Earlier this week, we reported that CD Projekt Red banned a Cyberpunk 2077 mod that allowed players to retexturize in-game assets to virtually have sex with Keanu Reeves’ character, Johnny Silverhand. The reason behind the ban was because the studio felt it was inappropriate to recreate explicit sexual encounters with a real person who did not give their permission (despite the character himself having numerous scenes throughout the game that were graphically sexual in nature). The conversation surrounding that previous coverage, and similar instances when a recognizable name is used in a game, prompted a desire to explore this topic further. For as long as I’ve been covering mods in my career, the ethical debate of fiction vs. reality has always been a subject that has two clear and opposing stances. But to understand the Great Debate Of Modding, we have to dive a bit deeper into the conversation surrounding this community.
What is rule 34?
First, let’s talk about the ever-present rule 34.
Rule 34 isn’t an actual rule; it’s just a term commonly used online to reference the fact that anything – absolutely anything – can be made into pornographic material via modding, fanart, etc. This is specifically true for things in entertainment that aren’t inherently sexual, but any attempt to thwart possible sexualization actually gives even more power to this created rule of the internet. When we shared the Cyberpunk 2077 mod ban, some comments brought up rule 34 – but it’s just one piece of the eternal debate on the ethics of modding sexual content.
What’s the debate?
So what’s the “big deal”? The topic of modding is split between two major groups: the first group being “it’s just a game,” with the second group usually citing a deeper connection to the real world. There are a few facets of this conversation beyond just protecting someone like Keanu Reeves. In fact, the “deeper connection to the real world” is something that I briefly touched on with another Cyberpunk 2077 mod we shared concerning an in-game modification that allows for Judy (a canonically lesbian character) to be romanced (fully voiced) by a male V.
In the instance of the Keanu Reeves sex mod, the conversation surrounds consent. While Johnny Silverhand isn’t a real person, Reeves is, and Reeves – as an actor – only agreed to scenes that he explicitly signed off on. With players taking content in their own hands by putting Keanu’s likeness on a sexbot, the age-old “is it or isn’t it” debate came back in full force: Silverhand vs. Reeves, is consent required or do we separate fiction from reality entirely despite how fiction shapes our lives daily?
The deeper side of romance.
In the article about Judy, the argument about the ethical standards of tampering with storylines representing marginalized communities came up quite a bit. The reasoning against those particular mods is that same-sex relationship options are so few and far between in games, the number available is usually much smaller than heterosexual relationship counterparts and that messing with that type of representation is a form of erasure. For this side of the reactionary spectrum, it can be seen as a moral issue beyond simple fiction, an issue that flared up in a transformative way when a Dorian mod for Dragon Age: Inquisition went viral; a mod that made his sexuality straight despite his entire storyline being a gripping tale of “coming out” when society wanted him dead or buried just for preferring men.
With Dorian, being gay was a part of his story. It was the very basis of why this character was written to be so protective of himself when his own father tried to harm him in order to force him into a heterosexual relationship with the hopes that he would carry on the family name by being forced into a loveless marriage. With that being expressly written into his story, making that a huge part of his identity as a character, the mods out there that immediately made him available as a female love interest superseded being “just a game.” Why? Because that narrative was written with those vulnerable experiences that fans have expressed through the years where their parents and loved ones abandoned them for simply being who they are. It’s those stories from fans that inspired Dorian’s creation as a character, and others like him. Therefore, changing who he is seemingly projecting the notion that those real-life attempts at changing those players that resonated with his story are also okay.
The heart of this debate centers around one core focus point: What is considered ethical and what isn’t when looking at fictional worlds, especially games that are meant to be tailored to the ideal player experience on an individual basis.
In relation to romantic pairings in general, not just a famous person’s face, the conversation about what is ethically acceptable regarding putting expressly written homosexual characters into heteronormative relationships usually gets incredibly heated with two clear ends on the reactionary spectrum. On one hand, you have people that don’t understand why this is even a conversation. The more extreme side of this perspective oftentimes ends with something along the lines of “get over it” and “it’s just a game.” The other side of that dialogue centers on not the games themselves, but their impact and why changing certain aspects of representation can be intentionally, and unintentionally, harmful to aspects of our society that are often erased. This is especially true when looking at the gay and trans community being represented in games, more so when looking at our recent history in the United States where gays couldn’t even get legally married until 2015 and the trans community continuously in a positing of fighting for their lives and their rights.
But it’s just a game.
It is, absolutely. Ultimately, if players want to use mods to change storylines and alter romantic relationships, they have that right. When having conversations like this, it’s vital to be open to both sides. Not to acquiesce, but to see where each person is coming from; it’s important to understand each side so that both can share their perspective more effectively and potentially come to an agreeable conclusion. For example, I can’t say whether or not Keanu Reeves would be offended by the Cyberpunk 2077 sex mod, but the fact that I can’t say that means that I can’t just assume he wouldn’t be.
Similarly, if you have never had to come out to your friends and family or faced punishment just for being honest about your sexuality and who you are, then you don’t know the power that sort of representation in games can have. For a person like that, seeing themselves in a strong character like Dorian and other similar stories means everything. To see that meaning be stripped away for the sake of a five-second sex scene brings up a lot of internal feelings that someone who hasn’t been there simply cannot even begin to understand. But through this conversation, and understanding can be found if the conversation itself is hard and it doesn’t devolve into embittered and defensive fighting.
This is the case especially with RPGs when the premise of most of these games is for a player to feel like their best self in a game world environment, or simply to experience something they would never be able to in real life. This is why many women like to play as male characters and why many men enjoy playing female characters. By altering these relationship standards in games through the power of modding, that desire to create an almost “optimized” world for personal reflection can be seen through changing the original artistic direction of a character.
Is it wrong?
There are two extremes when it comes to the ongoing conversation of ethics and their place in the modding community. We’ve seen it with mods that turn POC characters white, we’ve seen it with mods that turned underage characters “legal” for less than pure reasons. In some cases, it really is just a game. Let people create the experience they want to create. In other cases, however, there is a deeper conversation rooted in very real, very prevalent real-life issues, especially concerning marginalized groups that feel erased in their daily lives, only to see “themselves” erased in the medium they enjoy through gaming.
In the real world, no one agrees 100% about everything. That’s not realistic. What we can do, however, is listen to one another instead of caving into that knee jerk reaction to say “I’m right” or “you’re wrong” and listening when people open up about any potential deeper meanings behind their part in this ongoing conversation.