Then with the help of some online tutorials by Ottemis, I taught myself how to mod my first game, Mass Effect 3.
Who were your modding influences, and what, if you can speculate, were their motivations?
I think few modders are consciously trying to make some sort of social statement with mods. Almost every modder I know creates something for personal use, then is kind enough to make it available for public download.
I try to make mods that: 1. I want to use myself. 2. Other people aren’t making. I use nude mods in Skyrim, but there are about a bajillion different nude mods out there already so I don’t make them myself. But not many people are making male follower mods for Skyrim, so I make my own. Variety is what modding is all about, so I don’t see the point in making a version of a mod that ten other people are making.
Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 3 with hipster hair and outfit mod. Courtesy of girlplaysgame.
You mod some popular video games to sort of 'feminize,' for lack of a better term, AAA games that are very male-centric. But this isn’t all you do. Can you elaborate on your approach? I don’t mod with the intent to feminize games—I mod to add variety. The reason my female mods seem to skew traditionally “feminine” is because the games I happen to mod interpret “strong female protagonist” as physically strong, butch, and tomboyish, overcompensating for traditional skimpily-clad, buxom female caricatures. I think that view is just as one-dimensional.
I don’t believe being traditionally feminine or overtly sexy is exclusive from being strong and gritty, so I make mods like long hair and dresses for Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. That doesn’t mean that I think women have to look like space Barbies all the time, either, but I do think that people should have options and the freedom to choose their own preferences. To be fair, I also mod male Commander Shepard to be less space marine and more space hipster, too. Modding is all about variety!
Outside of yourself, do you have any insight into the subculture of female gamers modding games?
I think modders as a community are very helpful and accepting of other people’s creations. You gain a real appreciation for modding after going through the frustrations and hard work of creating a mod yourself. So, even if someone makes a mod that you wouldn’t use yourself, you appreciate their right to use it and the work it took to make it.
I think that, unfortunately, the female gamer community is known for criticizing rather than creating, and that “feminist gamer” culture can be just as toxic as “gamer bro” culture. That’s why I like being part of the modding community—it’s just a bunch of makers, builders, and creators. Instead of spending time and energy complaining, we channel our efforts into modding things that suit our interests. I think that’s a much more productive and empowering use of time than any kind of armchair activism.
As someone who enjoys games, do you feel let down by AAA game developers for not bringing more variety to these imaginary worlds?
I think game developers work really hard to make immersive worlds these days, but it’s impossible for game developers to make everyone happy. Even if you have the most diverse customization options in your game, there will always be a subset of people you offend or exclude. That’s why it’s so important for game developers to release creation kits that make it easy for modders to mod their games. If I’m disappointed with anything, it’s when developers who create amazing worlds fail to make it easily moddable.
Which games are better in this regard, and which are the worst?
Bethesda [Game Studios] games (Skyrim, Fallout) are great for modding. Their creation kits make it really easy for modders to do cool things. They also have a very active modding community, which is why so many of us are still playing Skyrim five years after its initial release. BioWare games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Inquisition are really hard to mod—it’s really frustrating because those franchises are so strong otherwise.
Is modding a form of expression for yourself that you'd engage in even if you weren't modding with the particular focus you have now?
Even if games provided every customization option under the sun, I’d probably still find something else I’d want to mod into a game. I think modding is a great creative outlet and the barrier to learning to mod is pretty low.
If you could take over a AAA game company, what would you do? Hire more talented writers, cut the marketing budget in half and invest it in new IP (seriously, how many sequels and prequels do we really need), invest in VR and augmented reality.
Click here to see more of girlplaysgame’s mods.