Crazy what goes on in the video game world. Very long read but just astonishing to me and some very controversial stuff.
Warning: This article contains explicit descriptions and discussion of sexual violence.
The desire to see videogame characters naked existed long before whispers of Tomb Raider nude codes. These days, by way of game-altering player-made mods, turning that desire into reality has never been easier. Despite Skyrim being rated ‘Mature’ by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, the base game is actually very light on sexual content—just a few offhand references and some suggestive clothing. However, Skyrim also has one of the most flexible modding frameworks of any game, enabling amateur artists and programmers to change the original content in ways that the developer never intended.
Using mods, you can now add elements of survival games, rework the combat, or turn all the dragons into Macho Man Randy Savage. And with those same tools, modders have also been able to turn Skyrim into a sexual playground encompassing almost any kink imaginable. At first I imagined my headfirst dive into the world of Skyrim sex mods would be an evening spent bumping uglies with werewolves or inciting orgies in Whiterun—and it largely was. But my quest to see what Skyrim’s sex modding scene offered also opened the doors to far more controversial sexual content that I wasn’t prepared for. This is a community that hasn’t left many stones unturned.
Sex in Skyrim
Ashal isn’t exactly the type of person I’d expect to be running the largest adult modding community on the internet. He’s quiet and aloof—not like the digital Hugh Hefner I had in mind when I first set out to meet him. But if there’s one person you could attribute to the massive community of adult-themed mods, it’s Ashal. More than just owner of the massive sex mod community, LoversLab, his SexLabs mod is the paint and canvas that allows thousands of modders to bring their desires to life inside of Skyrim. To date it’s been downloaded over 2.7 million times. While the mod does nothing by itself, it provides a foundation of thousands of animations and basic game functions that others can expand upon. A sexual arousal system, for example, essentially quantifies how horny a character might become from witnessing various sexual acts.
When we first talk, it’s hours after midnight—the only time Ashal can talk freely without risking his housemates overhearing our discussion. Despite LoversLabs’ massive popularity and the $2,000 a month it earns through Patreon, no one in Ashal’s real life knows what he does for a living. “My parents know I run a community site—I leave it at that,” he says.
LoversLab and its roughly 1.5 million members are responsible for thousands of mods that meticulously cover every aspect of sexuality. It’s such a massive community that even on a Monday morning there are over 1,700 active users. The mod Schlongs of Skyrim, to take one example, provides an exhaustive suite of options for tailoring every aspect of a character’s penis to make it look just right. And then there are mods like Devious Devices, an incredibly in-depth series of BDSM mods that give players every bondage or domination tool they could dream of. Devious Devices doesn’t just stock your inventory full of whips and chains, but also includes quests to provide some erotic inspiration for roleplaying.
“I prefer mods with a bondage-themed focus and the ones that add erotic content to the game without making sex scenes their sole reason for existence,” says Kimy. She’s a 30-year-old software engineer who manages Devious Devices after inheriting it from another member. “I don’t want to see sex scenes for the sake of seeing sex. I want them embedded in a meaningful story or setting. A lot of [LoversLab] mods actually provide just that, which to me is their main benefit over [porn]. My specific focus—bondage—isn’t even necessarily pornographic in nature. Bondage play can involve or result in sex, but doesn’t have to.”
Aside from sex, roleplaying is probably the most common theme on LoversLab. The appeal isn’t always the sex itself, but the way mods like Devious Devices weave sensuality and play into the stories players are telling through their characters.
Like Ashal, Kimy says her status as one of the most popular sex modders is a closely kept secret. “I suppose it’s sort of natural, given that we’re still living in a society that shuns every notion of expressing sexuality in public or in the media beyond holding hands and kisses,” Kimy says. “We might be friends for life with someone and discuss every imaginable topic with them—except sex. That one is usually only touched, if at all, very superficially so. I sometimes imagine what my friends would say if I told them that I was creating bondage mods. If they were honest, I would probably hear ‘cool, I am into cuffs and ropes, too!’ surprisingly often.”
But LoversLab is different. The anonymity of it lets people like Kimy shed their fears of judgment and express themselves both online and in Skyrim. Ashal tells me that “no kink-shaming” is one of the community’s biggest rules. For him and Kimy, LoversLab is a welcoming place for people of all sexual inclinations—even ones they don’t agree with.
