On modder labour, commodification of play, and mod competitions
First Monday

On modder labour, commodification of play, and mod competitions by Olli Sotamaa

As the boundaries between play and work are becoming increasingly blurred among digital games, avid player labour is increasingly harnessed as a source of revenue. This article focuses on “modders”, hobbyists who build on existing retail game titles, and the strategies the game industry uses to motivate and persuade these hobbyists to produce content that most effectively benefits the industry. Special focus is on industry–organized mod competitions that form an area of experimentation where the potentials of free modder labour are tested.


Studying game modifications
Commodifying leisure time work
The relation of play and work in games
Game industry perspectives on modifications
Mod competitions and cultivating free modder labour
Discussion and conclusions




In May 2006 the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), the self–regulatory body of North American game industry, issued a parental warning announcing that the computer game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion had been re–rated from T (Teen 13+) to M (Mature 17+) [1]. The decision of the ESRB was based in part on the existence of a third–party modification capable of exposing a nude art graphic in the PC version of the game. Soon after the incident game designer John Romero posted a blog entry suggesting that “modders are now screwing up the industry they’re supposed to be helping.” [2] It is possible to understand some of Romero’s frustration since many major U.S. retailers recalled the title immediately; without doubt the re–rating caused some decrease in sales of the celebrated role–playing game. Still, this statement was somewhat unexpected since it came from a man who once co–developed games like Doom and Quake, which without dispute had a great contribution to the birth of computer game modding as we know it today.

Romero’s outburst on modders is a telling example of the present industry stances on computer game mods. One could argue that facilitating avid gamers with easy–to–use tools has been one of the most important reasons for a general increase in game modifications and player–created content. What the industry is currently seeking are new methods for controlling the works created with these tools. This need for more effective ways to control mod makers has been expressed frequently after the Hot Coffee incident in the summer of 2005 [3]. Since both the Hot Coffee and Oblivion Topless mods basically unlock content already on the game disc, some of these concerns seem quite hypocritical. In any case, what these affairs have shown is that although modders can be highly beneficial to the success of games, game developers find it increasingly crucial to create ways to monitor, regulate and manipulate the workings of game enthusiasts.

The objective of this article is to take a critical look at the conditions where avid players produce content that is increasingly vital to computer game developers. Further, the article examines the strategies that the game industry uses to motivate and persuade hobbyists to produce free content that most effectively benefits the industry. Since the boundaries between play and work are becoming increasingly blurred among digital games different forms of labour are contemplated and the conditions where modder labour is commodified as an inseparable part of game development are investigated. Further, I attempt to outline some concrete game industry strategies that have a direct influence on the current status of the mod phenomenon. To illustrate my points I draw examples from mod contests organized by the industry. I suggest these contests are an important testing ground and area of experimentation where the game industry puts the potentials of free modder labour to test. The paper also discusses the larger changes that mod competitions reveal of strategies of digital game industry.



Studying game modifications

Player–made alterations to game industry products are today widely recognized as ‘modding’. ‘Modders’ deploy a range of techniques in their projects that range from simple rearrangements of game world elements to total conversions that can be relatively independent of the original game. Inventive reworkings of pre–existing games and other player–made content have been part of game cultures since the first computer games. Still, the emergence of the mod phenomenon is closely tied to affordable personal computers and the development of the Internet into a global distribution channel for fan–created content.

Today, almost any genre of PC games generates mods and other player–made content. It was, however, the first–person shooter (FPS) games that paved the way for the phenomenon. A short glance to the history of FPS games can be used to highlight the importance of modding as a source of innovation in the game industry. As widely agreed, Doom (1993) by id Software was the first game to gain a large–scale modder base. The blossoming of Doom mods was highly influenced by the fact that the game code was consciously designed to facilitate player–driven content creation [4]. However, it was the modder community hooked to Quake (1996) that introduced to the gaming world such team–based mods as Capture the Flag and Team Fortress that later become standard game modes included in most popular shooter games. Still, probably the most famous product of modder labour is Counter–Strike, originally a team–based mod for Half–Life (1998). Soon after its launch Counter–Strike attracted more players online than any of the professionally produced FPS titles, a little later more than all of them combined. Counter–Strike also became the first commercially released mod as Valve, the producer of Half–Life, acquired the Counter–Strike team to turn their mod into a retail version. Afterwards, no developer has been able to replicate the success story on the same scale. Even so the extent and quality of fan–produced content has become an important factor in marketing contemporary PC games.

