Modding to the big leagues: Exploring the space between modders and the game industry
First Monday

Modding to the big leagues: Exploring the space between modders and the game industry by Hector Postigo



Abstract
Modding is an important characteristic of participatory culture in video games. Studies have shown that PC game modders mod for a host of reasons not least of which as a means of developing the skills and portfolio needed to get a job in the video game industry. Modding culture can be thought of as a point of articulation between the industry and participatory cultural practices. Modding culture is not only concerned with accessing the game industry however, but also puts a high premium on modding for fun or out of love for a particular community or game. Because it effectively straddles market and non–market interests it is important to study how modders negotiate the two sides of modding, which has been at the leading edge of the participatory turn in media consumption and production. This article undertakes an evaluation of modding discourses, first through an evaluation of surveys taken by moderators of modding discussion forums and secondly through an evaluation of discussions regarding technologies used by modders. The article sheds light on the complex ways in which modders’ understand the practice of modding. It is framed broadly within political economic theories that have attempted to map modding in post–industrial logics and within theories that have understood it as a participatory culture. Ultimately this paper discusses other participatory practices, drawing parallels with modding and venturing some observations about user participation in the new media environment.

Contents

Introduction
Section 1: Connecting modder and developer narratives
Section 2: The material expressions of the modding culture: Where narratives come together
Conclusion: All modding, all the time

 


 

Introduction

Modding culture can be seen as a type of participatory culture, one where fans take an active role in re–structuring and tweaking story lines and narrative arcs for their favorite media products. The PC game industry has historically constructed participatory relationships between itself and game fans by 1) releasing software development kits (SDKs) and other editing tools for many of its most popular games; 2) by fostering/hosting mod communities; and, 3) by generally opening up the mod development process to fans. Among the various PC game companies three stand out as having fostered most intensely modding culture [1]. These include: Valve Software, Epic Games and id Software. id stands out as having one of the first (if not the first) mod: a total conversion of its 1983 title Castle Wolfenstein (for the Apple II) called Castle Smurfenstein. The mod replaced text and images of the original game, which involved the protagonist escaping from a Nazi stronghold, with text and images referencing a popular America Saturday morning animated series, the Smurfs. id also has a long tradition of releasing editing tools and SDKs for many of its very popular titles (e.g., the Doom and Quake series). Valve Software, on the other hand, has for a number of years operated the online game distribution system Steam, which along with its professionally developed content also provides a venue for mod distribution and it too distributes editing tools to modders. Similarly, Epic has fostered lively modding communities for its various Unreal Tournament titles and most recently released the UDK (the Unreal Development Kit) which allows users to develop games using Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 (UE3) as well as using elements from games like Unreal Tournament 3 (UT3) without actually owning the game. All three companies have historically had the same approach to supporting modding culture, fostering online communities, releasing editing tools, and using the modding communities as recruiting and testing grounds.

Despite being defined here as a participatory culture, modding culture is also more than what was originally envisioned by the concept [2]. Unlike traditional participatory culture, modding straddles the lines between professional production and amateur contributions more thoroughly. It has close ties to the industry, evidenced by the technological affordances that the industry provides and the extent to which some elements of the PC game industry incorporate modding culture into their business models. When compared to other media consumers, modders hold a privileged place from the perspective of the industry to which they relate. They are a potential source of legitimate content, a potential labor pool (both for free and recruited paid labor), and active innovators. Importantly, the contours of the practice of modding are informed by industry structures. Mod teams take the organizational shape of professional development teams (designers, developers, texture artists, etc.), they work the long hours and they develop narratives the tie them to their work in a passionate way [3].

Today modding culture is in transition. Discourses (from the industry and from modders themselves) and the technologies used to develop mods now explicitly serve to orient modding toward a more embedded place in the whole of game development. The elements of participatory culture that were applicable as descriptive for its dynamics (hobby, creativity, love of the content) live along side its very real melding with the professional production processes and the logics of the industry (e.g., profit and the maximization of the value of derivative works). Discourses, technologies and community practices are outside the industry but also inside it.

Theoretical framings of modding: Free labor or participatory culture?

