Kairos 24.1

A Perspective on

Modding and Ownership

By Samuel Jackson Fuller

Intro: Let the Games Live

In 2016, when Adam "Koolboyman" Vierra released the promotional trailer for "Pokémon Prism," a total conversion mod forPokémon Crystal (2000), his eight-year passion project resonated strongly with a segment of the Pokéfandom. He’d teamed up with the designers of "Twitch Plays Pokémon"—a famous live-streaming event involving thousands of online users simultaneously attempting to play Pokémon Red (1996)—to collaboratively debut a feature-rich, nostalgia-bomb of a game. It was intended to be a fresh experience with a classic feel, emphasized by the trailer’s retro Game Boy Color frame and remixed MIDI soundtrack. It would have been released as a free download, though there was the possibility that streaming the game via the Twitch platform (which was rapidly gaining popularity) could result in streamers profiting from the game.

Trailer for the unreleased version of "Pokémon Prism" (Stewart isme, 2016).

Just a few days before Koolboyman intended to post his mod to the Internet, he received a cease and desist order from a legal team representing Nintendo, the megalithic videogame company who’d published the original Pokémon games. The order demanded an immediate end to development on "Prism," as well as the removal of any download links. Koolboyman complied, tweeting this statement: "I'm sorry everyone […] I should've seen this coming. People warned me. But I didn't listen" (Klepek, 2016). His apology is clearly to Pokéfans, not Nintendo; he goes on to comment that, perhaps if he hadn’t drawn so much attention to the release of "Prism" by promoting it, and perhaps if he hadn’t spent such a long time on development in general, fans might have gotten a complete version of what he’d envisioned (Machkovech, 2016).

Although the website for "Prism" was indeed shut down and all its known developers formally disavowed the project, a version of the near-complete mod was quickly leaked onto the website 4Chan, posted by, in their own words, "a group of people interested in seeing ROM hacks succeed." This anonymous group claims to have obtained "Prism" without any of its original developers’ knowledge (implying that they stole the files through hacking). To protect "Prism’s" known developers from culpability, the leakers removed their names from the credits that roll at the end of the game; instead, they include a general thank-you to the fans who helped carry the project along the way. Responding to an e-mail from a journalist at popular gaming news site Kotaku, they justified their actions thusly:

Regardless of Nintendo’s legal rights, we do believe that they are destroying their fans’ hard work for no reason and at no gain. […] Nintendo could have used this (and any other good ROM hack) as an opportunity to promote the Pokémon series in general. They don’t even have to do anything other than let the games live. (Alexandra, 2016).

This perspective, backed by the technological savvy of organized hackers, poses a challenge to current legal doctrine that exclusively favors copyright holders over modders. Nintendo has been unsuccessful at stopping the development and distribution of "Prism;" since the takedown, a new team known as RainbowDevs has taken over the project and has implemented a series of updates to fix bugs and add polish to Koolboyman’s final version. Having learned from Koolboyman’s mistakes, the mod files are now only distributed through private, secretive channels. The developers remain anonymous, subverting Nintendo’s ability to take legal action against them. All this combines to create an environment where modding is, by necessity, an underground activity.

As the above example shows, videogame modders are legally disenfranchised when it comes to owning what they create, and this article argues that litigation against modders benefits no one in the long-run. This disenfranchisement leads to the following:

A) It chokes the creative potential of users—a valuable resource which IP-based companies rely on;

B) It diminishes opportunities for technical problem-solving, wasting the potential of ready-made games as self-directed learning environments;

C) It leads to the systematic exploitation of unprotected laborers.

As a lifelong gamer and scholar of modding history, I propose that an ethical solution exists: let modders claim ownership of the mods they create but require that their work be labeled as "unofficial." Thus, IP-owners retain the power of official authenticity and ability to manage their public brand while opening partial ownership to anyone who chooses to participate in the collective development of a media franchise. This solution would create new opportunities for productive partnerships between gamers and the videogame industry based on equitability and mutual respect, such as existed in the early days of videogames.

Section A: The Creative Potential of Users

Not all modding projects have been met with the same hostility as Pokémon Prism; indeed, having recognized the creative potential of users, some videogame developers have encouraged it.

