30-05-2011 mag 4 / popular /

article/

The craft of Modding

Abstract: 

Advancements in modern gaming have influenced the construction and production of game content. In modern game culture, the agency of user-created content have become more important.The modern trend of constructing and producing alternative game content and modifications, also named mods, are influencing the practices and the experience of the gamers. The new practices in the games are the mods, which invite games to create game content. For the gamer, the experience of the game can be influenced by the arrival of the new agency that is rising from these new practices. In modern games, the agency of mods and mod-making tools as non-human actors have become an important aspect, not only of individual gamer experience but also on game culture and game industries. With this article, I want to explore how the production of alternative game content as a practice in modern games have agency on the gamer experience. I will use the game Starcraft 2 to explore the practices of mod making and the effect that mod making tools have on the roles of the gamer and game industry. Allowing the creation of alternative game content will transform and affect the game experience.

 Chapter 1: Rules of the game/ rules of play 

 Beyond the rules, playing with the rules 

According to anthropologist Bruno Latour, technical artifacts are complex networks that have a “program of actions, goals and functions” (Latour 1994). They are active mediators that prescribe the relations between non-human and human artifacts and the affordances of the artifacts. A machine has agency on social and cultural relations that humans have with the technical nonhumans and they constantly negotiate these roles.  When using the notion of Latour to explore the practices of gaming, we can determine that  games  are  complex  and  multi-perspective  networks  of  human  and  non-human agency and “the chain of actors is more or less endless” (Cypher & Richardson 2006, 6).  A heterogeneous network of actors negotiate and influence each other in order to retain stability. Because the role of the game is prescribed by their human makers, their non-human  existence  carries  the  meaning  that  is  inscribed  by  those makers.  Here Latour adds the notion that technologies are artifacts that produce their own meaning and that they have social characteristics that instruct the behavior of humans. The ways that humans handle game practices are influenced and shaped by the actors of the game as a technological system (Latour 1992). They encourage, deny and negotiate certain behaviors  from the players of the game. The relations between these non-human technologies and humans, in this case the players of the game, constantly shape and govern each other. This interplay leads to transformations in the complex world of gaming culture and the roles of its consumers and producers. In modern games, the game content that is produced by the gamers becomes more valuable in game culture and a transformation in game development and game industry is noticeable (Postigo 2007). There is a new prescribed agency of gamer involvement in game development that  transforms  the  complex  network  of  the  game  and  invites  new  practices  of production  and  participation.  These  new  practices  will  be  explored  by  using  the modifying of game content by gamers as a central subject.

The game is a mediator between the practices of human and non-human artifacts. But the  digital  architecture  of  games  determines  how  certain  actions  or  practices  are possible  (Whitson  2010).  Rules  are  a  central  component  in  games.  The  coded framework of the game consists of software and programming rules that lay down the rules for the limits of the gameplay and how the goal of winning the game could be achieved. The biased construction of winning and losing a game is already set when the game developers built up the game. The rules of the game are hidden within the code of the game, the construction of game space and the possible choices that are available for the  player.  For  Johan  Huizinga,  the  game  rules  are  the  essential  elements  that determine the practices of play. He defines the act of playing a game that is always present in the frame of a magic circle (Huizinga 1938). Within this circle only the game rules count and outside there is only the context of the outside world. The framed relationship  of  the  artificial  game  world  with  the  real  world  influences  the “mechanisms and experiences of a game in play” (Salen and Zimmerman 2005). It will construct the social space that is outside of the game space.

Participation in games 

"According to a recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life project (Lenhardt and Madden, 2005), more than one-half of all teens have created media content, and roughly one third of teens who use the Internet have shared content they produced."  

(Jenkins 2006, 3) 

The arrival of gamers as a third party of game developers, next to the game industry and  game  designers,  makes  the  issue  of  game  rules  and  control  in  games  more complex. When gamers engage and negotiate with the network of the game, they still operate in a space that is constructed by game developers and designers (Taylor 2006). Commercial game industries are designed as top-down cultures that have control over the production of game culture. Then we see these new bottom-up cultures where existing game elements are modified and used for individual purposes. To quote game critic Edwin Carels “Why remain a passive consumer when there is just as much fun to be had in adopting games to our own sets of rules (…) One thing the games have in common is  the  notion  of  empowerment,  speaking  out,  looking  critically,  taking  the  initiative ourselves” (Carels 2004). He explains that practices of game modifications in a bottom-up game culture can exist if the players gain an active and critical stance in relation to the  existing  control  in  game  culture.  For  the  creation  of  media  content,  an  active approach is expected from the player of the game. Joost Raessens considers this a characteristic  of  participatory  culture  (Raessens  2005,  383).  His  definition  of participatory culture includes special demands; the interpretation, reconfiguration and the construction of computer games. All these practices are negotiated readings of the participation of culture. The comparison of a battlefield with computer games is made by Raessens to indicate the critical approach of players as bottom-up, heterogeneous forms of participatory media culture (Raessens 2005, 384). It is participatory culture that  encourages  and  enables  the  idea  that  players  can  create  agency  through  the production of self-made game content. User-created content in game culture is a new form of game practice and it is contributing to the modern games. We can see by this new arrival in game culture the creation of a participatory culture (Jenkins 2006).