Since the rise of digital games as a major entertainment form in industrialized and post–industrial societies, academics have turned to various critical perspectives in the hope of understanding the political economy of this new medium. In the field of video game studies, modding culture has become an important site for critical analysis of the relationship between participatory audiences and media industries and a number of theoretical approaches have been deployed to explain the dynamics of those relationships.

From a political economy/neo–Marxist perspective some authors understand the video game industry through the lens of “empire.” Drawing from Negri and Hardt’s work they view the global game industry as exemplary of the empire thesis. Under the “empire” perspective the digital games industry is interpreted to be at the apex of the long arc of changes in how labor is harnessed, culminating in post–industrial capitalism and globalization. The game industry is made possible by the convergence of institutions and culture. Specifically, the military, entertainment, and cultural industries, as well as hacking culture, all converge to create a new global business that rivals (while at the same time works with) the dominance of established cultural industries such as television and film (Dyer–Witheford, 1999).

In video game studies, and the study of modding culture in particular, the most salient notion for studying mods to surface from the political economy perspective is that of immaterial labor and free labor. From this perspective, the game industry is as a matter of course rooted in immaterial labor. Creativity, sociality, technical know–how and thinking are all products (immaterial products) without which digital games could not exist (Lazzarato, 1996; Terranova, 2000; Postigo, 2003a; Postigo, 2003b; Sotamaa, 2004; Kücklich, 2005; Deuze, 2007; Postigo, 2007). An outcome of immaterial labor is free labor, a concept first deployed by Tizziana Terranova (2000) to explain how capital ultimately benefits/incorporates much of the sociality and culture that takes place and is created in the networked world. Free labor adds value without ever entering into the calculus of a company’s ledger. It can liberate a business of the risk incurred in the production of ephemeral products when, for example, online game modding communities make products and serve as proving grounds for products before a company has invested significant funds (Postigo, 2007).

This harnessing of communities’ labor is not isolated to modder communities but is also common to other fan groups. In the case of more traditional media like television, fan communities have been harnessed to drum up support and ideas for an on–going TV show (Andrejevic, 2008). For the game industry and for all new media industries such as YouTube, AOL, Amazon.com, Facebook and so forth, the question is how to harness free labor, while keeping it free? This is neither a trivial question nor a small task. Creative crowds are unruly (Banks, 2005; Taylor, 2006), they develop their own labor consciousness and “moral economy” and they can be resistive (Postigo, 2003a; Postigo, 2003b; Postigo, 2008). For those studying modding culture, how free labor is harnessed and how productive cultures that make mods fit themselves into a media economy that increasingly uses productive and social practices of participatory users has been a central question for the past ten years. The power relations and the means (technological, legal and cultural) that continue to delineate boundaries between creative communities like modders and industries are an important site of study because they increasingly will shape the contours of the future of media and cultural production.

Recently a tension has become increasingly apparent between perspectives concerned with the dynamics that reproduce power differentials in media consumption and creation, and the participatory culture perspective. From a participatory culture perspective, fans of media content who actively remix and reshape their favorite television shows, graphic novels, and video games are seen as empowered and their appropriations interpreted as resistive, pushing content in new direction and challenging categorical representations in media (such as those of class and or gender, for example). Unlike the political economic perspective, fandom can be read as empowering and with its resistive and situated re–workings of commercial content can push against prescribed meanings. Traditionally these participatory culture dynamics have been understood in relative isolation, among small groups of dedicated media consumers, fans, or otaku. Recently however, Henry Jenkins (2006) has pointed out that the increasing inhabitance and productive nature of life in digital networks signals a more widespread adoption of participatory culture, the coming of its mores and values to the masses.

In his concept of convergence culture, digital technologies and easily created/distributed information and content have the potential to make a participating, creative audience of us all. His perspective is an optimistic take on production in digital networks where participation affords media consumers the chance to help build a diverse media content ecology and helps create meaning and value. Jenkins views on the power of participatory culture seems to lend some hope that there may be in some near future a compromise between content makers and content appropriators. Unlike neo–Marxist/political economic perspectives, in participatory culture consumers have a fighting chance. They are fans after all, and their participation, creativity, and embeddedness in distributed cultures of media use, consumption and creation might afford them some power.