Elsewhere I have argued that player innovation resulting in reworkings and modifications of existing games has been central to game cultures since the first computer games (Sotamaa, 2005). This article goes further in suggesting that this player labour is a crucial source of inspiration and innovation for the whole computer game industry. Since modding is obviously no more about occasional hobbyist programmers messing around with the game code, it is important to pay attention to the ways in which game industry interests support, regulate, and direct modder activities. Based on interviews conducted with modders I have earlier argued that modders themselves are far from a homogeneous group. In the case of a single computer game, mod maker identities construct a wide spectrum based on differences in such factors as motivation, experience, skills, and social organization. There is no such thing as average modder but the inspirations differ from hacking and researching to artistic expression and co–operation with other hobbyists (Sotamaa, in press). Theories of fandom and grouping of motivational factors clearly help to clarify the diversity of modder practices. However the results of my earlier study also indicate that in order to fully understand the framework of modders, it is important to identify the context of the game industry. Thus, the interviews conducted with modders have been a great source of inspiration also for this article [5]. Various other sources are examined as well.

Contemporary digital games form a field where the realms of business and culture are converging in novel ways. While successful large–scale businesses have developed around popular culture for decades, the computer game industry can be used to illustrate how interlocked these areas are today (Consalvo, 2006). This kind of fusion also sets particular requirements for research. A thorough study should take in account the multiple aspects of games as produced, marketed and consumed artefacts.

Both dialectical social thought applied by critical theory and various approaches at the cultural studies front have frequently emphasized the importance of multi–sited and multi–perspectival approaches. In this article a perspective that has the power to explain the complex economic structures — without disregarding the pleasures and motives involved in mod making — is needed. Therefore this article is informed both by the critical political economy of media and cultural studies approaches more sensitive to the pleasures of players. Cultural studies have posed some well–grounded critiques against the beliefs that those who own the media can control the hearts and minds of consumers. As a consequence the focus of cultural research has often been turned away from the specific properties culture acquires as a commodity [6]. Thus, while political economy approaches have often been considered incompatible with cultural studies perspectives there are scholars who suggest that these traditions may have significant contributions to offer to each other. Meehan (2000) points out that while fan ethnographers traditionally study the activities and handcrafts of self–aware subcultures that appropriate and rework mediated ideologies, political economists focus on activities and structures that generate these ideologies [7]. Bringing these perspectives together can serve to balance optimism and pessimism in relation to our understanding of the agency of modders. However, in order to avoid a problematic bipolarity between these approaches I will further introduce the issue of labour that has so far been marginalized among game studies. I suggest this concept is useful in opening the complex combinations of voluntary activities, consumption and industry–driven initiatives that emerge in the relations between modders and the game industry.



Commodifying leisure time work

Recently it has been proposed that digital games, child of computer technologies that lie in the heart of the reorganization of work in contemporary societies, are the ideal commodity of post–Fordism [8]. It is exactly the commodity form that now exercises a profound influence over the forms of playing: today more than ever before, gaming exists as a commodity. As culture is commodified into game titles, it encounters a world where corporations strictly control its flows [9]. At the same time the creativity of game fans is encouraged to prosper as long as it follows the well–marked paths, designed to ensure industry control.

Historically speaking, the birth of “wage labour” is a result of commodification, namely the commodification of work. Following Marx we can say that in industrial capitalism labourers do not only create for immediate use but can also sell their capacity to work as a commodity. Horkheimer and Adorno (2002) further argued that the systematic application of the principles and values of industrial capitalism to the creation of mass culture has lead to a situation where also modern culture industry follows Fordist assembly line logic. While the cultural industry thesis may generally lack current favour a few continuities can be tracked once the game industry, where the objects and interactions linked with playing and games are effectively commoditized into saleable goods and services, is investigated. First of all, within the highly developed cultural industry the creation of a product is divided into its constituent parts [10]. In connection to digital games we can see that today such core components as game engines can be individually perfected and repeatedly cycled through the marketplace. Standardization is visible also in relation to the labour issue since various game industry assignments include a lot of routine and monotonous tasks. For example the production of thousands of textures required in every large–scale game can come close to mechanical repetition. It is, however, obvious that the culture industry thesis lacks adequate tools for analysing the development of new forms of ‘agency’ [11]. Although many of the arguments of the cultural industry thesis still hold true the strategies visible in the mutually beneficial relationships between the game industry and modders move beyond those outlined by Horkheimer and Adorno. Therefore we have to widen our perspective.

