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Digital Games, Player Modifications, and Authorized Production
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Licensed to Play: Digital Games, Player Modifications, and Authorized Production

Andrew Mactavish


It is safe to say that digital games are currently an important object of study for scholars of digital culture. If safety comes in numbers, then we need only to acknowledge the growing number of conferences, monographs, essay collections, and university courses and programs treating digital games as cultural artifacts that express meaning and reflect and shape the world we live in.1 A far riskier claim would be that digital games studies is a definable discipline. While there may be abundant evidence that scholars are engaging with digital games, it's too early to see an established discipline with a set of matured methodologies and canonical texts or a broad base of institutional structures like departments and academic appointments. This does not mean that digital games scholars are not trying to establish a discipline. Indeed, an important component of academic discourse around digital games has been less on gaming artifacts and practices, and more on defining appropriate methodologies for analysis that are more or less unique to digital games. Many scholars want to treat digital games with the same analytic seriousness as they treat works of literature, theater, visual art, music, and film, but they are also concerned to understand what is distinctive about digital games. The burning question at hand is, should the study of digital games be guided by theories and methods unique to digital games, or can we apply theoretical models developed to explain other cultural forms such as narrative, theater, and film? On the one hand, this primarily political dimension of digital games studies draws attention away from games and gameplay; on the other hand, answering the question has very real and material effects on the generation and distribution of knowledge around digital games.

There is nothing new in scholars debating approaches to their subject matter, especially when it comes to the study of new or updated forms and presentations of culture. This is normally a sign of a healthy and growing field. In the area of digital games studies, though, the stakes seem very high as participants bandy about the rhetoric of colonialism to protect their turf against invasion from opposing teams of scholars.2 One might imagine these debates in terms of team building in schoolyards where groups select the players they want on their team, leaving those outside the debate standing on the sidelines waiting to be picked or going off to play their own game away from the popular kids. The danger of such team building, of course, is that the popular kids would like to believe that they are the only game in town. In other words, as important as these debates have been to establishing digital games as legitimate objects of study, they have tended to divide scholars into camps, each with particular methodologies defined to some extent in opposition to other camps. Intentional or not, the result of such division can be an unfortunate blindness to the remarkable diversity of digital games and gameplay practices.

To date, the most common debates have been between ludological approaches, which define digital games as primarily rule-based objects and activities, and a collection of other approaches rooted in the study of narrative, theater, and film. While most ludological commentators grant that digital games can include story, performance, and filmic convention, they often argue that these elements are secondary to a game's gameness. For many ludologists, remove the story-line and high-tech special effects and you still have a game based upon rules. While this may be true, the fact remains that many digital games include stories, performance, and audiovisual pleasures that are configurable by the player in some fashion. Remove them from the game and you might still have a game, but it won't be the same one you started with.

What most digital games scholars agree upon is that games require an active participant for the game to proceed. Players must effect change within the game for there to be a game. In this respect, game players are co-creators of the gaming experience. Similar claims have been made for the way we consume most forms of culture. The reader of a novel or the viewer of a film actively engages with the work by interpreting it. This psychological interaction with the work can discursively affect how others interpret it, but it does not change the work's fundamental structure or organization. When we watch a movie, we might interpret it differently than others, but we all experience the same sequence of images and sounds. While it is possible to skip or review sections of a movie or novel, these actions are not necessary to the realization of the work. Digital games, however, require that players physically interact with the work, whether it's to guide characters through the game space, modify the game world, or even to create new game elements.

Espen Aarseth conceptualizes the participatory nature of digital gameplay in terms of ergodics. In ergodic works, "non-trivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text," while in nonergodic works, "the work to traverse the text is trivial" (1997: 1). For Aarseth, who approaches digital games primarily from a ludological perspective, flipping pages and scanning images with our eyes is nonergodic because it does not require the user to cause the same kind or degree of physical change to the work. Janet Murray thinks about the participatory user in terms of agency, stating that "Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices" (Murray 1997: 126). Concerned mainly with the narrative potential of digital games, Murray adds that "we do not usually expect to experience agency within a narrative environment" (Murray 1997: 126). Even though Aarseth and Murray approach digital games from two different and sometimes opposing perspectives, they agree that the participatory nature of digital games distinguishes them from other textual and visual forms of culture. Regardless of perspective, the realization of a digital game requires participating players whose interactions with the game make them co-creators of work.

As digital games research begins to move its focus away from the ludology vs. narratology debate and toward the kinds and qualities of participatory play, the creative element of digital gameplay is receiving much more critical attention. Rather than pronounce that gameplay is unproductive time, as influential play theorists Johann Huizinga and Roger Callois have argued, a growing community of games scholars are arguing that digital gameplay is a creative activity saturated with various in-game and meta-game productive practices. Whether we conceive of creative game-play in terms of ergodics or agency, our analysis should be guided by questions around what kinds of creative practices are supported by digital games and how social, cultural, and economic factors shape these practices.