Research on modding culture suggests that the theoretical place for mods among/between these prevailing conceptual perspectives on cultural production is complex. Mods can be resistive and purely an outcome of hobbyist intentions while at the same time that they are part of the cultural industry. Mod culture at times assumes the logic of business when for example; participants in modding see themselves increasingly as independent developers. Alternatively, in their attempts to harness the power of modders, the industry fosters modding communities while they try and shape their productivity though technologies like SDKs, level editors, EULAs and other socio–technical affordances. The game industry encourages and relies on mod culture (is rooted in it too) while at the same time it tries to engulf it. Given these theoretical and practical tensions, questions remain regarding the contours of modding culture and participatory culture writ large: Is mod culture a classic case of participatory culture or is it something different? Is it becoming embedded in the industry’s economic calculus and how is that affecting mod culture’s understanding of itself? How do modders reconcile contradictory positions between commitments to values of participation and the seemingly inevitable hybridity of laboring for free? How do technologies (primarily designed by game companies) enter into the discourse of modding and help shape not only what is technically possible but also how modders discursively understand their own place in relation to game development?

This article hopes to address some of these questions. While it seeks primarily to describe a discourse about modding (one that I believe is in a moment of transition), the article also hopes to take what is learned about these relatively small groups and shed light on the complex set of overlapping and conflicting values that infuse other deeply creative populations of fans and media consumers.

Methodology

The narrative presented here is based on analysis of modder discourse (in online community forums at the ModDatabase.com, BeyondUnreal.com and publications from modders) around the relationship between themselves and the game industry. Specifically this paper looks at two informal surveys administered by community members on issues of modding and working in the industry in 2005 and 2008. The surveys were not administered by the researcher but represent internal surveys. The surveys asked general questions about what motivated modding practices and about general satisfaction in working in the industry. The first survey had 36 respondents and was posted on the online forum for the Mod Database by the forums administrators and asked “What is your primary motivation for working hard for a year or two on a project?” The second survey was part of a series of interviews done by Sjoerd de Jong for his book The hows and whys of the games industry (2007). This survey had 22 respondents of which 15 of which indicated they had been modders before joining the industry. The surveys and the discussions analyzed here are seen as artifacts of a dynamic culture. The value of the surveys themselves is not quantitative but qualitative; they act as examples of the kinds of discussions that happen within modding culture, a grounded view into how modders might see their place in the overall arch of the games industry. Analysis of the surveys involved reading them for themes that emerged in discussions. Those themes are reported on here, extensive quotes from the responses are not made for the purposes keeping this article concise. This paper also looks at an extensive discussion on the Mod Database Web site regarding the recent release of novel modding tools by Epic Games, using this discussion as a way of understanding how technologies shape modder discourses and the place of modding within the game industry. The methodology is qualitative in that it strives to develop grounded themes of discourse and relate them to the theoretical framings presented in the introduction. At the same time the methodology does not attempt to pigeonhole modding culture’s understanding of their relationship to the industry and thus leaves room for emergent discourses that diverge from the theoretical frames. Lastly the research makes claims about small modder communities and modestly suggests how those claims can explain broader phenomena. However, I acknowledge here that there is great variance among communities of modders and other participatory groups and those variances would make unwise any absolute claims about what modding culture is.

 

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Section 1: Connecting modder and developer narratives

Historically modders have noted that they are motivated to mod by reasons outside of market rationale (Postigo, 2003a; Postigo, 2003b). Considering the amount of content produced by modding culture and its potential value, discourses that legitimate long hours and hard work are important in framing modding both as part of participatory culture and also within critical neo–Marxist understandings of production in new media environments. An informal survey taken in 2005 by the moderators of the ModDatabase.com (a clearing house for mod distribution and modding discussion) on why members have chosen to mods resulted in a mix of result which points to the complex motivations that inform modding (ModDatabase.com, 2005).