In relation to work leisure time has strong, positive connotations: “freedom from work; freedom to be one’s self; freedom to do as one pleases” (italics in the original) [12]. Everyday accounts seldom pay attention to the fact that the origins of ‘leisure time’ are rooted in the capitalist regimen of work. Fordist industrialists recognized the need to recover from work and attacked this inefficiency by granting leisure time. In other words the purpose of leisure is to replenish the working energies of labour — to reproduce the conditions of work. However, leisure time is not necessarily insulated from capitalism since simultaneously the recovery time is transformed into consumption time. The alliance of work and leisure becomes completed at the moment the commodified products of workers labour are sold back to themselves [13]. Furthermore, as political economists have pointed out, labour with media generates a product itself, namely the audience commodity [14]. This is increasingly visible in games: selected target groups are delivered to advertisers via in–game adverts and product placement.

Thus, both work and leisure are highly commodified in contemporary capitalism. Nevertheless, in case of modification we witness a one more level: it is the modders’ leisure time work that is being commodified. As Kücklich (2005) points out, this “seems a radical departure from the established business models of the leisure industries that the game industry not only sells entertainment products, but also capitalises on the products of the leisure derived from them.” To understand this transition we need to consider the larger recent changes that have made the distinction between leisure–time labour and wage–based labour somewhat muddled.

Building on Lazarratto’s concept of ‘immaterial labour’ Terranova (2000) suggests that the creative industries of late capitalist societies are increasingly dependant on voluntary activities. According to Terranova ‘free labor’ is responsible for a variety of activities carried out on a daily basis on the Internet. This new form of labour is a major source of value creation in the networked economy. Thus creative labour is not limited to highly skilled workers inside companies but is a more of a form of activity of every productive subject within post–industrial societies. In connection to digital games we can see that this ‘free labour’ creates significant value by playing and experiencing things together, actively discussing their experiences in electronic forums, updating thousands of Web sites, teaching each other valuable skills and producing games of their own. These activities are important not only because they offer support and useful tips for other players but also because they participate in generating an important sense of community among players.

Thus, from the perspective of free labour it is not plausible to claim that modder actions are in any simple cause–and–effect fashion solely produced by the game industry. It is the larger economic and social shifts that generate the context in which social activities — such as forming and supporting community, volunteering and pursuing hobbies — can be harnessed as a source of revenue [15]. Even as profit is normally disproportionately appropriated by companies, it is a form of collective cultural labour that makes many computer game industry products possible. We will examine how the forms of play and work co–exist in game cultures.



The relation of play and work in games

It is a fact that game industry is a labour–intensive business. Paradoxically, the long working hours are often fuelled by depictions that portray making games as fun. The notion that work in the digital game industry is actually a form of play is very important for the industry’s self–image. As Kline, et al. point out, “[e]very bit of game marketing and promotion actively discourages us from associating them [games] with such mundane and boring realities as jobs, management, and labour relations.” [16] Although such studies as International Game Developers Association’s Quality of Life in the Game Industry (2004) plainly show that game–making is often pretty far from sheer entertainment the myth of getting paid for playing prospers. This work as play ethos can be seen as a central strategy deployed by game industry to motivate and mobilize its labourers (de Peuter and Dyer–Witheford, 2005).

As anyone who has played just about any contemporary computer game for an extensive period of time knows, playing is not always fun. On the contrary gaming is quite often repetitive, frustrating, and boring. It requires commitment, endurance, skill and concentration. In other words, gaming involves various kinds of work.

At the same time as work is frequently represented as play, we seldom pay attention to the fact that game–playing itself has become pretty laborious (Yee, 2006). As anyone who has played just about any contemporary computer game for an extensive period of time knows, playing is not always fun. On the contrary gaming is quite often repetitive, frustrating, and boring. It requires commitment, endurance, skill and concentration. In other words, gaming involves various kinds of work. Nonetheless, digital games are still regularly framed as sites of joy, leisure, and entertainment. Once again this image is a product of game industry’s active work. Moreover, by proclaiming that “it’s only fun” cultural industries have for long excused their products from critical examination [17].

The blurring of boundaries between work and play has not gone unnoticed in recent game research. It has even inspired scholars to introduce such neologisms as “gamework” (Ruggill, et al., 2004) or “playbour” (Kücklich, 2005). Not only are these new articulations important in understanding the cultural and social transitions related to digital games but they also have a potential to reveal larger developments in contemporary culture. The changing relations of work and leisure are intimately tied with the reconfiguration of media production and consumption. As Pearce (2006) concludes:

I would like to argue that in fact neither play nor games is inherently unproductive and furthermore, that the boundaries between play and production, between work and leisure, and between media consumption and media production are increasingly blurring.