Yet, with so much recent attention in the press on the destructiveness of digital gaming, it is sometimes difficult to see digital gameplay as a creative and productive activity. As with the emergence of many forms of youth culture that preceded them, digital games have become a focus of anxiety over the seemingly unrestrained and rebellious energies of youth. Today's news media regularly connects digital games with dangerously subversive youth, whether it's schoolyard massacres modeled after Doom, traffic shootings motivated by Grand Theft Auto, suicides linked to Everquest, or addictions to online persistent game worlds. This anxiety is intensified by reactionary commentators like Lt. Col. David Grossman, who claims that games teach children to kill (1999), and American politicians like Senators Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman, who seek strict controls over the sale of digital games depicting violence.3 Indeed, there appears to be very little that is good about digital games, with the exception, of course, of their contribution to the economy, which is often celebrated to rival Hollywood box office revenues (Entertainment Software Association 2006). Thanks to an intensifying culture of fear surrounding youth, digital gameplay is often perceived as requiring moral concern because it brings the energy and potential of youth into collision with destructive and anti-social behaviors.4 Ironically, this fear obscures insight into the many creative practices common in digital gaming culture.

To get a clearer picture of the creative potential of digital games, we need to dissolve some of the clouds of suspicion surrounding them, which tend to condense around simplistic and under-contextualized equations between media consumption and aggression and the general belief that play is an unproductive waste of time.5 Academics from various interdisciplinary perspectives have begun this process, arguing, as Edward Castronova (2005) and Celia Pearce (2006) do, that digital gameplay can be a highly creative and productive activity. I argue that an illuminating approach to understanding digital gaming culture should be guided less by focusing on particularly dramatic but relatively uncommon events and more by looking at the spectrum of everyday gameplay practices. For this knowledge to contribute to a constructive understanding of our culture, it must be broadly contextualized to account for the place of digital gameplay within the network of social, political, and economic systems within which it operates. Cultural practices cannot be understood adequately outside of the complex and multifarious atmosphere that produces them and that they help to produce. By positioning an analysis of creative gaming practices within a social, political, and economic context, we can get closer to understanding the kinds of creativity that exist, why they exist, and whether they represent increased democratic agency within a cultural landscape increasingly overgrown by capitalist commoditization.

This analysis of creative digital gameplay looks closely at the intersections between player agency and corporate strategies to manage gameplay and its associated creative practices. It does so by concentrating on a set of digital gaming activities known collectively as modding. Short for "game modification," modding is a catch-all term that has various meanings within different contexts, but for the sake of clarity, I use it to mean the production of player-created derivative game content that can be imported into a game or that can be played as an entirely new game on top of a game's underlying code or engine.6 Some types of game mods include new game levels, character skins, or in-game objects like furniture, vehicles, and weapons. Using the internet, mod-creators can distribute their productions within networked games or on websites, taking advantage of community-run clearinghouses that support both the circulation of mods and the organization of knowledge around their production.

Modding is a form of player-creative gameplay that encompasses a range of contradictory practices, some of which are simultaneously resistant and submissive to corporate regulation. In other words, while the production of mods and in-game content signals player agency with and within corporately produced works of culture, it is not necessary that player-production on its own is always antagonistic to corporate interest or capitalism's prioritization of economic value over use value. Indeed, many game developers recognize the financial benefits of providing support for player-created content, and so are experimenting with ways to manage this production to protect their economic investments, which rely heavily upon copyright and intellectual property law. Unlike the music and film industries, whose economic models of the flow of cultural goods make it difficult to support consumer participation in the cycle of cultural exchange, the digital games industry evolved in part out of an ethos in which sharing the productive fun is part of the game. The intersections between this ethos of sharing and the corporate desire to maximize profit through the management of knowledge and intellectual property are the focus of this chapter.

Digital games are not the first cultural works to stimulate communities of productive fans. As Henry Jenkins documented in the early 1990s, fans of literature, film, and television have long participated in forms of productive authorship that reach beyond the production of meaning inherent in interpretation (1992).7 Drawing heavily from Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, Jenkins argues that fans who create and circulate fanfiction, fanflicks, and other forms of fan-created culture resist the systems of cultural regulation that seek to manage the production and circulation of cultural artifacts and their meanings. For Jenkins, fan-culture creators go a step further than de Certeau's model of the active or nomadic reader, which Jenkins argues restricts readers to "maintain[ing] a freedom of movement, at the expense of acquiring resources which might allow them to fight from a position of power and authority" (Jenkins 1992: 45). Fan-creators, according to Jenkins, become more like the producers whose power over the legitimization of culture they seek to contest.

While digital games potentially support a more democratic system of cultural production and exchange, this terrain of participatory culture is by no means level or free from the powerful interests of capital. Indeed, enrolling players in the production of after-market game add-ons potentially increases a game's shelf-life and, of course, its sales, suggesting that productive players become free laborers in a widely distributed and perpetually innovative economy of flexible production.8 But are productive players participating in a more creative, democratic, and critical system of cultural production or are they co-opted by corporate strategies to broaden the scope of commoditization to include participatory consumer production? There are many variables that make this question impossible to answer on one side or the other, and to simply answer "both" obscures insight into the shifting dynamics that define relations between different kinds of producers and modes of production. Both game producers and player producers — a division that is difficult to pin down — participate in a range of productive activities that affects how we define game production. This chapter will attempt to take a snapshot of this process, with special attention on the forms of knowledge production and regulation that shape the contours of these relations.