Historically, John Carmack of Id Software was perhaps the first within the industry to take a vocal stance in favor of modding. Carmack was thrilled to discover gamers circulating mods online based on his technology for Wolfenstein 3D (1992), and became adamant that all his future games should help facilitate modding by separating the "engine" (the invisible code that runs the game) from the "assets" (like graphics, sound-effects, and interactive objects); thus, players could experiment with re-designing the front-end experience of their games without accidentally damaging the back-end functionality they were already familiar with (Kushner, 2003). Doom (1993), Id’s highly popular sci-fi, first-person shooter (FPS), was notably designed in this way, and a prolific modding scene grew around it as a result. Despite some initial resistance to Carmack’s idea from others at Id—particularly after a Star Wars themed mod of Doom risked earning the notoriously litigious ire of Lucasfilms Ltd.—the company collectively recognized the value of leveraging the creativity and motivation of modders while simultaneously "building brand loyalty and player community" (Dovey & Kennedy, 2006).

Gameplay capture from Doom "Star Wars" mod, released in 1995 by Matt Falk (Printz, 2012).

By the release of Doom II (1994), modding had spawned its own industry. One small, enterprising game publisher called Wizard-Works released an anthology of approximately 900 fan-made mods dubbed D!ZONE, which actually surpassed Doom II to top the CD-ROM games sales charts despite blatant violations of Id’s End User License Agreement (EULA). It also ignored the explicit written statements of modders, many of whom did not desire or consent to have their mods distributed in this way ("D!ZONE," 2015). Unlike Nintendo, Id opted not to take legal action against Wizard-Works (Wallace, 2014). Instead, to "give the [D!ZONE publishers] a run for their money," Id initiated paid contracts with a number of modders to assemble the officially-endorsed mod anthologies Doom: The Master Levels (1995) and Final Doom for retail (Kushner, 2003) ("Master Levels," 2018) ("Final Doom," 2016).

Alas, Id’s approach has not been widely embraced, and it certainly has not been encouraged by legal doctrine that leaves decisions of whether to allow modding entirely up to the whims of copyright owners.

But, you might be thinking: Does the creative potential of modders really justify allowing them free reign? Aren’t mods just derivative, ultimately pointless, bits of cyber-goofery and self-indulgence? Sometimes, they are; at other times, mods can meaningfully improve games in a variety of ways. Some examples include:

Mods can fix buggy/glitchy games. Given the economic pressure in the game industry to quickly push a final release to market, the presence of bugs/glitches is almost inevitable: these range from insignificant, to quirky, to "game-breaking" (rendering a game unplayable or unappealing). These days, if developers can afford to, they may offer downloadable updates called "patches" to address issues brought to their attention; alternatively, modders can go in and fix things themselves. "The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod" for Bioware’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 (2004) not only fixes that game’s numerous bugs/glitches, it "restores" content that was present in the game code, but which was incomplete and thus cut from the final release version. Truly, playing SW:KotOR2 without this mod installed is inviting inevitable frustration; with it, the game feels polished and complete. Similar mod projects for more recent games, like Fallout 4 (2016), exist too; indeed, some feel that developers are increasingly shifting the burden of bug-fixing onto modders by releasing unpolished versions ("This Mod," 2016).

Mods can offer entirely new gameplay experiences. Sometimes, playful tinkering with a ready-made game engine can reveal hidden possibilities for fun gameplay. This was the case when a high-school student named Kyle "Eul" Sommers released a mod tilted "Defense of the Ancients Beta 2" for the popular real-time strategy (RTS) title, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002). Eul re-conceived the RTS’s characteristic gameplay style—commanding armies to complete various objectives—into one based on controlling a single, powerful "hero" character in an arena-style map featuring three paths known as "lanes." These lanes separate the player’s "base" from an enemy "base." Eul’s mod (which became colloquially known as "Dota") allowed 10 players to inhabit the map, divided into two teams of five heroes, with each team’s objective being to defend their own base while attacking the others. "Dota" was unique enough that it seemed to stand entirely apart from the game it modified (though the base game was still required to run it), and it would be continuously developed over seven years through the collaborative efforts of various modders. Ultimately, "Dota" yielded the basic formula for a distinct new gaming genre: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA). The MOBA formula has since been adopted by numerous professional developers, including Riot Games for League of Legends (2009) and Blizzard for Heroes of the Storm (2015), and has also become a fixture within the multi-million-dollar eSports industry.