I agree that recognizing these redefinitions of boundaries unavoidably lead us to question the traditional ways of understanding game and play. However, it may be problematic to assume that there actually ever was a moment when we were able to distinguish game producers from consumers with relative ease. The line between a user and a designer seems to be pretty thin in the history of digital games. Furthermore, it is not entirely simple to distinguish ‘game producers’ as such since also publishers increasingly operate in–house studios and contract third–party developers. It seems that we face the same problem when trying to define ‘consumption’. It is difficult to indicate precisely, where consumption starts and where it ends [18]. Thus the moments of production, circulation and consumption are not all that distinct. As Johnson (1986) argues production should be treated as a feature of each of these moments in the ‘circuit of culture’. In the case of games this should be pretty obvious. Digital games are, after all, inherently dependant on the workings of the player. Once again, this all seems to suggest that in the heart of computer game industry is the labour of avid players and game hobbyists.

If we continue this line of thought a little further digital games can be conceived as working platforms. This is particularly obvious in case of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). In these games the experience of an individual player is often significantly shaped by other players’ actions. Still players do not receive a monthly salary for their achievements but instead they actually pay a monthly fee for this privilege. As Yee (2006) argues, although digital games are sold to us as relaxation and escape from work life, some players can find game play more stressful and demanding than their actual jobs. Thus, the work in games seems to become increasingly similar to actual employment.

In case of MMOGs, players working hours are transformed into virtual properties and assets. It is not uncommon that the virtual economies based on the exchange and trading of game world goods extend beyond the boundaries of fictional empires. Virtual goods and characters are auctioned for real money although several game developers forbid these actions. Real–money trading has also facilitated the emergence of gaming workshops, often known as gold farms, where people actually earn their living by playing MMOGs. According to some estimates, only in China these businesses employ up to 100,000 workers (Dibbell, 2007). Thus, it is not only about games becoming working environments but also about players becoming labour.

If we now turn to modifications, we find another group of laborious players. Interviews conducted with modders proved that many mod community projects follow disciplined strategies very similar to those applied by game industry professionals. When describing their everyday actions modders often used rhetoric familiar from working life settings. As one of the interviewees stated:

We communicate via e–mail and ICQ, we have FTP with a structure that allows us download “tasks” (for me these are models) and upload finished work (textures). I also participate on overall design of the mod, make some promotional graphics shown at forums and discuss other people’s work. Of course, I have access to betas, this means lotta playtesting. (Operation Flashpoint modder)

This level of commitment indicates a bit different relation to leisure than discussed earlier. While one function of leisure is to provide compensatory balance to work life leisure often goes beyond casual consumption and pursuit of immediate pleasures. Stebbins (2001) describes this ‘serious leisure’ as “the steady pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist, or career volunteer activity that captivates its participants with its complexity and many challenges.” [19] This form of leisure produces uncommon pleasures and significant social rewards for its participants. In this regard modding shares characteristics with other hobbies that permit people to engage in worklike behaviour in noncoercive environments (Gelber, 1999). As Kücklich (2005) argues modders share some traits with voluntary workers as well, as modding is not at least directly financially directed. Voluntary work is, however, largely limited to non–profit oriented projects and therefore indicates rather different values compared to the highly competitive and profit–oriented games industry.

In conclusion, while the commodification of leisure is not something entirely new, the phenomena described above indeed pose some novel questions concerning not only the player–designer relationship but also industry practices and economic models applied to control and satisfy skilled game fans. In order to understand how this is executed I will move on to briefly discuss the dimensions of commodification in the operations of game industry.



Game industry perspectives on modifications

Several facts highlight the risk averseness and labour intensity of the game industry. The development of a major title can today involve more than one hundred people. The mushrooming of development team sizes is obviously driving production costs upward. It is not uncommon that the production of a high–standard computer game lasts up to two years. Since the development of gaming hardware is so rapid, developers often end up designing games to be played on technologies that may not yet exist. However, as Ruggill, et al. point out: “This futurism is counterbalanced by the short shelf life — typically measured in weeks — of most computer games.” [20] This is of particular concern since the game industry has so far remained mostly incapable of creating similar diversified revenues as for example the film industry has in home video market and television distribution.