From discussions that ensued among participant following the survey it was clear that getting a job in the industry was not the primary reason to mod, the discussion centered primarily on the landing a job as an added bonus to modding but not as its end. Also, there was a degree of uncertainty among the respondents on whether modding would necessarily lead to employment. Some offered anecdotal evidence that it could while others seemed more skeptical. While the survey was not expansive (only 36 people responded), it does reflect discourses observed among other mod communities: that there is a sense among modders that modding may be a way into the industry. This is tempered by some internal skepticism among community members. Among the communities the overall belief that modding could lead to a job the industry is derived from word of mouth within modding communities and not based on concrete evidence in the form of formal placement studies, for example (the case of Counter–Strike the mod turned stand–alone game is often cited as an example of modder success).

Despite the uncertainty of landing a job in the industry, modding continues and modders give a number of reasons why they do it. Primary among these is that modding acts as a bridge to online community. Playing video games is an important element in the lives of modders. Many of them already have some technical skill and modding is a way to explore more deeply their love of gaming. For those that don’t have coding or design skills learning to mod from veterans of the modding community is a way of entering a deeper world in gaming, a world where they get to decide how a game looks, what its narratives will be and how it will represent the world. Modding is empowering (ModDatabase.com, 2005; Postigo, 2007).

Not unlike the communities of fans that produce fan fiction or tribute videos for other media there is a moral economy to the discourse of modding, a sense of ownership (EULAs not withstanding) over the game. However, there is something more to be said here about discourses of love and ownership. In some instances of modding are very much unlike fan fiction or other participatory culture products that change or “poach” original content because mods can be radically transformative essentially abandoning the original narrative, the original characters and other initial content. In that sense love of modding and its moral economy (the internal community discourses that legitimate participation and appropriation of proprietary content) slips into a narrative of creativity and passionate labor. The discourse convincingly describes modding as “craft” and the name “hobby” creeps into how modders describe what they do (Postigo, 2003a; Postigo, 2003b; ModDatabase.com, 2005; Postigo, 2008). Love of the content of a particular game being modded (and the fandom that would be associated with it) becomes secondary to the craft discourse, a discourse that bridges modders and professional developers.

Ultimately these discourses continue even after modders have found their way into the game industry and despite the documented grueling conditions of work during crunch before a game’s release deadline. Recently for example, a modder turned professional designer (Sjoerd de Jong) authored a book about making the transition into the game industry. The book is an example of how modders share their ideas about the industry and also how they define their relations to it. de Jong interviewed over 20 game designers, some of which were once modders, on how they made their start in the game industry.

Alternatively the crunch and long hours prior to a deadline were noted as the most difficult things about the business. These industry professionals and former modders are not naïve about the industry. The well–documented instability of job security in the industry, for example, is well acknowledged along with a sense that management and those that do not understand the creative process are generally in charge of processes and deadlines.

Many of the de Jong’s respondents (about half including de Jong himself) had gotten their start in the industry via modding, so comments about the realistic management of timelines and the realization that their hobby was becoming a business were all the more poignant. There was indeed a sense of nostalgia. While they felt generally happy with their employment, they also intimated a clash with the business logic of the industry and a sense that the industry was still learning how to work with highly creative people.

The take away message from comparing the responses of the ModDatabase survey (composed of all modders) and de Jong’s survey (composed of all working professionals) is that there sometimes is an overlap in certain instances of how modders/developer talk about their experience. Most commonly, the idea of “craft” and the notion that their work transcends pure alienation in market and is valued because it is rewarding in and of itself serves as an organizing logic for work as professional or modder. For modders, the notion that drives modding is its power as a creative form; its power to communicate ideas and to channel the self. For the designers interviewed by de Jong it seems the same. Often the developers responded that watching people buy the games they had designed was a moving experience. They felt that their work had gone beyond themselves. That logic legitimated the long hours of work and what they felt was less than fair pay. Again there was little naiveté on their part. They knew that many in the industry are overworked and acknowledged that some employers reasoned that it was acceptable because in trade they were given work they could be passionate about.

While these two surveys were informal and the numbers of respondents were not many, the responses regarding experiences in modding and the industry do reflect other research findings (Postigo, 2008). What is most interesting here then, is the overlap in discourse from those who have professional experience and those that do not. This suggests that at least for modders the experience of building a mod approximates developing. They are in essence already in the organized structures of the industry just not affiliated with any one company per se. They are also still well within their own historical place, one that still has the visage of fandom and participation for its own sake. In the next section, we will see that the technological affordances that companies provide for modders (SDKs and other editing tools) also serve as places where these discourses and their practices are fleshed out and debated. Modding culture finds itself expressed through the discourse and practice that technologies allow or make possible.