Post-Fordism, Ideal Commodities, and Knowledge Flow

In their analysis of the technology, culture, and marketing of digital games, Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter argue in Digital Play that digital games are an ideal commodity form of post-Fordist capitalism, in much the same way that cars, suburban housing, and appliances were ideal commodity forms of Fordist capitalism (2003). Drawing upon political economist Martyn J. Lee (1993), they demonstrate convincingly that digital games are what Lee terms an "ideal-type commodity form" because they embody "the most powerful economic, technological, social, and cultural forces at work" in the current regime of accumulation (Kline et al.: 74). Where "Fordist commodities were governed by a 'metalogic' of massification, durability, solidity, structure, standardization, fixity, longevity, and utility," post-Fordist commodities are governed by a metalogic of the "instantaneous, experiential, fluid, flexible, heterogeneous, customized, portable, and [are] permeated by a fashion with form and style" (Kline et al.: 74). For Kline et al., digital games are an example par excellence of a post-Fordist commodity because "they embody the new forces of production, consumption, and communication with which capital is once again attempting to force itself beyond its own limits to commodify life with new scope and intensity" (76). These new forces include systems of youthful labor typified by instability, relentless change, and exploitation; the use of electronics to expand and deepen the commodification of the time and space of everyday life; and the intensification of "the simulatory hyperreal postmodern ambience" frequently associated with post-Fordism by its critics (75).

Of particular importance here is Kline et al.'s combination of the flexibility and customizability of the post-Fordist commodity with the development and management of specialized knowledge. As David Harvey stresses in The Condition of Postmod-ernity, the organized creation of and rapid access to information are integral to maintaining a competitive edge in a post-Fordist economy: "in a world of quick-changing tastes and needs and flexible production systems … access to the latest technique, the latest product, the latest scientific discovery implies the possibility of seizing an important competitive advantage" (Harvey 1990: 159). Kline et al. extend Harvey's observations and draw upon Tessa Morris-Suzuki's notion of "information capitalism" to argue that post-Fordism in general relies upon cyclic systems of specialized knowledge development and distribution where knowledge flows from the public to the private and, after maximized capital extraction, back to the public. As Morris-Suzuki states in Beyond Computopia, corporations use public knowledge "in inventive activity" to create specialized knowledge protected and capitalized by intellectual property rights: "Property rights enable the corporation to fence off the new corner of the knowledge from the public and to make a profit from its application, and it is only when profits have been obtained and the invention is obsolescent that it is returned to the domain of public use" (Morris-Suzuki 1988: 81). As such, information capitalism exploits more than just laborers; it also indirectly exploits the entire social system in which public knowledge is generated, disseminated, and maintained.

If digital games are the ideal commodity form of post-Fordist capitalism, then there should be significant evidence that the production and management of game development knowledge fits with Harvey's notion of "organized knowledge production" and speed of information access (1990: 160) and with Morris-Suzuki's cycle of public—private—public knowledge. Managing the flow of intellectual property is critical to the economic success of digital games that support modding, but an updated account of the role of knowledge management in producer—consumer relations is necessary to account for the consumer-productive practices found in game modding communities. While both Harvey and Morris-Suzuki are writing in the late 1980s, during the rapid development and diffusion of digital technologies in science, business, education, and the home, they had not yet experienced how the internet would support the capacity for the production and distribution of knowledge from communities unauthorized within the corporate cycle of knowledge production. While forms of organized knowledge capitalization continue to develop and expand, other strains of knowledge production and distribution — still organized, but with less corporate approval and benefit — are, with the help of information technologies, intensifying and also increasingly disrupting the public—private—public cycle of corporately organized knowledge production. One need only glance at the music industry's struggle with peer-to-peer file swapping to see how unauthorized communities develop, manage, and apply computing knowledge and tools to undermine capitalist economic models.

The development of knowledge systems that operate beyond the control of corporate interest is especially apparent in digital gaming culture, where sophisticated online player communities build and share knowledge that potentially undermines the power of intellectual property to capitalize knowledge and information. This potential is increasingly under threat as game producers develop strategies and technologies that support player modification at the same time that they protect intellectual property and maximize profit.

Modding History

It is difficult to locate precisely the origins of digital game modification, but it goes back at least as far as William Crowther's Adventure (Crowther 1975), the first computer-based text adventure game. Adventure has been modified several times by players adapting it to run on different platforms or expanding its map and including extra puzzles, which has resulted in several versions of the game distributed under a variety of names, including Adventure, ADVENT, and Colossal Cave. An avid caver, William Crowther developed Adventure to echo his caving experiences so that he could share them with his young daughters. The first modification to Adventure was created in 1976, when Don Woods came across a copy of the game on his company's computer. His excitement at discovering it prompted him to ask Crowther if he could modify it by fixing some of its bugs and by expanding its map to include more rooms. Crowther agreed to send Woods the source code so long as he promised to send Crowther any changes he made. Since Woods' modification of Adventure, dozens of ports and modifications have been created and distributed over the internet, although Crowther's original may be lost.9

While Woods' modification of Adventure does not exemplify the kind of relationships we see today between corporate and player cultural production, it does point to the general ethos of knowledge sharing that typifies the early years of software development and continues today in open-source movements. But it is not until the golden age of arcade games in the late 1970s and early 1980s that we find the interests of capital coming into conflict with player-productive activities. During this period, companies like Atari, Bally-Midway, and Namco enjoyed substantial commercial success from developing coin-operated game machines, a success they sought to protect through copyright management, but that was never seriously threatened by a general population of game players given the material nature of arcade games and the tightly restricted networks of game distribution.