Social and cultural practices are changing when the social actors in the game network, active users and producers, are defining their contributions and refashioning positions of control and empowerment. In participatory culture the line between consumer and producer  is  blurring.  It  can  be  seen  as  the  generation  of    digital  citizenship empowerment;  playing  along  with  the  professionals  in  game  industry  and  create similar content.

Control and counterplay 

Exploring the different agents that influence the network can help to “conceptualize how a game is governed as well as to understand control and counterplay (Whitson 2010). The online article of sociologist Jennifer Whitson examines the governance of humans in rule-based systems (Idem). She explains that the practices of counterplay and rule making can explore more about the governance of technological space like games. Instead of forcing the complex nature of governance into a “single framework of domination, future research needs to highlight the pulling and pushing of different actors  and  the  intricate  balancing  act  that  ensures  the  game  networks’  survival” (Whitson 2010). The actor-network theory has proven to be a productive research tool for this article and the article of Whitson. By using Latour's  notion, we can consider the game network as an interplay of human and technical actors. With the arrival of new practices, like players creating game content, the network of the particular game gets disrupted and reshaped. Traditional structures of game governance, or templates as Latour calls them, will transform and shape themselves into new and fresh stories of control and agency (Latour 2005, 196). Some games will have the same constructed network and similar templates as other games and will influence agents within the networks, like the developers and players (Whitson 2010). Some forms of governance in technological space that are present in games are similar to online spaces in general. Both the game and the digital space are constructed by socio-technical actors that are constructed by rules and codes with “implicit and explicit rules for their operation” (Lianos and Douglas 2000). Here, the governance of rules are similar practices.

The notion of counterplay has a big influence on the production of rules and control in a technological space. Illegitimate and insurgent actions in game culture can be defined as counterplay. Player actions like cheating can be seen as counterplay. The boundaries of game play are explored and extended by the players in the “reinterative structure” of the game and it’s solid framework of rules: “Referring to ludic or playful vitality in its most transformative expressions, counterplay speaks directly to the disruptive creation of the new through the reiterations of gaming” (Apperly and Dieter 2010). Counterplay is  about  the  reconfiguration  of  gaming  “within  already  existing,  localized,  enacted practices  of  unruly  innovation  in  digital  game  play”  (Idem).  In  gaming,  the  game developers mainly control the amount of play space and govern the acts of negotiation from players with the game. With the growth of user-created content, the work of game development increasingly includes predicting and governing human behavior through both technical and social means. (Whitson 2010). These leading figures in game culture have a controlling agency on the games and their users. A dominant authority that consists in game networks implicates a hierarchy in the game practices and the arrival of gamers as productive and creative developers of game content will cause disorder. Counterplay makes the issue of a dominant actor in playing games more complex. Gamers  will  be  introduced  as  actors  in  game  development  and  socio-technical transformations will occur, but they still operate in a space where game developers and designers have shaped the rules. Counterplay is also a part of playing and going against the rules, but the amount of freedom that the game networks have to offer, will not enable  the  agency  of  dominant  practices  of  user-created  content.  Counterplay  will always be a form of playing that proclaims the expressions of creativity from the player of the game.

Emergent practices in games  

The definition of counterplay can be used to explain the transformation of alternative creative and productive practices in modern games. We have already seen that social arrangements and technological artifacts are changing in game culture, because of the trend of gamers as the new game developers and designers. The new agency of gamer involvement in these practices are a form of  emergent play (Sweetser 2008). User created content is a product of emergent play and this form is part of the bottom-up behavior that exists in game culture. This form of play can be intended or unintended by the game developers; they can neither encourage the gamers to emerge into the game or they will prevent the unintentional counterplay. Games have the potential to invite the gamer to play in an alternative way. This implies a kind of double standard: games invite players to both play by the rules and to counterplay. The way that humans explore and use technical artifacts indicates that the rules to handle these artifacts are followed. The element of play is present in all humans and it is almost inevitable that counterplay will emerge from playing (Huizinga 1938). Alternative forms of playing games  exist  in  game  culture;  experimenting  with  gameplay  and  exploring  creative actions  are  characteristics  of  emergent  play  in  games.  Players  emerge  into  new practices  when  using  unexpected  gameplay  elements,  like  winning  a  mission  in  a manner that the game designer did not foresee. Emergent gameplay is like a process of learning and experimenting with game rules and going beyond the limits or space of the game.