 

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Section 2: The material expressions of the modding culture: Where narratives come together

The products of the modding culture embody the complex relationship between the industry and modding. As noted previously, mods can be radically transformative of the original content of a game. Indeed, they may abandon the basic game altogether and reconfigure images, narratives, and play style entirely. It is the case that when modders begin to divorce themselves from the original content of a game that the practice of modding begins to slip into development; into a concerted attempt to make something entirely new. This is especially true when modders consider creative exploration using the game as a platform rather than inspiration for continuing established narrative and game play. It is during these instances (which are becoming more common in modding culture) in which modders begin to behave and act like indie developers. In these cases the connection to any particular game is governed no longer by the substance of the game but by its code, by the game engine, the SDK, and the other affordances that only game companies can provide. Upon observing this shift in the focus of modding one gets a sense of capture. By converting fans of games into fans of platforms, game companies create and foster an effective pool of exploratory designers, willing to take creative leaps, harnessed as a collective intelligence meant to maximize the power of the crowd for the creation of potentially valuable derivative works.

Professionalization of modding happens in part through the technologies that are made available to modders. Transitions to the industry are mediated through technology in an incomplete way, however. Mods might be geared to enter the market tethered to the industry through EULAs or licensing on game engines but modders themselves remain freelance; outside of the larger corporate structures. The boundaries between the game industry and mod culture are not simply between those that have jobs in the industry and those that do not. Nor are they simply defined by those that aspire to work in the industry and those that are happy to hobby. Given the discourses of participation and production and the tools and platforms that modders use, it seems inaccurate to talk of boundaries at all. Modders are already part of the industry; the degree to which they traverse into its logic and formal operation is more the issue, whether their output is purposefully intended to enter the market or it whether it remains nominally outside the industry’s orbit is more a matter of framing than actual outcomes.

A recent and interesting instance of the industry’s attempts to capture modding more completely within a development model is Epic Games’ release of the Unreal Development Kit or UDK. The UDK is a complete set of developer tools using the Unreal Engine 3 (UE3). Modding as a technical practice has historically relied on access to a game one wants to mod. This is because games carry the technological assets upon which mods are built; the central asset being the game engine which is responsible for handling graphics, sound and the game physics. With the UDK, modders have access to all of the UE3 features and other assets without having to purchase any game that runs on the UE3 [such as Unreal Tournament 3 (UT3)]. Before UDK’s release, if one wanted to make an extensive mod to a game like UT3 (a total conversion that would effectively create a new game, for example) the modder would need a copy of UT3 together with an SDK provided by Epic. By supplying the UDK as a stand–alone development tool, Epic has essentially divorced modding from any original game. In this case it becomes difficult to call it modding at all. The terms of the license capture any content that would be developed by modders and presumes a commercial intent. The UDK is free for download but a $US99.00 licensing fee which would only be due upon the commercial release of any game using the UDK. Epic’s Web site explains:

A team creates a game with UDK that they intend to sell. After six months of development, they release the game through digital distribution and they earn €15,000 in the first calendar quarter after release. Their use of UDK during development requires no fee. Upon release they would pay US $99.99 for a Royalty Bearing license. After earning €15,000, they would be required to pay Epic €2,500 (€0 on the first €5,000 in revenue, and €2,500 on the next €10,000 in revenue). On subsequent revenue, they are required to pay the 25 percent royalty. (Epic Games, Inc., 2009)

In this way Epic completely detaches modding from any of its games. Valves’ use of the Steam distribution system is not unlike this example in that it was also a structural (legal and technical) attempt to capture modding. What sets the UDK apart is its implicit admission that modders need not think in terms of specific games to build on (like for example Counter–Strike was built as a mod for Half–Life) but rather modders can think in terms of platforms.