Nothing to the imagination
That includes popular LoversLab mods like More Nasty Creatures, which allows you to engage in all manner of sexual encounters with the local wildlife of Skyrim. With the push of a few buttons, you can watch a giant use your Dragonborn like a Fleshlight. Though they make my skin crawl, I’m sure someone out there has risked a hagraven’s diseases just to say they’ve fucked one. And, of course, you can consume more of dragons than just their souls.
“I’m painfully uninterested in [bestiality],” Ashal says. It feels a little ironic then that he must carry the burden of his community’s sexual fetishes by programming the functionality into SexLabs. “I only added it because so many people were asking for it. I was like, fine, I’ll spend the next month watching bears give oral sex to my character so I can finish this feature.”
But it turns out that bestiality with mythical creatures only scratches the surface of the uncomfortable subject matter available via LoversLab.
With just under a million downloads, the fourth-most downloaded mod on LoversLab is SexLab Defeat (it uses the SexLab name, but Ashal isn’t affiliated with it). Because nothing shatters the illusion of roleplaying quite like dying, SexLab Defeat introduces a host of scenarios that occur in lieu of death. In concept, I’d love to see more roleplaying games make death more interesting than a timeout or loss of progress, but SexLab Defeat’s solutions center around rape.
Using SexLab Defeat, players can sexually assault NPCs at will or become the victim of a sexual assault themselves. Built on Ashal’s framework, the mod uses many of the same animations and features, but presented outside of the context of consensual sex. It’s not the only mod like this. Others simulate sexual assault to a troubling degree, including victims exhibiting emotional trauma by crying after their assault is over.
Necrophilia, bestiality, and rape mods are all common and popular on the site. In fact, the only thing that is strictly off limits is anything involving children. I ask Ashal about LoversLab’s loose policies, especially with regards to rape. “I obviously don’t condone that kind of thing,” he says. “That’s where people get confused, they think that fantasizing about it is the same as condoning it. I wouldn’t agree with that—there’s a line between fantasy and reality.”
Given the incredibly damaging consequences of real world sexual violence, I was troubled by the idea of players acting it out, even in a fantastical context. I reached out to Heather McPherson, an AASECT certified sex therapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and founder and CEO of the Sexual Health Alliance to get an expert opinion. I asked her if there’s any correlation between fantasizing about rape and a propensity to carry out a sexual assault in real life. “There’s no correlation, the data is very poor to back that kind of statement up,” she says. “We have a lot of fantasies, some include sex, some don’t, but there’s a lot of things we fantasize about that we never actually want to do. It’s a way for our mind to work out things or heal certain parts of ourselves, it’s a way to better understand a situation and work through things that we’re feeling.”
Research into the psychology of rape fantasies suggests similar conclusions. A 2008 meta-analysis published by Joseph Critelli and Jenny Bivona, researchers at the University of North Texas, combined 20 studies to explore why between 31 and 57 percent of women “have fantasies in which they are forced into sex against their will.”
The answer to why such fantasies are so common is of course complicated, but at no point do the findings suggest a correlation between a fantasy involving forced sex and wanting to experience such a scenario in real life. In fact, the term ‘rape fantasy’ is even misleading because the nuance of such fantasies can be a lot more complex. “Our society idealizes and romanticizes sexual aggression as an expression of passion and ‘how much’ someone cares or is overcome by desire,” Dr. David Ley, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, writes to me in email. “Such fantasies also appear to be ways in which people may overcome histories of sexual trauma or fear of sexual trauma. Ultimately, the ‘why’ is less important. There are many, many different reasons for these fantasies. The more important thing is for us to accept and acknowledge them as a part of human sexuality.”
Understanding a forced-sex fantasy from the perspective of the victim has been the subject of many studies, but there’s much less research exploring the fantasy from the other perspective. If fantasizing about being forced into sex doesn’t correlate to a desire to experience rape in real life, can the same be said for fantasizing about raping someone?
“Research on rape proclivities and behavior suggests that only around 6 to 8 percent of males engage in actual rape/sexual assault across their lifetime, but around 40 to 60 percent of males report fantasies of it, or of forcing a person into sex,” Dr. Ley writes. “UCLA researcher Neil Malamuth’s work suggests that there is a small group of men, perhaps around 5 to 7 percent, who are at risk of engaging in sexual violence by virtue of their predispositions, and that things like violent media (such as porn or perhaps videogames) may increase the chances those men will act violently. But, the important thing is that it is the predisposing characteristics, such as antisocial personality, misogyny, substance use, mental illness, which really drive the risk. Violent media serves a very small part.”
