Since people have been playing games, they’ve found inventive ways to do it naked. In ancient Greece, sports were performed in the buff: “Gymnasium” and “gymnast” are derived from the Greek gymnos, meaning naked. There was even a yearly festival in Sparta called Gymnopaedia celebrating nudity and games, which fared much better than our current “Getnakedween.” Since then, it’s been common knowledge that a bit of starkers can liven up even the dullest game. From strip poker to strip Parcheesi, no game is so sacrosanct that it can’t be improved with a couple less layers. This gives us two insights into human civilization as a whole: It wants to slip into something more comfortable. And it wants to win at Twister.

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No surprise, then, that as games move into the digital realm, players have been up to the same tricks. One of the oldest and most enduring applications of user-generated content is the nude patch. Designed to alter a character’s outer layer, or “skin,” to show off skin of a different sort, these player-made patches have been rearranging bits and bytes to show off bits and pieces since the medium was young. The notion was popularized by an apocryphal cheat rumored to be in the original Tomb Raider, called “Nude Raider.” It was complete fiction, but that didn’t stop enterprising modders from turning their hand to the task. Today, an assortment of virtual vixens have received the same treatment from a player base less interested in freeing them from castles than freeing them from their clothes.

Before setting out to write an article on some of the more unusual content in gaming’s short history, I took all the necessary precautions. Faced with the prospect of downloading a handful of questionable patches, I bulked up my virus security. (When dealing with this sort of thing, it never hurts to use protection.) I also decided to give my wife, Colleen, a friendly heads-up.

“I’ll be doing some research for The Escapist. You may find some … weird things on the computer.”

Colleen was skeptical. “How weird? Unforgivable?”

I gave it some thought. “No. Just … inexplicable.”

That seems to be the word for it. Looking at some of the older, rougher attempts at polygonal pornography fills me with neither moral outrage nor bodice-tearing lust, just a vague sense of confusion. Some have only achieved nudity in the most abstract sense, like a Rorschach test that relies upon an eye sharpened for naked ladies. An unfortunate fact about projects such as these is that the characters in question are not exactly paragons of anatomy; dressing them up in flesh and blood is sometimes that last nudge down the slippery slope into the uncanny valley. And then there are those that are downright Frankensteinian: In some cases, obvious bulges of clothing are simply re-colored as skin, producing an end product looking something like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.

But technology has marched on, and regardless of our feelings on the matter we find ourselves in an age of Brave New Boobs. Between a well-entrenched modding community and an unrelenting trend of developers toward videogame cheesecake, the nude patch has become more ubiquitous than ever. A surprising array of games have received the nude treatment. Beyond no-brainers like Lara Croft and likely targets like Half-Life 2‘s Alyx Vance and Left 4 Dead‘s Zoey, there are some that strain credulity – for example, a nude patch for Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 that is painful to even think about. My search also turned up stranger fare that barely qualifies as a “nude patch,” including an attempt to restore the classic Game Boy game Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening to its original version, which included, among other visual delights, a half-naked hippo. (Of course, as an optimist I would consider the hippo half-dressed.)

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Certain cases reveal a delightful absurdism. Take a game like The Sims, which capitalizes on this dress-up dynamic. You start with little people living out their daily lives. These daily lives might sometimes involve stripping down, at which point the characters’ naughty bits are discreetly covered with a blur effect. So a patch is created that removes this blur, revealing featureless Barbie-doll bodies. Boring. Then another patch is invented to dress-up these already undressed bodies with the various bits that the creators omitted. Finally, pictures of this last project find their way online, where some images are re-censored because think of the children.

Then there is the case of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, which drew media attention after a modder assembled a nude patch using textures already found within the game files. The resulting controversy led the ESRB to change the rating from T to M, forcing retailers to pull copies from store shelves for relabeling. Whether you agree or disagree with the verdict, you can at least appreciate the puritanical logic behind it all: Imagine! All this time, they were naked underneath their clothes!