Importantly, in many ways modders were already thinking along these lines anyway. For example, in many extensive exchanges on modding forums like the Mod Database site discuss which engine would suit which type of game concept best. They talk of purchasing game engines not games. These discussions took place long before anything like the UDK came along thus for many modders purchasing games was a means to get access to the game engine, its assets and the related SDK. Talk of game engines already saw past games as starting points for modding [4].

“Talking technology,” discussion about the best uses of a game engine and whether the SDK is available or whether it is useful or easy to learn, are ways in which modders relate to game companies and modding in a substantive way. The technologies themselves and how modders understand them (as tools, as invitations to participate, etc.) positions their relations to games companies much the same way that talk about their work does (as hobby at the same time that it can possibly be a way into the industry, for example), it places them both inside and outside the industry. Technology talk is therefore both functional (it conveys useful information about a particular piece of software and how to use it) and it functions as meaningful at a meta–level. It allows users to align themselves with a sort of politics of modding (for the fun of it or for the market or sometimes even as resistance). A particular technological innovation can serve as a cognitive springboard helping users discursively construct the meaning of what they do.

Upon its release, UDK inspired a discussion that is exemplary of this type of technology talk. On the Mod Database participants spent considerable time sorting out, imagining and articulating the meaning (functional, organizational and cultural) of Epic’s newest tool for modding, the UDK. The threads in the discussion at first were initiated as technical inquiries, questions about whether one could port a map designed in the UDK into UT3, how to operate the light rendering system or to what extent a certain design was possible. But these threads also held something deeply social. For example, the discussion about porting maps from the UDK into UT3 quickly branched into a discussion on what the technology’s implications were for modding practices. If one could not port the maps and other content into existing games that used the UE3 then could the UDK be rightly called a modding tool; was it not more of a development tool?

Some participants, as they explored the features of the lighting tool on the UDK, rendered and posted images of retooled maps from UT3 [5]. A discussion that started off centering on the technological capabilities of the lighting tool turned quickly into a series of other topics that related very much to the social practice and culture of modding. Participants began to ask if it would be possible to engage in a community project to re–render all the maps in UT3 using the new tool. Some felt that the original maps were not as aesthetically powerful as some of the new images being posted or that the new user rendered maps included features that had been lacking in the original game. Eventually one participant with close ties to Epic noted that he had asked the company and it had indicated it would not allow a community project to re–design UT3 using the UDK. Copyright interests over the existing game would prohibit the community from effectively remaking the game using the UDK, even if it was released for free with no commercial interest, a point made by a number of contributors. As they talked about the technology, modders realized there was a tension between the participation the tool made possible ad the ways developers limited its use through legal restrictions.

As modders discussed the potential to integrate content from the UDK and UT3 (or lack thereof), participants began to think about what the role of modding should be in relationship to the game. Primarily participants began to question whether the UDK was a modding tool or a tool for indie developers. The technological limitations on portability (due to a difference in UE3 versions between UT3 and the UDK) suggested too many that the UDK was not a modding tool at all but rather an indie development tool, meant to focus the work of modders who had aspirations for independent development and commercial release. Interestingly, there was disagreement among the discussion participants about what modders wanted out of modding. One participant noted that that the UDK would help modders because it would allow them to make their mods as stand–alone games, even as they chose not to commercialize the mod. This participant articulated that modders making total conversion mods (extensive mods that change game play entirely) would no longer be dependent on a given game and months spent laboring on a total conversion would not go to waste should a game company stop supporting the game being modded.

Another participant wondered if this would effectively no longer technically be a mod. Total conversions have always pushed on the term mod, since the changes made are usually so radical. Total conversions have straddled modding and all–out development in the discourse of modding and this participant makes that clear. But without being tied, even nominally, to a game the term modding really means development. The meanings of either practices are blurred into one, a process that was ongoing before the UDK but that is made clearer through discussion of its implications. The implications for the purpose of modding are that the most important thing (given that commercialization was not considered in this participants discussion) was that the “mod” would be played, it would not die before release if the game company stopped releasing support and assets for mods based on it.