Perhaps the most notable clash around arcade game modification came in 1981, when a group of MIT students began building hardware modifications to arcade games with the hope of attracting players back to their aging inventory of arcade cabinets. Tired of simply managing a small coin-op business, and concerned about the costs of renewing their inventory, Doug Macrae and Kevin Curran decided to invest their time in creating new arcade games. Since they didn't have the necessary capital or experience to design and build new games from code to cabinet, they opted to use their experience in computer graphics and electrical engineering to develop enhancement boards that could be inserted into current arcade machines and provide players with newer, redesigned versions of their favorite games.

Their first modification was to Missile Command (Atari 1980), a popular game owned by Atari in which players defend cities from missile attacks using ground-to-air counter-missiles. Following the success of this mod, Macrae and Curran set their sights higher and modified Pac-Man (Namco 1980). In August 1981, as they were coming close to finishing this modification, Atari launched a copyright infringement suit against Macrae and Curran for their modification to Missile Command. Since Macrae and Curran did not modify any of the game's original code — opting instead to build boards that overlaid code on top of the original code — Atari's case would have been difficult to argue successfully in court. Atari ultimately agreed to drop the suit, offering Macrae and Curran $50,000 per month for two years to develop games for Atari so long as they agreed to stop making enhancement kits without permission of a game's original manufacturer.10 The central issue for Atari was to prevent the unauthorized development and distribution of enhancement boards that could update existing machines without any of the profits from such enhancements going to the original manufacturer.

Having agreed to cease production of enhancement kits without permission from the original copyright holder, Macrae and Curran went to Bally-Midway (the US distributor of Namco's Pac-Man) seeking permission to produce their Pac-Man enhancement kit. Rather than approve their request, Bally-Midway suggested that Macrae and Curran help build a sequel to Pac-Man, which eventually became Ms. Pac-Man, the most successful arcade game of all time, selling over 115,000 machines.

The Macrae—Curran example uncovers many important points surrounding the early days of digital game modification, including the rise of difficult issues surrounding the definition of intellectual property rights in and around digital material. Importantly, it also points to some of the considerable restrictions on modding that make the Macrae—Curran story somewhat exceptional. These restrictions resulted from the structure of the arcade games industry and the very nature of arcade games themselves. In order to modify arcade games, one not only needed access to an arcade cabinet (with a cost ranging from $1,500 to $5,000), but one also needed access to a means of distribution as well as advanced knowledge of graphics and engineering. While only small players in the industry, Macrae and Curran succeeded because they met those requirements: they were running a small arcade operation in and around MIT, so they had both access to hardware and a means for local distribution, and they had enough knowledge of computer graphics and electrical engineering to disassemble code and design their enhancement kits. They also had the necessary drive and determination to challenge big industry players like Atari. Given the high financial, educational, and legal costs of entry, though, it is not surprising that arcade game modding was a relatively uncommon practice restricted to only a few brave hearts.

It is not until the mid-1990s, when personal computers and the internet come together in the homes of millions, that we begin to see the development of a broad and diversely constituted modding community. During this period, gaming consoles like the Sony PlayStation were the most popular means for enjoying digital games, but their single-purpose nature, as with arcade machines, made their games difficult to modify and almost impossible to distribute. The general-purpose nature of personal computers, both as single-user workstations and as networked communication devices, opened game modification to many more players, providing potential modders with access to a rich and growing knowledge-base on hacking and coding in general but also supporting a means for networked distribution of materials.

Unleashing Doom

Around midnight on December 10, 1993, id Software unleashed Doom, its new and highly anticipated first-person shooter (fps) game for personal computers. Released over the internet, Doom firmly established the first-person shooter as one of the most popular and influential genres of digital games in general, but also as one of the most important genres to the growth and development of game modding in particular. Following on the success of their first fps, Wolfenstein 3D (1992), id Software's John Carmack and John Romero set out to create a new fps based upon Carmack's increasingly innovative graphics technology. After seeing a small community of modders build up around Wolfenstein 3D, Carmack designed Doom so that its engine (the game's underlying code) and its media assets (the game's graphics and sounds) were housed in separate files. This modular design helped protect the game engine while providing potential modders with access to Doom's media assets, stored in WAD files (an acronym for Where's All the Data?). With access to the WAD files, modders could replace graphics and sounds with ones of their own choice and design.