Often the nude patch has been framed as proof of gaming’s eternal adolescence – an X-ray Male Gaze fixed on pixelated pubescence. But I’m not interested in dressing-down these deleters of digital duds. In all my searching, I found little that upset anything but my sense of aesthetics. In some cases, I wondered if they could even be considered “pornography” at all. Porn, after all, is material whose primary purpose is sexual arousal. But pinning down that purpose is the tricky part. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography that he couldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it. In this case, I’m not always sure I see it – did the person who re-skinned Street Fighter 4 do so because he was sweet on Zangief in buttless briefs?

The irony is that what is sexy has more to do with what someone is wearing than what someone is not. It’s a relational thing, a push and pull between seen and unseen that plays out in the imagination. Stripped of context as well as clothes, these nude characters sleepwalk through unblinking games in a way that is comic rather than erotic. The result is somehow less than its combined parts, like a man arriving at a cocktail party wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a tuxedo on it. But the greater irony is that for all its skulking in shadows, the nude patch’s day in the sun may have finally come.

Where once nudity in games belonged to the underbelly of the medium, more and more games are now embracing it in the mainstream. It seems redundant, even quaint, to imagine a nude patch for something like Bayonetta, which features a protagonist whose magical clothing literally flies off her body as she performs her attacks. How do you strip a character in a perpetual state of undress? Elsewhere, Second Life‘s Linden Labs has begun to work on official adult content for its virtual world last year, responding to the popularity of various nude skins and mature acts.

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Other publishers have embraced the notion of monetizing such content. In The Saboteur, players can enter a code – free with retail purchase, but $3 otherwise – that allows the strippers at The Belle du Nuit to appear without their faithful nipple pasties. And the upcoming Dante’s Inferno seems poised to take gaming’s love affair with birthday suits to its obvious conclusion: An ESRB rating outlines “a bluish devil/demon in boss-battle mode – its penis visible during the flying and fire-spewing.” Purveyors of downloadable content, take heed: I’d pay a couple bucks to buy that demon some pants – it sounds like he could take an eye out.

With so many official options for in-game nudity, is the age of the old-fashioned user-generated nude patch coming to an end? On the one hand, it’s a testament to its lasting appeal that game makers have begun to profit from nude content. They can hardly be blamed for it, either: With the epiphany that sex sells, they have begun to sell sex. But this plethora of legitimized nude content also stands to preempt the very curiosities that have inspired such unusual patches in the first place. Maybe we’ll someday feel a strange nostalgia for the days when sex in gaming was a do-it-yourself affair, before it became slick and commercial and before we’d ever heard the phrase “jiggle physics” mentioned in polite company.

Then again, if past amateur efforts are any indication, perhaps it’s for our own good that developers are reclaiming the keys to this kingdom. Inevitably, these “skins” change the meaning of the game in a way that is more than skin deep. By playing as the characters undressed through these patches, the player’s role becomes inverted – the stripper becomes the stripped and the voyeur becomes the viewed. Rather than some steamy fantasy, it’s more like that recurring dream where you accidentally go to school in your underwear. Everything seems normal … but why are people staring? And does anybody else feel that draft?

In my own experience of piloting these digitally denuded characters, I felt precisely this effect: Rather than gaining some sense of agency, I felt frail, vulnerable, and more than a little silly. My experience as a player interfered with the tawdry thrill of watching my character prance around in the buff. I didn’t realize how invested I was or how protective I had become until Colleen joined me to check on my progress. On-screen, a butt-naked beauty with twin revolvers mowed her way through hordes of enemies.

“Ooh, nice guns. And nice guns. Who is that?”

“Um …” I hesitated for a moment.

And that might the heart of it. How can I ogle her when she’s me?

Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where it’s too cold to strip anything but paint. When not meticulously crafting his nude patch for Tetris, he blogs at www.kingandrook.com.

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