Another important theme that surfaced as participants discussed the UDK was the notion of “mod markets” and the impact of mods on a game. Again, as participants talked about the capabilities of the UDK, some wondered if the community would be able to mod stand–alone games using it. One set of participants discussed the idea of mod markets and its fragmentation, noting that both producers and consumers of mods would be split among those that consumed/produced UDK stand–alones and those that would continue to produce/consume mods generated from UT3 and its associated editor and SDK. Some wondered why the term “market” was being used at all, given that mods were generally not commercial. Yet it remained clear that this discussion was reflective of what the UDK would do to the modding practice. Would it create markets for mods or would it maintain communities (defined by free content and involvement and fandom of an actual game)? Another set of participants wondered if modding should be possible for all games. One participant, talking about a particular series of games he enjoyed (Thief and its subsequent iterations by Looking Glass Studios and later by Ion Storm), noted he was glad that the developers never supported modding on it. He noted that the story was strong and continuous throughout and that modding would have affected the overall narrative of the game (its core mythology and storyline) negatively. Others agreed and through this discourse participants effectively articulated a limit to their own participation; recognized ownership based on aesthetic (not traditional property rights) and defined the games place beyond even their own tinkering.

Discussions about technology and about the reasons for modding are illuminating as to how modders see their place in the arc of game development writ large, a place where community and markets coexist, where modding and development are two sides of the same coin and where participation and its limits are part of the practice. “Technology talk” and discussing its affordances leads to and illustrates the embeddedness of modding practice in technology and its ability to frame the place of modding inside or just beyond the game industry.

It is also worth noting the strong influence of technology and law to structure the activities that modders carry out. Lawrence Lessig (1999) is well known for having made important observations about the regulatory power of technology and Yochia Benkler’s (2006) treatise in The wealth of networks suggest that communities like modders and businesses can come together in digital networks for productive ends. Certainly their ideas are not entire new. Lessig’s is a form of soft technological determinism present in Langdon Winner’s (1986) work. Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) notion of “the medium is the message” is related to observations about the structuring power of technology (communication technology or others). However I wonder if issues of political economy and agency are adequately addressed (Winner not withstanding). Lessig uses the image of the dot to stand for individuals under the influence of market, legal, social and technological regulatory forces to illustrate his point about how “code” can become law, but does the dot ever really push back with code of its own? Free software might be viewed this way and also hacks to DRM but these oppositional forces are usually outside of the institutional structures that actually give code force (e.g., attendant laws, powerful Congressional lobbies and EULAs).

To return to the original theoretical framing of this article: the tension between the power of participation and the power of empire, so long as users don’t have technological and socio–structural agency (technologies and laws made in their interests) dots will remain more or less helpless and networks, while wealthy, will remain in the hands of Google, Facebook, Comcast, Cox and others. What we can learn from modders is something about critical and open–eyed engagement with media. Modding culture, if anything, is often very conscious of the system within which it flows. Of late is has become increasingly aware that its participation is part of big business.

 

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Conclusion: All modding, all the time

As far as mod culture is concerned, the examples presented herein point to a shift in the framing of modding both from within modding culture itself and from the industry. It is a logical and pragmatic step. The industry has for some time been saying in press interviews and other outlets that it saw the modder communities as valuable. By releasing tools like the the UDK and before that Steam the industry suggests that it would like to create a developer base from modder culture, a base it can use to develop valuable derivative works which it can license and gain profit. Stand–alone games in lieu of mods would dilute what modding culture has been traditionally, but modders seem to be dealing with the duality of their practices, especially as they discuss their reasons for modding and the impacts of the technologies given to them by the industry. Modding culture then is, like any cultural phenomenon, in flux, but their discussions suggest at least a critical and complex understanding for their place in the industry. Questioning why they do what they do and discussing how technologies affect their place in what is clearly understood to be a business, suggests that many modders do not proceed blindly into participation.

To learn from modders we must think more broadly about modding. We must see it not just as a highly technical practice carried out by a select few but as a category of media consumption the is becoming ever more prevalent. Thus while making a total conversion might not be the same as setting up a Facebook page, the category of consumption and use is the same. They both contribute content to a proprietary market system which derives value from the production. That system suggests the users are part of the business but legal and technical realities only makes their production part of the system, users themselves remain for the most part, just visitors in the media landscape. The empire is alive and well.