Soon after Doom's release, fans quickly began creating modifications, substituting original in-game characters with the likes of Barney, the Simpsons, and other popular culture icons. The impulse to modify Doom was so great that, less than two months after the game's release, Brendon Wyber distributed the first version of the Doom Editor Utility (DEU), software developed by a networked team of programmers that allowed modders to create more than new graphics and sounds for Doom. It also gave them the power to create entirely new levels in the game.11

Response from id Software to the growing mod community around Doom was mixed. Both Carmack and Romero, who subscribed to the hacker ethic promoting the sharing of code for the betterment of software design, were elated by what they were seeing. While they understood it might mean potential loss in financial capital, they prized the symbolic capital that came with a substantial hacker community growing around their game. Others at id, however, were less enthusiastic about the possible consequences of Carmack's programming generosity. They worried that, by giving too much creative license to the community, they ran the risk of diluting their copyright and potentially competing against their own product should someone seek to sell mods based on their intellectual property. In other words, the symbolic capital gained from an active hacker community coagulating around a growing knowledge-base of Doom's code threatened to hemorrhage the flow of economic capital enjoyed by id. After all, as much as Carmack and Romero took pride in their fan-base, they also took pride in their Ferraris and other material rewards of financial success.

Five months after Doom's release, the conservative members of id Software convinced Carmack and Romero to approve a Data Utility License (DUL) to regulate the creation of editing utilities for Doom. The DUL required that all authors of Doom editors sign and abide by the terms of the license, which included provisions that protected the game engine from reverse engineering, ensured that the editor work only with the commercial version of Doom and not its freely available shareware version, and required developers to submit a copy of their editor to id and to explicitly and conspicuously acknowledge id Software's trademark ownership.12 Regardless of the restrictions imposed by the DUL, most of the Doom hacker community abided by the license, happy simply to have been given the right to participate in the production and distribution of gaming material. For id Software, the license acknowledged and protected their intellectual property, but it also potentially increased their own knowledge base (since all editors needed to be submitted to id), buttressed game sales (since utilities could only work on the commercial version of the game), and yet continued to foster a growing participatory fan-base who felt empowered as active contributors to the cultural phenomenon.

It is important to note that the DUL applied only to the creation of Doom editors but not to the creation of mods, for id Software's main objective was to protect their game engine. This strategy proved remarkably prescient for id, whose revenues continue to be substantially bolstered by sales of game engine licenses to commercial developers. As id Software develops new engines to support new computing technologies, they publicly release the source code for older engines under the General Public License (GPL), which allows the public to access, modify, and redistribute the engine. In 1999, they released the source code under the GPL for both Doom and Quake, their first-person shooter released in 1996. In many respects, id's knowledge distribution model fits with Morris-Suzuki's cycle of corporate knowledge where, once knowledge has extracted maximum economic profit or once it is supplanted by next generation innovation, it is returned to the public. The desired benefit, of course, is that there will be an updraft where older technologies convince aspiring developers not only to stay committed to id Software's games, but potentially to adopt id's newer engines should they be in a position to invest.

While id Software's early method of fostering a sophisticated modding community around Doom seems rather improvisational, this disorganization illustrates the novel approach id took to marketing and distribution. They understood the potential power of the internet as a means for cultural distribution (the release of Doom over the internet is one of the first examples of commercially successful cultural exchange over the internet); they understood that a part of their fan-base enjoyed modifying their games; and they understood that communities of modders creating and distributing new in-game material could potentially expand and extend sales. But they did not prepare strategically for the unanticipated levels of game hacking that quickly developed around Doom. With no previous models to go by, little experience upon which to base expectations, and internal disagreement over how to handle fan production, id Software found themselves having to improvise their management of community participation. Ultimately, they sought a model that gave them the best of both worlds: an active modding community and a licensing agreement that protected their intellectual property.

Managing Modding: Communities and End-User License Agreements

Not all game developers rely on such an improvisational approach to protecting copyright and managing player-creative practices. In many respects, id Software's experience with Doom provided up-and-coming developers with the instructive example they needed to refine their strategies for realizing capital benefit from game modding. Rather than take a wait-and-see approach to protecting intellectual property and managing the development and exchange of hacking knowledge around their games, developers of second-generation mod-enabled games designed marketing strategies to maintain a greater level of control over the development and circulation of mods and modding utilities.

Armed with an understanding of the economic benefits and potential pitfalls of an active game modification community, companies like Valve Software — makers of Half-Life (1998) — and Epic Games — makers of Unreal Tournament (1999) — opted to give players the metaphoric keys to the car while simultaneously restricting how and where the car was driven. These developers sought to increase sales but protect intellectual property by more vigorously defining acceptable modding practices and by more actively participating in modding communities, which broadened their power to influence and manage modding practices and knowledge circulation beyond the seemingly heavy-handed approach of relying solely upon licensing agreements and copyright law.

