A mod that lets you marry a child in popular farming game Stardew Valley started as a joke, according to its creator, but it's now spurring a familiar debate about what it means to depict morally reprehensible behaviours virtually.
The mod was created last month and has already been scrubbed from the popular mod hub Mod Nexus, where its creator has been banned. The mod, called Jas' Marriage Mod, is instead listed on Stardew Valley Mods, where it is emblazoned with red text that signals the limits of its outrageousness: "This is not a sex mod," the note reads. "It will NEVER be a sex mod."
The mod expands wedding options in the single-player farming and dating game to include Jas, a girl who seems to be about 10 or 11. It includes events as you progress through the relationship, custom dialogue, and a marriage schedule. There's an entire story arc that involves Jas, who likes to play with dolls and isn't allowed to leave her house after 6pm becoming less shy and afraid of people. The player's character takes on a sort of foundational role for her, almost like a mother/father. It's weirdly sweet. ...And then you get married.
Most mods for Stardew Valley are less transgressive. One modder unironically devised an in-game tax system. Others went to great lengths to mod more (or less) diversity into the game's cast. There are also the requisite sexy mods and references to games like Final Fantasy and Pokemon.
But envelope-pushing mods are common in video games, which themselves depict a heap of murder without much controversy. For years, the modding communities surrounding games like Fallout and Skyrim have added the ability to kill kids to those games. They cast it not as a deviant desire but as a barometer for realism in the game world. There's a reason those two games' creators at Bethesda disallow child murder by default: it's messed up. Still, some people argue, it's just a game. Why not go all the way with it? After all, it's a cutthroat post-apocalypse. You can kill everybody else.
The Stardew Valley kid-marriage mod has provoked similar argument about whether what is too far in real life is also too far in video games. A Reddit thread about the mod garnered a whole host of negative reactions, though some anything-goes cavaliers rode to its defence. One user said people should "stop being crybabies and let people mod whatever they want in the game. If you don't like [it], just don't use it." Another shot back: "People who mod shit like this are vile & should feel bad."
The mod initially comes off as something of a joke. "Ever wanted to marry Jas?" its description asks. "You've got problems mate, but you've come to the right place."
Watching a Let's Play of it (TW: child abuse), that part made me sick to the stomach. The kiss and the connotations arising from it were just too much, even with tiny virtual sprite characters and a big ol' NO SEX sign in the window.
"My original intention was to create an entirely new marriageable [non-player character] for the game," the mod's creator, who goes by randomAnon123, told me over DMs. They had been hanging out in 4chan's /vg/ board and noticed people complaining about the blandness of the marriage candidates in the game. Someone had replied speculating about when someone would make a Jas marriage mod. "So I thought it'd be funny to create a mock-up heart event for Jas. I then posted a webm file of the event on the general, and people asked me to make an actual marriage mod for her."
It's no surprise that this was born on 4chan. 4chan is a place where you get noticed by doing things that are over-the-top. Otherwise, you sink beneath a sea of fellow anonymous posters. So people test limits, joke about anything they can think of, even if it's taboo for good reason. Especially if it's taboo for good reason. It's a game of winding people up, of maintaining purposeful distance from earnestness or serious feelings.
At first, randomAnon123 only posted the mod there, because they knew they were playing with fire. "I get it," they said. "After all it is a mod that lets you marry a child." They added, however, that "I find some people's reactions a bit funny, because she's, you know, not real."
For the most part, randomAnon123 is ready to wash their hands of the mod. They are considering a "sort of Yandere rewrite of this mod" that would explore the idea of Jas becoming clingy, possibly violent as a result of her less-than-stellar upbringing. It's an extremely dark take, randomAnon123 admitted, one inspired by anime and horror. "I admit that I was also rewatching [psychological thriller anime] Mirai Nikki at the time this idea popped into my head," they said, "I really think there should be more dangerous love interests in this game."
They're also looking into the more obvious solution to the mod's biggest, ickiest problem: making Jas into an older character. "Obviously that would take a lot of fiddling, from making entirely new sprites and portraits for her, to writing new dialogue and events," they said. "I would probably also need to age up [other child character] Vincent to keep things consistent, but I really like the idea of making this mod, so hopefully I won't lose interest in the game until I'm done with it."
For now, the mod remains one about marrying a child. 4chan and places like it often subscribe to the notion that, as long as something's not directly hurting anybody and it's not real, it's fair game. Some even go so far as to say that these sorts of things are good outlets for people who might otherwise harm real children. But this mod skirts awfully close to something that is frowned upon in our culture, something that's frowned upon for a damn good reason.
I was conflicted about even running this article. Tame as the mod is compared to, well, a lot of other things out there, it still twisted my guts into a misery pretzel. I found the idea of marrying a child off-putting, sickening. I appreciated that the mod depicts Jas getting over some difficulties with parental neglect, but the innocence of those scenes feels, intentionally or not, like a normalization of the actions of an adult romancing a child. The mod didn't even begin to dig the fact that no child can reasonably consent on the same level as an adult, or the manipulation that often precedes these situations. It failed to consider or respect the experiences of victims of extremely harmful, traumatising situations.
Art can address difficult topics. Vladimir Nabokov's renowned and controversial novel Lolita tackled this very thing. It's now taught, dissected, and debated in universities across the world. But the Jas' Marriage Mod feels too light, too flip, too uninterested in exploring the scope of its subject matter to feel worth playing through, let alone championing.