The continuous growth of game industry and the increased competition for market shares has lead to importing and adopting processes familiar from other branches of the entertainment industry to consolidate existing practices. One of the consequences is the increasing importance of licensing, recycling and repackaging of contents from one medium to another. Although high–profile licences — be it movies, sports or television series — are expensive, they obviously facilitate the promotion of a game. Another issue are the game sequels that for their part highlight the hesitancy of the industry to take commercial risks. A critical look at the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) sales charts confirms how heavily the industry relies on licensed games and sequels. Out of the twenty best selling video game titles (console games) in the year 2005 no less than 19 are either licensed or sequels and over one half of them are both. The only game that can be to some degree considered an original title is God of War (Sony Computer Entertainment) and even it relies heavily on ancient mythology. Among the top 20 selling computer games (PC games) there are two games that are not sequels. These are Guild Wars (NCsoft) and Rome: Total War (Acticision) (ESA, 2006) Ironically, both God of War and Rome: Total War have already cumulated full scale sequels to the market. At the time of writing the launch of third expansion pack for Guild Wars is closing and the development of Guild Wars 2 has also been announced.

Another way to minimize labour costs and in that way to decrease risks involved in computer game development is to rely on the growing number of players who are willing and capable of creating games of their own. The open access nature of the PC environment has importantly facilitated modder activities. At the same time, the PC game industry has been quite competent in developing such revenue and distribution models that are able to tolerate free game content next to chargeable ones, playable demos being maybe the most obvious example [21]. The primary function of the demos is to tempt and convince gamers before the finished title hits the stores. Interestingly, mods seem to complement the distribution model by offering free content also after consumers have bought the retail title. Although no revenue is directly generated from modifications downloaded from the Internet, the game industry is still able to get its share, since gamers usually need to have a copy of the original game software installed on their hard drives in order to run modifications. Furthermore, it can be argued that modifications have also paved the way for retail additions to pre–existing game titles, known as expansion packs. Similar to modifications, expansion packs are mostly developed for the PC platform and they normally build upon the existing game engine. Expansion packs introduce a specific way to exploit existing intellectual property and have become an integral element of game cultures (Nieborg, 2006). The improved capacity and reliability of digital distribution channels has also facilitated the emergence of so–called episodic games that rely entirely on serialized game content.

... mods can serve as an important source of innovation that actually reduces game developers’ R&D and marketing costs.

Although it is difficult to estimate the exact scale of modder cultures it is clear that at least some PC game developers substantially benefit from mod makers’ work. An active mod scene and high level mods can both increase the popularity of the original game and help to understand the players’ preferences. People who modify games form a close attachment to particular games and this is obviously important for developers. Kücklich (2005) lists various benefits industry acquires from player–made modifications. When commercialising popular mods, companies do not have to create the brand from the scratch since masses of players already recognise the game. This pre–existing fame can be compared to benefits gained from licencing. Popular mods extend the crucial shelf–life of the original product. In the long run, mods can also increase customer loyalty. Furthermore, mods can serve as an important source of innovation that actually reduces game developers’ R&D and marketing costs. Finally, since the mod projects produce highly trained experts modding community can be used as a recruiting pool.

In case of traditional industrial production, a lot of attention is paid to the reproduction of the means and agents of production. An important part of this process is the reproduction of productive forces and especially the issue of labour power. In his influential “Ideological State Apparatus” essay Althusser argues that the function of ideology is to reproduce the social relations of production. Reproducing labour does not in this context refer only to biological or technical reproduction, but at the same time social and cultural reproduction. Therefore producing skilful and technically competent labour is not enough but as importantly workers have to be politically subordinate and subjected to the ruling ideology (Althusser, 1971; Hall, 1985). Althusser may not be the most popular theorist among game scholars but interestingly his arguments seem to fit neatly to the digital game industry where employees are often persuaded to continuous overworking. However, the free modder labour that mainly acquires its skills and attitudes by communicating with other hobbyists on the Internet cannot be controlled in the same way as the more traditional types of labour.

Althusser also argues that in capitalist social formations, cultivating labour of certain cultural and moral kind takes increasingly place “outside the firm.” Therefore institutions like schools and universities have a significant role in educating labour suitable to the modern capitalist mode of production. Some mod makers may have a formal education in programming, graphic design or some other related area but most advanced modding skills are learned by doing, by discussing the problems on online forums and by following online tutorials made by other modders. However, the game industry has demonstrated that they are not completely at a loss. Encouraged by the success of earlier Unreal games among mod makers the developers of UT2004 contracted a third–party company to produce over 150 hours of detailed video tutorials shipped with a special edition of the game. Later those responsible for the tutorials also completed a hefty book on the subject (Nieborg, 2005). In addition, such examples as Mod College by Westwood Studios and Unreal University by Epic Games and North Carolina State University show that game developers are willing to take over parts of the education market to reach the elite of hobbyists. In these cases the loyalty of successful mod groups is increased by inviting them to participate in tutorials and to share their ideas with company representatives.