Chapter 2: Alternative play  

A new kind of gamer experience 

Game modding 

The  trend  in  modern  games  is  the  proliferation  of  player-produced  artifacts.  The creation of new elements of the game is also called modding, which is an abbreviation of the word  modification. By modding, the gamers are allowed to change, refashion and create new game elements. Gamers modify and reproduce original game elements and create personalized and alternative game spaces. These creative practices by gamers can  be  a  diversity  of  digital  objects  and  elements  of  the  game:  maps,  avatars, characters, items, missions and much more. The mod practices make it clear that the users of media can be the designer of these artifacts as well. Game companies started to see more value in modding activities until recent modern games, such as the game Starcraft 2 from 2010, encouraged and supported the creation of modifications and the mod community. Compared to the traditional view of game industries on  modders, player-produced artifacts become more valuable and interesting in a commercial way (Postigo 2007).

The making of game modifications, or mods, is a productive effort of the players of games. Generating the tools for producing mods along with the purchase of games will stimulate this creative process. All mods that are created, use a basic tool for modding: the game engine. The game engine is the framework that sets the physical, graphical and operating rules that make the game program work properly. It is constructed by the developers and designers of the game and thus, holds a economic and intellectual status. The access to the game engine promotes the productive and developmental  practices of players and since the game engine is the source material for the final product (the mod) it can be called an open source product. In some cases, the practice of modding is “crossing over the divide of intellectual and economic understanding to produce their own games” (Poremba 2003). CounterStrike is a striking example of a mod that gained commercial success and was sold as a professional game. In this case, the game Half-Life served as a medium; it was the original source and the game engine that granted CounterStrike to their professional status.

The transmission of intellectual property from the game companies to the gamer is not quite that literal; the game engine is just a physical piece of software that is converted and designed to a productive tool for players in the form of mod-making tools. Their function is to provide the player with attachments, programs and tools to create mods. Mod-making tools can come in a variety of construction sets, like map editors where new game environments and maps can be made or item creators where detailed pieces of the game can be modified or constructed. These tools form the fundamental basis for the production of modifications in games and facilitate the use of the game engine. Creative players are both shaped and invited by the tools that are produced by the game developers. The last group will govern the actions of the production of players, but invite them to produce user created content at the same time by adding the mod-making tools to their game. When the game is bought, the player automatically has full access to the mod-making tools.

Modding Starcraft II 

The PC-game Starcraft 2 uses mod-making tools in an extensive way that invites their players  to  create,  share  and  discuss  their  self-made  mods.  When  Starcraft  2  is purchased, the gamer automatically gets a profile for the online service Battle.net. This online services makes it possible for the player to access the Starcraft Editor and log on to the Starcraft 2 forums to discuss and share their self-made mods with other gamers. The mods can be ranked and discussed for their professional and working content and they can be shared in the actual game. The online existence of mod tools creates an accessible platform for gamers. Every Starcraft 2 gamer can access mods from other players. Blizzard, the game company that owns both Starcraft games even organizes contests that will grant the best modder with a prize and makes their mod an official part of the game’s content (Starcraft 2 Mods 2010). Modding competitions are not only held for the sake of the gamers glory and to stimulate the creation of new content, but the companies also obviously expect to increase the sales of games and gain publicity from these stunts (Sotamaa 2010). Starcraft 2 is an example of a modern game that actively encourages development of alternative game content made by the users of the game. Blizzard supports the creative actions by introducing online services and mod-making  tools  and  they  recognize  the  players  of  their  game  as  a  third-party  of developers of game content:
"With a community as dedicated and as creative as that of our players [Starcraft 2], the abundance  of  exceptional  community-created  mods  is  no  surprise.  When  the  legacy Battle.net service introduced support for user-created mods such as DotA, Tower Defense, and many others, these user-created game types became immensely popular."  (Battle.net Starcraft II 2011).