Mods can express political values. Industry professionals are pressured to design games that appeal to the broadest possible market; thus, they tend to avoid incorporating overtly political arguments. Consider Counter-Strike (2000), a popular FPS themed around battles between terrorists and counter-terrorists; the narratives framing these battles are shallow at best. According to one critic, "[they] generally paint the terrorist side as comically evil and wanting to destroy things and hurt people for no concrete reason" (Roger, 2014). Putting aside the game’s racist representation of the terrorist-side as predominantly Middle Eastern, it’s clear that Counter-Strike strives to be "apolitical" by deploying an overly-simplified "good guys" versus "bad guys" dichotomy; taking a more nuanced moral stance in relation to actual modern warfare is outside of its purview, and it’s presumed that anyone who doesn’t like it will simply not play the game. Nevertheless, Anne-Marie Schleiner’s mod "Velvet-Strike," released in 2002, uses Counter-Strike as a platform for protest in the wake of September 11th; her mod adds a range of anti-war/military graffiti to the game, allowing players to "spray" walls with graphics that directly reference real-world events (e.g., one bears the text "We are all Iraqis now" over an image of a woman holding a dead child), thereby confronting players with values that the game deliberately suppresses (Schleiner, 2002). Obviously, developers hoping to market and glorify violent military fantasies are disinclined to include such messaging in their games, which—somewhat ironically—makes them ideal spaces to intervene in through modding.

Mods can support subaltern identities. In general, fewer resources are dedicated to crafting gaming experiences that are intended to resonate with minority audiences, including people of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community. Modders, who are inherently outsiders of the videogame industry, can rectify this situation by inserting details that reflect the circumstances of these and other subaltern groups. Stardew Valley (2016) is a life-simulator that was well-received upon release; players manage the daily activities of a customized avatar who escapes their office job in the city to run their grandfather’s abandoned farm—this includes farming (of course) as well as interacting with the NPCs that populate the game’s eponymous town. By default, the game lets the player-character form romantic relationships with 12 different townspeople, including same-sex relationships; even so, some fans of the game craved encounters that they could more closely identify with, leading to a series of modding efforts centered around the theme of diversity. In the original version, all but two of the 30+ townspeople are white, and all are (apparently) gender-normative; modders produced custom sprite-sheets intended to selectively replace the graphical representations of one or multiple townspeople, and in so-doing, transformed the gameplay experience for players seeking alternate ways to identify with and relate to Stardew Valley (notsnufffie, 2016).

The above examples each reveal unique ways that mods add value to games through user creativity. Whether companies realize it or not, modders contribute value that is lost when modding is discouraged.

Section B: Self-Directed Learning Environments

If young people are interested in and passionate about videogames, then it stands to reason that pedagogists should study the medium’s affordances. With modding, every game is a potential creative learning environment, with its particular rules and conventions just begging to be tested, broken, and re-made. Unlike the oppressive classroom environment typically associated with learning in the US (spaces dedicated to the rote memorization of facts and standardized hermeneutics), the digital learning space, concatenate with beloved pop-culture’s many electronic artifacts, encourages the pursuit of individual interests and passions. Such is the claim of digital pedagogy scholar Gregory Ulmer (2014), who encourages students to transform readymade media objects by melding public, private, institutional, and entertainment discourses, producing electronic collages. Gaming scholar Jan Holmevik (2012), building upon Ulmer, proposes the term "ludic intervention" to describe changes made to mediated experiences (videogames) based on the innate human desire to learn through play and to define ourselves through play (a la Johan Huizinga’s notion of homo ludens).