Both Valve and Epic have enjoyed substantial economic benefit from their mod communities, as is clearly demonstrated by the six-year period between Valve's release of Half-Life (1998) and Half-Life 2 (2004), a remarkably long interlude given the gaming industry's tendency to rely upon the safety of sequels for revenue. Valve did not need to produce sequels because its modding community was essentially doing that work for them, providing hundreds of freely available mods that extended Half-Life's original story, presenting entirely new stories, or offering new maps for networked competitive games. Indeed, part of Valve's marketing strategy was to promote the inclusion of the WorldCraft level editor with Half-Life and, of course, the ability to play levels created by other players. Not content to allow the most popular mods to circulate without maximizing economic benefit, Valve opted to license a select few mods from the community, the most important and successful being Counter-Strike, a mod built by Minh Le and Jess Cliffe in 1999. To this day, Counter-Strike remains one of the most popular online shooter games, with over 60,000 players logged in at any given time.13

Buying up game mods from the community, while perhaps an effective mod management strategy, is highly inefficient and economically unsustainable, so companies like Valve and Epic use other strategies for managing mod communities and their creative practices, such as the development and distribution of official modding toolsets, the active cultivation of modding communities, and the definition of legitimate productive practices through legal agreements.

Community cultivation

Most game developers understand the benefits of building a strong participatory fan-base, so it is common for them to provide their communities with free promotional materials for fan-run websites and to organize or sponsor game festivals and contests that feature their games. It is not unusual for developers to require that players use fan website kits, which include color schemes, logos, game graphics and guidelines, before they agree to provide a link from the official website to the fan website. This enables developers to have some branding control over the representation of their game within fan communities. It also helps to build a feeling in the fan community of connection to the game and its developers. In addition, developers often identify and support community websites that focus on mod creation. This support can come in many forms, including the transfer of knowledge not documented in the commercial version of the game and active participation in the site's discussion forums around modding. In this way, the developer can foster a modding community through the controlled transfer of proprietary knowledge.

Developer-sponsored modding competitions also strengthen fan commitment to games and their communities, giving participants the opportunity to connect to the company on the level of content development. Indeed, many aspiring games developers enter their mods into competitions, hoping that theirs are chosen as one of the best and thereby giving them exposure not only to the community, but also to the developer, who could opt to license the mod or even hire the mod's creators. As already noted, Valve Software actively draws from its modding community when seeking new programming talent, hiring the teams that developed mods such as Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat. And BioWare Corp., makers of Neverwinter Nights, recently held a mod writing contest called "The Contest That Might Become Your Career," in which winners could be offered employment as writers for future game material.14 Not only did this contest provide BioWare with potential employees, it also generated further excitement in general around the development of mods for their games. More importantly, all officially sponsored modding contests do more than generate enthusiasm; they also provide the player community with motivation to create mods and to see digital games as more than games, but also as environments supporting creative cultural production.

End-user license agreements

From a legal standpoint, the most important component in a strategy to manage player-production is to create an end-user license agreement (EULA) that spells out authorized and unauthorized modding practices. EULAs accompany most pieces of computer software, whether it's a word processor or a game. Most computer users recognize them as those very long chunks of legalese that require acceptance before running the software for the first time. Always present, yet seldom read, game EULAs typically protect intellectual property at the same time that they protect the developer from litigation by freeing them from responsibility for player-produced material. But what the EULA also does is frame game modding as a legitimate form of cultural production, but one whose legitimacy is defined to fit with the interests of capital to expand and extract economic benefit from intellectual property.

Game developers vary in their definitions of what constitutes legitimate modding, but they usually seek to protect game makers from liability, to prohibit reverse engineering, and to forbid the sale of mods without consent. The following sample is taken from the EULA governing the creation and distribution of mods made for Epic's Unreal Tournament 2004 (Epic Games 2004), and is typical of many digital game EULAs in some of its restrictions:

1.  Your Mods must only work with the full, registered copy of the Software, not independently or with any other software.

2.  Your Mods must not contain modifications to any executable file(s).

3.  Your Mods must not contain any libelous, defamatory, or other illegal material, material that is scandalous or invades the rights of privacy or publicity of any third party, nor may your Mods contain, or be used in conjunction with, any trademarks, copyright-protected work, or other recognizable property of third parties, nor may your Mods be used by you, or anyone else, for any commercial exploitation including, but not limited to: (a) advertising or marketing for a company, product or service.

4.  Your Mods shall not be supported by Atari, Epic or any of such parties' affiliates and subsidiaries, and if distributed pursuant to this license your Mods must include a statement to such effect.

5.  Your Mods must be distributed solely for free, period. Neither you, nor any other person or party, may sell them to anyone, commercially exploit them in any way, or charge anyone for receiving or using them without prior written consent from Epic Games Inc. You may, [sic] exchange them at no charge among other end-users and distribute them to others over the internet, on magazine cover disks, or otherwise for free.

6.  The prohibitions and restrictions in this section apply to anyone in possession of the Software or any of your Mods. (Epic Games 2004)

As these restrictions make clear, Epic supports the creation of mods for Unreal Tournament 2004, otherwise, their EULA would read very differently and they would not have included their own mod creation software with the commercial release of the game. And they want users to freely distribute their creations to others. One way of reading their prohibition against commercial distribution of mods is to conclude that they carry the torch for the democratic and free distribution of digital culture. But, if we look at some of their restrictions around distribution, we see that the right for economic profit is solely reserved by Epic: all mods must only work with retail and registered copies of Unreal Tournament 2004 and no mods shall be sold without first seeking consent from Epic.