The interplay between player and game developers is fully exploited in the practice of mod making. By using online services for mod sharing, the game industry is opening up to  digital  consumer  networks,  such  as  game  forums  and  services  like  Battle.net. Starcraft 2 makes it possible for every buyer of the game to have access to the online platform of mod-making and sharing tools. Online mod practices also extend the “life span and the sales of a game title” and stimulate the diversity of mod making and individual  contributions  of  players  (Sotamaa  2010,  105).  Gamers  make  use  of  the intellectual property of the game designers by using the game engine and the mod-making tools and mutually the game companies offer these tools in order to keep their audience  interested  in  the  game  and  interact  with  the  users  of  the  game.  This interaction is a win-win situation; modding is a clear and equal agreement between gamers and developers and both parties make use of each others creative productions. For the game companies, modders could serve as a research and development team that is inexpensive and willing to cooperate (Sotamaa 2010). In both cases, the actors are simply attempting to mould the network to fit their needs and desires. The rules are under constant revision and transformation and notions of control are shifting. With these practices of producing new game artifacts, the meaning of game content becomes reshaped by the gamers. So the production of meaning of a game is not only controlled by the actors that introduce the game itself, but also by the players of the game. The gamers that play the modern games that stimulate mod making, are the new actors of producing new content, applying meaning to the game and will thus attribute to a new role in game culture.

Amateur  gamers  are  given  a  chance  to  stand  on  similar  ground  with  the  game designers when professional mod-making tools are provided. In the notion of amateur productions there has generally been a hidden standard of low-quality products and creation  of  fan-made  content.  Fans  draw  their  resources  from  commercial  media culture  and  refashion  them  to  serve  an  alternative  purpose  (Jenkins  1992);  like modders, fans are the same powerless actors in professional game development, but the experience and active dedication to the game could sometimes be compared to that of a professional game designer. The boundaries between amateur and professional practices  in  game  culture  are  beginning  to  blur  and  the  quality  of  amateur modifications have the ability to reach a professional level. The users of games have the potential to make professional game content and the facilitation of mod-making tools stimulates  the  user’s  experience  and  knowledge  about  games.  Mods  can  reach  a professional status. Starcraft 2 has added several mods that were made by amateur gamers  into  their  official  game  database,  next  to  their  own  professionally-made content, by holding contests that use the game as a medium and a tool for alternative and creative productions.

The practice of mod making as a non-commercial and open source production can cause a conflict with game industries, which are basically commercial companies that try to validate and protect their own properties, like game engines. If modifications are being sold illegally, the commercial interest of the game industry will be damaged. The agency  of  the  game  industry  in  practices  of  creative  collaboration  and  production becomes more dominant when the protection of intellectual property is at hand. Game companies have the difficult task of governing the process of user-generated content, to make sure they are “productive yet law abiding” (Whitson 2010). Royalties, licences and patents of game content decide the commercial boundaries of player produced artifacts and implicate the hidden agencies of commercial interests in the practices of mod  making.  It  is  not  true  to  say  that  game  industry  suppress  creative  content productions because the culture of mod making is bound to the rules of the games and of  their  owners.  They  provide  the  mod  making-tools,  unless  a  user  agreement  is clarified and signed by the user.

Conclusion 

Complex  networks  of  affordances  govern  the  practices,  production  and  interaction between the game industry and the gamer. Gamers are actively participating in game culture by producing user created game content, like mods. The arrival of mod-making tools in modern games, such as Starcraft 2, stimulates this process and gives agency to the players to create alternative game content and be a part of game development. There  is  a  new  prescribed  agency  of  gamer  involvement  in  game  culture  that transforms the complex network of the game and invites new practices of production, play  and  participation.  The  alternative  production  of  game  content  negotiate traditional  processes  of  game  development  and  user  participation  in  games  and transform the roles of gamers and game developers. If the modern game industry participates in these new practices of mod-making they have to make the game engine available to their players. By providing mod-making tools, the game companies invite the gamers to use their intellectual property like the game engine, which are always subject to commercial conditions.

Game companies have to maintain a balance when they want to contribute to the gamers’ mods; they have to make sure that gamers abide by the rules of the game and still be able to have the creative space to produce their own mods. In this way, the network of actors in game development and creative production by both player and game developers stabilize the practices in technological artifacts and find a mediated balance  between  all  these  complex  agents.  The  practices  of  mods,  modding  and modders,  such  as  the  socio-technical  transformations  and  configurations,  social arrangements  and  professional  and  commercial  interests,  emerge  as  a  network  of affordances that stabilize the actions and practices in game culture.

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