On some level, all gamers know that the functionality they enjoy on the front-end of a videogame is driven by intricate strings of computer logic and packages of digital files underneath—if they could just access this "engine" in the same way that its original designers were able to, they could learn from it while using it to manifest some of the creative outcomes described in Section A. Yet their access is restricted by common industry practices grounded in the presumption of copyright protection: proprietization of software tools, withholding of technical documentation, and obfuscation/encryption of code are particularly egregious offenders that, if reversed, would greatly empower and encourage modders. Instead, what we see is gamers being driven to subvert restrictions, both legal and technical, to mod, which forces them into a vulnerable position when it comes to owning and distributing their creations.

As a lifelong gamer, I could speak about my own experiences with modding, the wide-ranging skills I’ve developed by tinkering with games, the obstacles I’ve faced and overcome, or the many exciting, yet unrealized ideas I’ve had that, if developers were friendlier to modders, might have manifested. Instead, I’d like to offer an anecdote that illustrates how modding transcends the limited space of traditional learning, encouraging lifelong engagement with playful experiences that are at the nexus of our most special relationships, and thus, motivate us to learn, create, and share:

The story is about a dad who decided to mod Donkey Kong for his three-year-old daughter. They loved playing the classic Nintendo game together, and he was thrilled to share his favorite pastime with her. So, when she asked why there was no option to play as a female character (which, in other games, was her preference), he began looking into what it would take to mod the game. With the help of some knowledgeable friends and the Internet, he taught himself how to replace the sprites for Mario, Donkey Kong’s hero character, with a custom set he’d designed based on Pauline, the game’s damsel-in-distress. After just a few days he had a working prototype, which he shared to the world in this video:

Gameplay capture of Mike Mika’s (2013) "Pauline Edition" mod for Donkey Kong (2010 NES edition).

Motivated by the desire to gift a personalized gameplay experience to his daughter, this dad overcame a technical challenge and developed new skills in the process (Mika, 2013). This is an example of self-directed learning occurring across a distributed digital environment: from a game played by a parent and child on their living room TV, to online communication channels, into various pieces of software needed to create and edit the game’s assets, to a demo video viewed (and discussed) online by hundreds of thousands, and back again to the parent and child playing together. Modding is usually not about producing a mass-marketable product, but rather, crafting an experience with a more intimate eye towards the individuality of different players.

Can we envision a future for digital learning centered on projects based on our favorite media, made as gifts for loved ones—or at least for ourselves—rather than bland coursework for no one in particular? Modding helps us glimpse the possibilities. Yet, under the current regime of copyright doctrine, ludic intervention of the sort practiced by the dad in my anecdote is discouraged.

Section C: The Exploitation of Unprotected Laborers

Given gamers’ innate willingness to devote time and energy to improving or expanding their favorite games through modding, it’s perhaps unsurprising to find that some companies are experimenting with a variety of tactics to incorporate that labor into their own internal value-chains. Both Reyni Hong (2013) and Kyle Moody (2014) comment on the problematics of companies promoting an unpaid activity that they, in turn, profit from; they observe an ongoing "battle for control" and "growing tension" (respectively) between professional developers and amateur users, the latter which is clearly being exploited due to their disenfranchisement in ownership.

At the most basic level of exploitation we find companies who tolerate modding because they recognize that mods can extend the market life-span of their products; even so, the ever-present threat of legal action discourages modders from commercializing their labor, such as by charging for downloads or commissioned work (and even, in some cases, accepting donations). There is also a segment of gamers that vocally opposes anyone charging for mods because they expect them to be free; these people may serve as justification for companies who recognize the ethical dilemma of profiting from unpaid labor but are disinclined to take any steps to rectify the situation.

On the other end of the spectrum are companies that recognize the value of modding, but desire absolute control over the practice; to achieve this, they construct elaborate, self-contained ecosystems in which mods can be produced and distributed, and in which every mod automatically becomes their property. Nintendo’s recent Super Mario Maker (2015) is one such ecosystem: in it, players are encouraged to create their own custom Mario levels using provided assets, to share their creations via a dedicated network, and to play others’ shared levels. Offering an official environment for modding is fine; what’s not is expecting modders to limit themselves purely to officially-endorsed tools and distribution channels and forcing them to automatically cede ownership of their creations.