It remains, however, that Epic, like other developers of mod-enabled games, enthusiastically supports mod creation and gives mod-makers significant latitude over their productions. Epic even allows modders to use content and scripts from previous Epic games, stating "We just LOVE the idea of you using and distributing content or script from any prior Epic Games, Unreal franchise game in Unreal Tournament 2004 Mod [sic]. Therefore we grant you a license to use content from any prior Epic Games Unreal franchise game in your Unreal Tournament 2004 Mods" (2004). In addition to providing modders with free content, Epic encourages the recirculation of their own content as a means of helping to build a mod community in its own image. Like providing fan websites with official materials and guidelines, promoting the use of content from earlier games helps Epic to manage its branding and discourages dilution of their intellectual property.

Even more restrictive, however, are the terms by which the license can be terminated. In Epic's typically humorous tone, their EULA states, "In the unlikely event that you are naughty and fail to comply with any provision of this license, this license will terminate immediately without notice from us" (2004). In other words, break any component of the license governing playing the game or making mods for the game, and you can no longer use the software. This is a restriction common to most EULAs and not normally the cause of much friction between mod communities and game developers; not normally, that is, unless it is written explicitly to address rights around the distribution of mods, as the following example of BioWare Corp's EULA for Neverwinter Nights demonstrates.

In 2002, BioWare Corp. was on the eve of releasing Neverwinter Nights (NWN), its highly anticipated role-playing game. One of the most anticipated elements of the game was its Aurora Toolset, a collection of sophisticated but simple-to-use design utilities for the production of mods. Prior to the game's commercial release, BioWare freely released a beta version of the Aurora Toolset, including an EULA, in part to test the software for bugs, but also to generate excitement in its fan community. The beta certainly generated excitement, but not the kind BioWare hoped for. One section of the EULA caught the collective eye of the NWN community, raising ire for its overly possessive approach to player-created content and for its heavy-handedness in controlling the right to distribute mods. The section reads:

By distributing or permitting the distribution of any of your Modules, you hereby grant back to INFOGRAMES and BIOWARE an irrevocable royalty-free right to use and distribute them by any means. INFOGRAMES or BIOWARE may at any time and in its sole discretion revoke your right to make your Modules publicly available.

(BioWare Corp. 2002)

Essentially, BioWare sought to manage the circulation of mods by claiming royalty-free rights to all mods distributed by fans and by claiming the power to terminate a modder's right to distribute their mods for whatever reason they saw fit. Both claims resulted in an angry outcry from the game's fan-base, who were concerned that BioWare was seeking ownership of all fan-created and -distributed mods and that they could terminate the right to distribute cultural work made with their development software. Comparisons to other software development tools were common, with the argument that the Aurora Toolset should be seen as a development tool similar to Microsoft's Visual C++, which would never impose such restrictive conditions for use.

In response, BioWare rewrote the offending section to include wording around their effort to give credit to mod-makers whose mods they decided to distribute:

Infogrames and BioWare will make a reasonable effort to provide credit to you in the event it uses or distributes your Variations, but you acknowledge that identifying you and/or other Variation creators may be difficult, and any failure by Infogrames and/or BioWare to provide credit to any person shall not be a breach of this License and shall not limit Infogrames' or BioWare's rights to use and distribute any Variation.

(BioWare Corp. 2002)

While more generous than their initial EULA, the final version maintains BioWare's royalty-free right to distribute fan-produced mods and variations for their own benefit and to terminate end-users' rights to distribute mods at BioWare's sole discretion. In the end, all that BioWare offered to appease its modding community was the potential for symbolic capital that could come from including developers' names with any community-built mods they selected to distribute, with the added escape clause that their failure to do so does not breach the terms of the EULA.

BioWare's creation of end-user license agreements to manage third-party content exemplifies an increasingly common trend in the games industry to treat player-production as a source of distributed and free labor toward the extension and expansion of game sales. Indeed, the potential financial benefits of game modding have not gone unnoticed by industry-leaders like Microsoft. As J. Allard of Micro-soft's Xbox team enthusiastically celebrates, "If only 1 percent of our audience that plays Halo helped construct the world around Halo, it would be more human beings than work at Microsoft corporation … That's how much human energy we could harness in this medium" (Borland 2006). In Allard's mind, players are like potential energy reserves waiting to be tapped for corporate benefit. And with the advent of more network-centric gaming systems like Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, it seems likely that we will see developers take advantage of the system-proprietary nature of console networks to more closely manage and capitalize upon mod distribution. In many respects, as game developers create deeper implicit and explicit restrictions on player production, we find that game modding itself is being commoditized.

Relations in Flux

As we have seen, response from developers to modding, while generally positive, has resulted in a mixture of attempts to define and authorize modding as a legitimate practice and to define rights to player-created materials. While companies like Epic Games do not claim rights over player-created mods, companies like BioWare and Microsoft tend to see their community as a potential source of marketable content. Regardless of varying levels of restrictions, the goal remains the same: to maximize profit.