But even Dr. Ley acknowledges that this is still a contentious area of science. With so many other factors to consider, like the majority of rapes going unreported and varying cultural attitudes toward sexual violence, the research is far from conclusive. That’s why the the laws around pornographic material involving simulated rape are also different according to country. In England, for example, the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 amended the ‘extreme pornography law’ of 2008 to ban the possession of pornographic images that depicted consensual or simulated acts of rape. But it’s unclear if videogame mods fall under that definition. In the US, however, there are no such laws beyond those intended to prevent the distribution of child-related pornography.
I reached out to Bethesda get their perspective on modding sex into Skyrim. After all, there is precedent for developers shutting down mods because of controversial subject matter. However, highly open games like Skyrim can be modified in any number of ways by users who are part of communities which publishers don’t control. “We do not police mods available on third party sites,” a spokesperson tells me, adding that the company only maintains restrictions on mods that are uploaded through their own site. The result is that communities like LoversLab are effectively self-regulating. Distribution platforms like Steam might enforce certain standards, but game developers can’t account for all the ways their games might be reprogrammed and hosted elsewhere.
Fantasy and reality
I reached out to SexLab Defeat’s creator, Goubo, to get his perspective. He tells me that he began working on the mod as a way to teach himself programming and that his version is actually a port of an already existing mod called Defeat. “Rape fantasies are absolutely not something I would enjoy in real life in any way really,” he writes. “[Actual rape] is something that disgusts me and [shocks] me like every normal person … but at the end of the day my brain can make the difference between fake and reality. That’s the whole point and judging from the popularity of my mod I guess I’m not alone. It is a fantasy and it stays that way. It’s just a taboo one that people have a hard time discussing.”
Goubo also argues that mods like SexLabs Defeat also make Skyrim more “realistic” by suggesting that a sexual assault would likely be the outcome if a group of bandits managed to capture a female Dragonborn.
“My own mod features some non-consensual sex as well, but at no point it suggests that forcing someone into a sexual act is OK to do,” Kimy says. “And, to me, that’s the important difference. Sexual violence is a reality. Women are exposed to it on an absolutely daily basis. I am not aware of too many women who didn’t fall victim to verbal or physical sexual violence at least once in her life. Showing this in a fictitious context is OK, maybe to a certain degree even necessary. But glorifying it is not. That’s where I personally draw the line.”
Kimy suggesting that exploring sexual violence in fiction might be necessary is an interesting argument. During my research, I also spoke with Dr. Chris Rose and Dr. Victoria Beck, researchers at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. They are in the process of publishing a study that measures what impact, if any, exposure to sexual violence in videogames, primarily Grand Theft Auto 5, has on a person. Their preliminary findings weren’t what they expected. “What was actually happening was [the test subject’s] rape myths and their attitudes about victim blaming were getting better,” Dr. Rose says.
While sex is almost a universal theme of every mod on LoversLab, where to draw the line is a decision that falls to each member. The internet age has taught us that there’s a much wider spectrum of sexuality beyond what each of us might find comfortable. But Skyrim modders go further by exploring these subjects through interactivity. “No kink-shaming is a core tenet of the site. These are all destructive things in the real world I’d never even dream of condoning, but there is a disconnect between real life and a fictional or virtual roleplay context,” Ashal reiterates.
When I set out to first write this story in November, I never expected to discover such uncomfortable subject matter. But it’s also a topic that clearly warrants examination and discussion.
Mods like Defeat, and the players who use them, are only one part of LoversLab—but they also represent a dilemma that stems from having the free and open communities we often celebrate as PC gamers. Modding has always been seen as a vibrant expression of creativity, a kind of dialogue between gamers and developers that gives rise to amazing projects like the Enderal, essentially a new game built inside of Skyrim. But mods also enable creators and players to explore interests and taboos that can deeply upset or concern many people.
The freedom of the internet already provides many ways to explore these ideas, and maybe mods are just another expression of the desire to do so. But whether some of these mods are even legal, the cultural implications and psychological impact they have, and who should be responsible for regulating them are all questions we should be considering carefully.