In the case of game industry professionals the reproduction of labour is ensured by wages. Since modders seldom financially benefit from their work different methods have to be used. It is clear that no single entity can commandeer people’s leisure in the same way that employers commandeer their labour. Instead, modders need to be persuaded that these activities are beneficial to the industry over others. In the following I suggest that mod competitions should be seen as a central forum of enculturating the free modder labour. Among mod competitions we can also identify several concrete industry practices aimed to guide hobbyists to industry–beneficial directions.



Mod competitions and cultivating free modder labour

In order to support and direct amateur’s productive activities, game developers and publishers organize competitions for mod developers. In case of Make something Unreal Contest organized by Epic Games and Nvidia the total value of prizes exceeded one million dollars. At the other end even small fan contests hosted by hobbyist Web sites can sometimes lure corporate sponsors and receive relatively much attention among the fans of a particular game. Contests often guarantee large scale visibility for the awarded entries. Often developers also see competitions as a chance to acknowledge modders’ hard work and show their respect to hobbyists. In this connection it is important to notice the similarity between mod contests and other recent industry–organized competitions for creative amateurs. Drawing a parallel between mod contests and for example such televised talent–search shows as Popstars or the Idol series explicitly reveals that while these competitions have a potential to offer unique opportunities for entrants, in most cases it is the industry that remains the biggest winner. Furthermore, competitions where consumers are challenged to practice their creativity are today widely used as a marketing strategy. For example contests for best consumer–created logos, slogans and testimonials seem to be everywhere. It is important to notice that these contests may not actually be about brand managers wanting dozens of thousands of suggestions for new slogans. Perhaps, as Svahn (2006) points out, it is more about self–persuasion — a given industry getting masses of consumers to spend some time thinking about a specific product.

Now if we take a look at mod competitions, we can identify several benefits from bringing fan cultural petty productions from the “subcultural shadows” to the “mainstream light” (Sotamaa, 2005). If we look at high–profile competitions, they offer considerable prizes and significant publicity opportunities for winning mod groups. What organizers and sponsors expect to get, is at least some good publicity and possible increase in the sales of the original game, but obviously there are further benefits. Already competition rules are utilized to direct the hobbyist creativity by defining what is suitable and fitting and what is clearly prohibited. The rules often mention that the entries are expected to conform to the very restrictive End User License Agreements (EULAs) that come with the retail titles. The exact formulations of the license agreements vary but typically they include a subsection where the intellectual property rights of modifications are guaranteed to the game developer. If we think of the amount of work and passion a high level mod takes to be completed, these rigid license agreements appear increasingly questionable. Therefore, the competitions seem to serve as a countercheck to legitimise this exploitation. With few exceptions, competition organizers once more explicitly reserve the rights to publish the contest entries. As the rules of The Valve Half–Life 2 Map Contest quite clearly state:

By accepting a prize, each winner grants Valve the royalty–free, fully–paid, worldwide, irrevocable, nonexclusive, perpetual right to exploit the intellectual property rights in the Contest Entry, including without limitation, at Valve’s option, distributing the Contest Entry to the public commercially or for free. [22]

The further benefits of competitions include building and maintaining a lively contact to the mod community. Understanding the routines and detailed problems modders encounter in their projects can provide valuable help for mod support development. Competitions can also have a practical aim to guide the actions of mod community. An illustrative small–scale example of this can be found in Operation Flashpoint: Mission Editing Competition. A competition launched by Bohemia Interactive was directed especially to mission–makers, “a highly skilled but diminishing section of the community.” The advertisement text for the contest highlights the importance of mission–makers in poetic fashion: “If addon/mod creators are the body of the Flashpoint community then mission creators are the very necessary blood.” [23] This choice can be interpreted in at least two ways. First of all, the decision to focus on mission making can be read as a democratic move. Making innovative missions does not require expensive commercial software packages or expert knowledge on programming languages and therefore the competition is at least theoretically accessible for quite a broad audience. A bit different intentions become exposed if we look at the competition from the developer point of view. At the time of the contest the number of hobbyists working with OFP mission editing had been constantly decreasing for some time. From the company perspective this poses a significant problem since even the most sophisticated add–ons are unlikely to find their way to the hands of gamers without high–quality missions. Therefore, what the competition was expected to do was to refuel the production of missions that are needed to highlight the possibilities of the game engine and the outputs of the add–on community.

