10:42 pm, February 18, 2005
Putting Some Skin in the Game: Creative Videogame Fans 'Hack' The Sims, Others To Make Clothing Optional
By VAUHINI VARA
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ONLINE
February 18, 2005 8:16 a.m.
Kamma Nielsen spends much of her time caring for her children and grandchildren. But lately, the 56-year-old has been devoting more energy to her favorite hobby: designing naked characters for The Sims, a popular computer game that lets players guide virtual people (a.k.a. Sims) through everyday life.
Ms. Nielsen is a minor celebrity in a subculture of game enthusiasts who are trying to overcome the G-rated boundaries of off-the-shelf games. Her R-rated Web site lets users download the ”skins,“ or nude character designs, into their own desktop versions of the game.
”My husband thinks I'm silly, but he says it's nice I'm having fun," says Ms. Nielsen, who lives in Denmark with her husband and their three youngest children.
New York artist Love Ablan has created dozens of nude characters and racy settings for The Sims, such as this censored hot tub scene. Electronic Arts Inc., the company behind the Sims franchise of games, has long condoned the development of customized content for its Sims games. “We don't host naked Sims on our own site, and we try not to link to that stuff. But we also try not to pass moral judgments upon our users,” says Caryl Shaw, manager of online services for Maxis, the EA unit that produces the Sims games. “I mean, they make some pretty cool stuff.”
But some game publishers aren't amused by the titillating tinkering. Tecmo Inc. last week sued the administrators of a Web site called ninjahacker.net1, whose users were sharing nude skins and other modifications for a game called Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, which features bikini-clad women on a beach. The game is played on Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox console.
Tecmo says people used the site to illegally copy and share the software blueprints, or source code, of its game, which it spent millions of dollars to create. “It's a big business,” says John Inada, general manager of the Torrance, Calif.-based subsidiary of Japan's Tecmo Ltd. “We won't just give away our trade secrets for nothing.”
Mike Greiling, who ran ninjahacker.net, declined to comment on the lawsuit brought by Tecmo, but his attorney released a written statement. “Mr. Greiling did not copy any Tecmo software source code, did not compete with Tecmo, and did not profit from the message board,” according to the statement. “Any modifications to the games done by members of the message board were not in violation of any copyrights or other rights of Tecmo.”
Those who design nude characters, meanwhile, say it's a testament to their love of the games — not an attempt to upset the game publishers. They argue that they're likely helping to drive interest in games like The Sims, one of the best-selling PC games of all time. Some critics of Tecmo's efforts to stop the game modifications have pointed out in online forums that the game's characters were barely clothed in the first place.
“We do come pretty close to nude, but we do leave some patches of fabric in certain areas,” Mr. Inada of Tecmo counters.
In comparison, Sims characters are decidedly modest: They are almost always clothed, even when sitting using the restroom. When they take showers, a pixelated patch blurs the R-rated areas, even in the mirror's reflection. Sex was barely mentioned in the first version of the game. With the introduction of The Sims 2 in September, “woohoo,” as the act is known in the game, became a quick, under-the-covers wrestling match.
But “woohoo” wasn't enough for some players. Sims enthusiast Wesley Howe, a 53-year-old retired telecommunications engineer, says he spends up to five hours a day designing modifications of the game — much more time than he spends actually playing it. Mr. Howe posts his naked characters and other designs for free online. Others charge for their creations — users have to pay about $5 a month to download racy Sims modifications from the “JD's SIMulated” Web site.
Enthusiasts use programs like Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop image-manipulation software, and free programs with names like BodyWarp created by fellow game enthusiasts. Incorporating the modifications into games requires some technical know-how. For computer games like The Sims, users download and install an update to the program. For console-based games, like the beach volleyball game for the Xbox, users must jump through elaborate hoops, including installing a special “mod” chip in their machines and hooking the boxes up to the Internet.
Most of the sites featuring the nude modifications issue warnings saying they contain adult content intended for those over 18 years old, but generally don't use the same age-verification aimed at keeping kids away from pornographic sites.
Of course, not all game modifications are naughty in nature. In the broadest sense, a “hack” is software that manipulates the way a game is played, while “skins” and “meshes” can change the look of any character or object. Mr. Howe spends much of his time building furniture for The Sims, for example, while others swap weapons and potions for fantasy games. Many of the skins for Tecmo's beach volleyball game dress the characters up as comic book characters and movie villains, rather than dressing them down. Meanwhile, some hackers trade programs that let them control various aspects of games — suppressing characters' bladders, blessing them with eternal youth or letting them skip to a new level, for example.
Still, for those who seek a bit of titillation, there are plenty of hacks that deliver stripped, sex-obsessed characters. Though nude characters for The Sims are the most readily available, they are also available for other games like BioWare Corp.'s Neverwinter Nights and Bethesda Softworks LLC's Morrowind. With Neverwinter Nights, a medieval fantasy game, designers use their imaginations to design naked dwarves, gargoyles and giants, and seek feedback in online forums.
The latest challenge for Sims hackers has been to create an enhanced male nude for The Sims 2. (The three-dimensional graphics in the new version make it tougher to modify characters.) Sims players have also teamed up to create beds, rugs and chairs that are programmed to show graphic sex scenes.
Love Ablan, a 30-year-old artist in New York, started creating nude versions of herself and her girlfriend two years ago. Then, she started finding celebrity skins online, stripping them and putting them all in a Sims house filled with sex-friendly furnishings. “It's a sort of funny way to act out fantasies,” she says. Write to Vauhini Vara at firstname.lastname@example.org
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