As a thought experiment, one could imagine we are modders of a different sort; we are not game modders but Web modders. Every day thousands of us log on to Facebook or Twitter, use Google mail, YouTube or participate in wikis. We take part in practices that are social at the same time that they are deeply technological. We are invited to participate, to take an active role in constructing profiles, tweets, videos and knowledge bases. Many of these infrastructures are owned by large media corporations and so, like modders modding games, we shape the face of commercial products, extend their market lives and give them dimensions that the original designers of the systems did not anticipate.

Reflecting on how modders talk about what they do and how they engage their technologies we can draw some interesting parallels and learn a little bit about ourselves. We can begin asking, for example, what are the implications of our participation as we (the consumers/academics/producers) so enamored by our social networks, committed to our communities, creative and participatory, construct our place in a new media environment where our friends, our profiles, our tweets, our networks mapped, our e–mails scanned are the valuable commodity.

Our discourses around these practices are as telling about how we see our place in relation to these digital networks as those of modders. We talk of being on Facebook or Twitter. We denote it is as a place; our place and we use technologies, provided by the industry, to construct the nature of our participation and our understanding of it. Take as an example the various widgets and games provided by Facebook for its membership, what do they communicate? How do they organize groups around the production of content? Are they simply lures for users to continuously log in? Are they development tools allowing users to, through their gaming and subscriptions, to structure substantively the content that becomes Facebook? How do these technologies position our production within the framework of content production, within social network architectures like Facebook? And as we discuss and have fun playing Mafia Wars or Texas HoldEm how do those discussions help us understand what we are doing. Are we gaming, connecting or working? In many ways modders have construct a clearer picture of their place. They can see the implications of adopting a given technology for their practices but those on social network sites or YouTube may not as easily be able to map their place inside the industry because the discourse of participation occludes in many ways the discourse of production.

We can learn from modders in some important ways then. Modder community dynamics illustrate forces increasingly at play within other systems that incorporate user content. Our discourses surrounding our participation can illustrate how we process our place and how technologies influence these experiences for us. The point here is not to claim that we are increasing siphoned into the productive process and that participation is ultimately a substantive illusion (it may be) but rather that we ought to engage in critical participation. When we are invited to participate with tools made by others we ought to ask how our contributions are shaped through technological affordances. We need to listen to ourselves as we talk about our participation in order to understand how we see a media environment in which we appear to be active and discern what we may be missing critically as we eagerly contribute to the digital media stream. End of article

 

About the author

Hector Postigo is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Theatre at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa. His research focuses on new digital media. Specifically, he studies video game culture and online environments. He pursues two lines of research. The first line of research focuses on value production on the Internet and he was one of the first researchers to study video game fan communities that make valuable modifications to popular PC games (modders). The second line of research is a study of social movements and their use of hacking and social networking technologies. That research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
E–mail: hector [dot] postigo [at] temple [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Because console games are said to be “locked” (either due to format or unavailability of SDKs), modding culture focuses its efforts primarily around PC games. The reason why there is this divergence in openness between PC games and games for consoles (Play Station 3, Xbox360 and the Wii, for example) is a matter of history, technological choice and institutional culture and beyond the scope of this article.

2. Henry Jenkins originally described it in the context of fan fiction and has recently expanded the concept to other forms of participation. Here I agree with the logical extension of the concept to other fields of participation in media creation but want to point out what makes modding culture a special case of participatory culture.

3. For many modders, modding has special meaning as a venue for creative expression and community, for example.

4. There are a number of such discussions on the forums of the ModDatabase.com for example.

5. The UDK provides basic maps taken from UT3 but as that discussion made clear they cannot be played on UT3.

 

References

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Henry Jenkins, 2006. Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York: New York University Press.

S. de Jong, 2007. The hows and whys of the games industry, at http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-hows-and-whys-of-the-games-industry/1836248, accessed 28 April 2010.

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Editorial history

Paper received 8 April 2010; accepted 17 April 2010.


Creative Commons License
“Modding to the big leagues: Exploring the space between modders and the game industry” by Hector Postigo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Modding to the big leagues: Exploring the space between modders and the game industry
by Hector Postigo.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 5 - 3 May 2010
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2972/2530





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