As mentioned earlier, competitions can serve as a forum where game developers express their gratitude to modders. Interestingly, even this can be elegantly transformed into a form of advertisement. In a recent interview, Epic Games Vice President Mark Rein stated the following:

If you one [sic] UT2004 you really need to download the latest versions of these mods and check them out. If you don’t own UT2004 you should go out and get it because, with all the content we put into the game and with these FREE mods available, it is by far the best value in computer gaming that I’m aware of ... [24]

Although, this statement is mainly addressed to regular UT players interested in mods, there is obviously another message directed to mod makers. The developer acknowledges that the success of the game is partly attributable to mod makers. What happens here, in Althusserian terms, is that modders become interpellated as important members of the industry. Now if we take a look at the statements presented by the members of the Make Something Unreal Contest winning team we can see that the ideological lesson has been more than a success. In an interview with the Red Orchestra team one of the modders praises: “If you buy UT2k4, you will get access to a gazillion very different games, great value for your money.” [25] The similarities between these statements may seem pretty innocent or co–incidental. However, the way the celebratory discourse is voluntarily adopted alludes that at least these modders have merrily accepted the subject position suggested by the industry. It is clear that no ideologies or attitudes can be simply forced to individuals but instead certain identities and subject positions can be presented as more natural and obvious than others. As discussed earlier, cultivation of modder labour necessitates new methods. An important foundation is laid when industry point of views become the hegemonic ways of conceptualizing the positions and experiences inside game culture. In the following we move on to examine the further consequences of addressing modders as free labour.

As earlier discussed, the game industry benefits from the perception that work in games industry is seen as a form of play. This can be extended to cover modder activities. Addressing modding as an extension of play and therefore a voluntary and non–profit–oriented activity helps to justify the contemporary economic structure in which companies can decrease their risks by transforming parts of the development tasks to the hobbyists (Kücklich, 2005). Commercial developers are not only free to choose the most successful mod community projects for further development but also able to pick the most skillful self–trained specialist for potential recruitment. From this perspective the mod contests appear as a perfect channel for recruitment. Developers do not need to observe the messy hobbyist forums but they can simply ask the international fan base to send their best works to be evaluated.

The role of the gaming press should not be underestimated in the process of cultivating free modder labour. Relatively moderate amounts of money are invested in straightforward advertising of competitions but press releases are actively cited on game magazines and Web sites. Publications like Computer Games magazine ensure continual coverage for gamer–made projects and annually award best modifications. Every now and then, award–winning mods can be found next to playable demos and trailer movies on the DVDs delivered with PC game magazines. All this takes part in building a glamorous image for mods.

Furthermore, fan sites actively adopt gaming press traditions. Mods are extensively reviewed (and increasingly previewed) and appreciated mod team members are interviewed. Interestingly fan sites also adopt the celebratory marketing ethos typical of the gaming press. Symptomatically, when a hobbyist–driven site that hosts a large mod archive released a competition of their own, the bulletin started with following words:

Modding has taken the world by storm, it is now a great way to get into the world of game design. No longer do you need to have ‘real life’ experience in game design to get a job, most developers are even picking up talented modders straight from the scene. This is where the Levels4you Max Payne 2 modding competition comes in. [26]

It is not a secret that an increasing number of game industry professionals have a background in mod communities. What the quote above shows is that modders are not only aware of this development but can also use the publicity generated by competitions for their own purposes. When asked about his thoughts on the Make Something Unreal contest, one of the makers of popular and award–winning mod Red Orchestra stated:

I also think a lot of individual Mod–ers [sic] have gained good experience with working in a deadline tight environment, it pushes you to your limits, and should be a nice preview on what you can expect when you want to work in the industry. [27]

As these examples incontestably show, one of the consequences of mod competitions is the professionalization of modding. Thus, paradoxically the same competitions that provide an attractive means to monitor the mod scene, can at the same time work against industry’s advantages by revealing the laborious nature of computer game development to the hobbyists. Award–winning mods require larger teams, longer production times and tighter regime. As pointed out above, this does not necessarily scare hobbyists away. Anyway, we can see the influence of this development on the modder attitudes.