Alternatives to Super Mario Maker may be found in the longstanding, unofficial modding scene based on Nintendo’s Super Mario World (1990); to this day, some people prefer to utilize third-party programs like Lunar Magic—which has been improved over 17 years of updates—to design Mario mods. Among the reasons that some modders prefer Lunar Magic to Super Mario Maker are that it has fewer constraints, both in terms of mod design and distribution. Its online community is robust, providing a space for mentorship and asset sharing; and, critically, because they feel a stronger sense of ownership and control over mods created outside of Nintendo’s contained ecosystem (Joho, 2017).

Screen capture of Lunar Magic software displaying a user-created Super Mario World level (XxshadowDude1xX, 2010).

Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve Corp., believed that modders "absolutely […] need to be compensated, they're creating value and the degree to which they're not being accurately compensated is a bug in the system" (Lahti, 2017). Valve did attempt to create a system for paid mods on its Steam platform in 2015, but that effort was defeated by outcry from consumers who feared that they were being taken advantage of; ironically, this resistance to paid mods by gamers themselves leads to the continued exploitation of the labor of their fellow gamers (modders), since tapping-in to the value of user-generated-content is too tempting a prospect for most companies to resist.

Developer Bethesda Softworks, which has cultivated a longstanding, mostly-positive relationship with modders, recently implemented a new mod monetization system known as the Creation Club as a feature for their games. Their idea is to allow modders to "pitch" them new content and features to be produced as mods; if accepted, they work with them to ensure the mods meet certain standards, and then publish the mods in the Club: a digital marketplace where players can spend real money. Modders whose pitches are accepted receive payments upon reaching pre-designated development milestones. Bethesda, perhaps reacting to Valve’s "paid mods" debacle, is careful to avoid the appearance of simply charging players for mods in general, stressing that they oppose re-packaging pre-existing "free" mods as Club content, and insisted that "all the content is approved, curated, and taken through the full internal dev cycle; including localization, polishing, and testing" (Livingston, 2017). It’s a decent idea that should be praised insofar as it gives modders an avenue to be compensated for their work, but it forces modders to conform to Bethesda’s standards and, ultimately, deprives them of ownership.

Conclusion: Equitability and Mutual Respect

The current (nebulous) state of copyright doctrine which disenfranchises modders needs correction. The case of Adam "Koolboyman" Vierra and "Pokemon Prism" demonstrates this observation by Yong Ming Kow and Bonnie Nardie (2010): "Legal enforcement [of copyright doctrine] leaves behind a negative emotional residue, with hostile connotations of control and power in communities that should, in a win–win situation, enjoy cordial relations of mutual respect." The utter lack of equitability between modders and copyright owners senselessly perpetuates the outdated concept of software users as simple "consumers;" when it comes to modding, they are clearly co-developers whose labor, if it is valuable (as I have shown it is), should be compensated.

I believe that the videogame industry has more to gain from giving modders greater agency regarding their creations than it does from battling and controlling them. Let modders claim full ownership over their mods so that they, as an empowered community, can participate in shaping the future of monetization for what they produce. If a developer feels economically threatened by a modding project, let them respectfully request some sort of partnership that benefits both parties. Let copyright owners of intellectual properties continue to manage the "official" franchise—many gamers prefer the official, unmodded (aka "vanilla") versions of games because they retain the original developers’ authenticity and intention.

Because of their association with "hackers," modders are blanketly characterized as criminals and/or deviants. But modding is decidedly not "piracy"—modders are still expected to legally acquire copies of the games they modify, and mods, by definition, require players to possess a copy of the original game to use them. Critics may cherry-pick cases of mods that enable sexually explicit and/or violent gameplay; undeniably, such mods exist, yet it is disingenuous to suggest that they will invade the games of non-consenting users. We should, however, question whether we want to continue pressuring modders to operate underground and in the dark corners of the Internet, or whether we should accept what they do and bring them into the public light.

Envisioning a future in which modders and the videogame industry can co-exist in equitable harmony is not just wishful, idealistic thinking—it is a realistic recognition of the new digital, technological landscape in which participatory production of software blurs the boundaries between producer and consumer. I’d like to see more people in the industry—developers and executives—taking a stand for modders, because they are currently in a vulnerable position.