In other words, the history of modding outlined here demonstrates ongoing reconfigurations to Morris-Suzuki's public—private—public cycle of specialized knowledge in information capitalism. Rather than seek near-total control over the system of exchange, as continues to be the strategy of the litigation-hungry music and film industries, games developers provide knowledge and tools to their consumers to encourage participation in cultural production. Some of this knowledge is packaged with games in the form of tools and documentation, some of it is leaked to modding discussion boards, and some of it is developed and circulated by gamers themselves, outside of any official corporate authorization. The challenge for games developers has been how to manage these knowledge leaks to protect their intellectual property, maximize profit, and minimize litigation. So far, their strategies have been to cultivate communities and technologies of exchange, where content is vetted or filtered by the developer, and to create end-user license agreements to define acceptable practices.

To date, games developers' strategies for managing player production have had mixed success. The cultivation of communities of exchange gives developers greater control over what is created and then promoted back to the community. Indeed, companies like BioWare have considerable control over content when they host contests, where all materials are submitted to them for vetting. And with the rise of centralized gaming environments, such as massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft and proprietary networks like Microsoft's Xbox Live, developers gain a technological advantage in being able to monitor and manage data exchange. In these cases, the cycle of public—private—public is reconfigured slightly, although the result is no different. But even Microsoft recognizes that, no matter how secure they make the Xbox and Xbox 360, hackers will find ways to create and distribute unauthorized material. As Allard himself states, "With 360 we said, 'Let's assume we can't stop it. How are we going to manage it?' " (GameSpot 2005).

While supporting and managing communities gives developers substantial power to manage content distribution, it gives them only limited reach and, ultimately, little control over the everyday creation and circulation of mods for decentralized games (single-player games and player-organized networked games) that takes place outside of authorized networks and communities. Even end-user license agreements give developers only limited power over the creation and circulation of game content. EULAs are seldom enforced by developers to the point where they go to trial. In centralized online games, where content can be monitored and managed in ways similar to proprietary console networks, players are given warnings when their creations potentially break EULAs. Normally, this results in players complying with the EULA. But in games where content is not managed by a centralized network, data flows more freely and is much more difficult for developers to manage. In these games, even if players create mods that contravene EULAs, there is little that developers can do to stop mods from being distributed online, especially with the popularity of peer-to-peer file-sharing systems such as BitTorrent. And if a developer decided to launch legal action against a modder, the effects of such aggressive action could ripple through the community, potentially damaging relations with their fan-base. Developers clearly understand the necessity for caution. As for developers' claims to irrevocable royalty-free rights to user-created content, there is very little modders can do but accept that they are potentially creating content for their favorite games developers.

The always-shifting dynamics of relations between games developers and their modding communities makes it difficult to draw clear conclusions over whether game modification provides players with greater productive agency without simultaneously making game modification into a commoditized practice. Without a doubt, mod-enabled games allow players to become producers of content and knowledge, but many games developers are increasingly seeking to manage what happens to that content and knowledge once it is created and distributed. By promoting modding practices, game developers are providing creative players with more than games; they are also providing creative environments, whether they include modding tools or in-game creative activities like those in The Sims, where players create domestic settings. It remains that players can create and distribute their own materials, sometimes within and sometimes without the implicit and explicit restrictions that developers use to define legitimate modding.

It is difficult to speculate about what future modding practices will look like, but the current situation demonstrates that new models of cultural exchange are constantly evolving in response to many variables, including the development of new technologies of exchange, which are being used both to support and to restrict unauthorized content distribution. Rather than see the evolving model of digital content and knowledge exchange as locked in a cycle of public—private—public, it is more accurate to see the model of exchange as constantly in flux. In this respect, modding is like a game between commercial producers and player producers, where the rules of play forever shift as one team builds greater offense and another team tightens their defense. Neither team is particularly organized behind one strategy, but they both seek to define and exercise the rights to creative digital gameplay.


1  Since 2001, two new academic journals focusing specifically on the study of digital games as cultural artifacts have been launched: Games Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research (<>) and Games and Culture: A Journal of Interactive Media (Sage Publications). In 2003, the Digital Games Research Association was established and its first international conference was held in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Several book-length studies on digital games have appeared in recent years, with MIT Press establishing a Game Studies series.

2  See Aarseth (1999) for an example of colonialist rhetoric.

3  For an example, see McCullagh and Broache (2006).

4  Henry Giroux points out connections between the intensifying culture of fear surrounding youth and the paranoid response of the US to terrorism (2003).

5  For a strong critique of media-violence studies, see Freedman (2002). For a discussion of play as unproductive time, see Huizinga (1955) and Callois (2001).

6  The word "mod" is also used to describe forms of hardware modification, such as those used by hackers to install alternative operating systems on game consoles such as the Sony PlayStation, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube.

7  For more recent analysis of participatory culture, see Hills (2002) and Jenkins (2006).

8  See Harvey (1990) on flexible production and Morris-Suzuki (1988) and Kline et al. (2003) on perpetual innovation economy.

9  See Montfort 2003: (65–93) for a more detailed account of Advent's history.

10  See Kent (2001) for a full account, especially pp. 167–73.

11  See Kushner 2004: (165–68) for more.

12  For the complete Data Utility License for Doom, see <>.

13  See GameSpy (2006) for statistics. There were 63,247 players playing Counter-Strike at the time of writing (1:50pm EST March 9, 2006).

14  See Bioware (2006). Contest ended January 30, 2006.


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