As I have argued elsewhere (Sotamaa, in press), opinions on this professionalization seem to vary among modders. Some see the opportunity of getting recruited tempting while others highlight the benefits of leaving modding just a hobby–like source of enthusiasm and excitement. It seems difficult to reconcile the different standpoints and therefore the game industry is very much in a position to determine the future of modding. There are already some justifiable concerns about modding becoming purely market–oriented and loosing its innovative edge (Kücklich, 2005).



Discussion and conclusions

Taking into account the changing relations of work and leisure, it seems increasingly clear that the rhetoric of opposition is not helpful in explaining the participatory nature of modding phenomenon. In one hand the larger economic and social shifts have made it possible to harness players’ social and productive activities as a source of revenue. On the other, the realms of work and play seem to intermingle in a variety of ways among digital games. Therefore, modding should be understood in relation to other laborious tasks players perform when playing games.

Several facts draw attention to the similarities between modders and commercial developers. In the level of code it may be difficult to distinguish modder–made total conversions from commercial games that utilize licensed game engines. Just like aggressively advertised game titles, popular mods can generate large–scale fan following. Furthermore, the lengthening production times and mushrooming team sizes are not only a problem of commercial development studios but the developing complexity of technologies has also forced mod projects to recruit an increasing number of team members (Sotamaa, in press). It can be argued that the flexible organizational structures that facilitate communication and collaboration between industry professionals and fan producers resemble the working conditions of knowledge workers in general. Nevertheless, even though the celebratory industry announcements sometimes treat modders as important members of the industry modders mostly lack the basic benefits guaranteed for wage–labourers. Therefore other kinds of methods have to be used to persuade this new form of labour to prefer such activities that are beneficial to the industry. I have argued that mod competitions bring together a variety of industry practices aimed to enculturate the free modder labour.

In the light of mod competitions we can see that avid players may voluntarily accept the exploitation of their work as far as they can see reasonable benefits for themselves.

Since modders embody a variety of motivations and also developer strategies vary there is no foundation to claim that the increasing reliance on modders is entirely a case of the exploitation of unknowing players. Even so, the way companies often jealously reserve the rights for hobbyists’ work can and should be questioned. Further, drawing on modders’ labour may often be an out–sourcing strategy aimed at lowering the increasing development costs [28]. In the light of mod competitions we can see that avid players may voluntarily accept the exploitation of their work as far as they can see reasonable benefits for themselves. As Banks (2005) argues, gamers are not only well aware of these practices and objectives of game industry. Instead, they are sophisticated practitioners who participate in these practices.

The increasing professionalization of modding obviously causes changes in the environment where hobbyists work. Mod contests produce a competitive setting where the merits of an individual modder team are evaluated in comparison to handiworks of other teams. While it is too early to say anything definite, this setting has a potential to work against such prevailing mod cultures that often remain faithful to open source ethos. It is not uncommon that modder teams pool their resources in order to produce something that can benefit the whole community. Often the modifications are built on creative use and reworking of earlier modifications. Mod community members also often participate in the development by beta testing other people’s mods and writing extensive bug reports. What happens to this participatory culture if a mod team actually benefits from not publishing anything before the deadline?

Finally, modding also poses larger questions concerning the future of game development. The increasing participation of mod makers in different phases of development challenges our understanding of what a game development process is and how it should be managed. The opening of the commercial game production pipeline to free modder labour obviously demands a lot of work from the developer side. Without the necessary labour force needed for supporting the work of enthusiastic hobbyists the development process can result in frustration, misunderstandings and communication problems (Banks, 2005). As I have underlined managing unruly modder labour requires new methods of management. If developers want to see modders’ work become a routine part of development it is obvious that hobbyists have to be professionally appreciated and nurtured. Probably the best way to keep the fans devoted is to make sure that they find their investements valued. End of article


About the author

Olli Sotamaa is completing his PhD at the University of Tampere on players’ production practices among computer game cultures. He is currently the coordinator of Digra Finland, the local chapter of Digital Games Research Association. With a background in cultural studies, he has published articles on computer game modding, player–centred game design, and mobile games.
E–mail: olli [dot] sotamaa [at] uta [dot] fi



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Editorial history

Paper received 30 July 2007; accepted 19 August 2007.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 1.0 Finland License.

On modder labour, commodification of play, and mod competitions by Olli Sotamaa
First Monday, volume 12, number 9 (September 2007),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_9/sotamaa/index.html

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