Playing with Cultural Exchange: Digital Games and Player-Created Content

  1. 1. Andrew Mactavish

    McMaster University, Humanities Computing Centre - McMaster University

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It is commonly claimed that, with the evolution of personal computing comes increased opportunities for participation within cultural production and distribution (Barlow 1996; Bolter 1991; Jenkins 2002b; Landow 1997; Rheingold 1993). In the 1980s, new technologies of desktop publishing (layout software and laser printers) worked their way into the homes of computer-savvy entrepreneurs so that a new home-based industry of document design flourished, albeit one that sometimes confused access with talent. In the 1990s, the emergence of the World Wide Web and graphical browsers opened up a new, inexpensive and efficient means of distribution. Anyone with a computer, an Internet connection, and knowledge of HTML could become not only a writer and designer of documents, but also a publisher. In the years straddling the turn of the millennium, new and inexpensive multimedia technologies are enabling users to create visually and orally rich documents and environments using digital video, high resolution audio, and sophisticated animation. In addition, new technologies and practices of distribution continue to emerge that, much to the vexation of many copyright owners, allow consumers to distribute music, images, texts, video, and software applications over peer-to-peer networks such as Napster, BitTorrent, and KaZaA.

In this paper, I focus on a set of emerging user-creative practices that continue the general trend towards increased access to the means of cultural production and distribution that we have been seeing in popular applications of digital media technologies. But rather than naïvely forecast a digitally democratic future to come, I investigate how relations between corporate interest and user-creativity are a site of negotiation and contest over the rights to produce and distribute cultural goods.

In particular, I look as a set of cultural practices surrounding digital gaming known collectively as game modding. Short for “game modification,” game modding is a catchall term covering the production of any player-created derivative game content that can be imported into the original game or that can be played as an entirely new game on top of a game’s underlying architecture or engine. Some examples of game mod types include new levels or maps, new character skins or avatars, or new sets of rules imported into games. Importantly, game mods can be distributed and downloaded freely over the Internet. Frequently, game manufacturers ship games with the necessary tools for mod creation and actively support mod communities surrounding their games. In other words, game modding is a form of player-creative practice that, in being cultivated by developers, immediately distinguishes it from other user-based distribution practices surrounding popular media such as music. Yet, while the gaming industry may be developing a model that supports and encourages consumer participation in the systems of cultural exchange, the field is certainly not unified, consistent, or uncontested. There is an ongoing negotiation between developers and players, and one that is not always collegial as each side works towards defining legitimate game-production practices.

In my examination of player-creative practices, I focus on the cultural politics of creating computer game mods. I argue that modding is a form of player-creative game play that cannot be adequately explained by theories of cultural production, distribution, and consumption in which consumption is always already in a position of weakness against production and distribution, which are always already in positions of power. A theory of digital gaming culture must account for player-creative game play as encompassing a range of contradictory creative practices, some of which are simultaneously empowering and disempowering, resistant and submissive. As a contribution towards such a theory, I examine game modding and its communities to demonstrate the emergence of conflicting models of production, distribution and consumption. For instance, by providing mod tools to their customers, game developers increase sales, help to generate a committed and long-term community following, and potentially train newly employable game developers. At the same time, however, they also provide the means for mod creators to challenge the very models of production and distribution—including the rules of intellectual property—that maintain relations between consumers and producers in which cultural works are commodified for capital profit. In other words, the mod community/industry is a space of conflicting modes of cultural production that, if theorized within a framework that accounts for its contradictions, can also help to explain other forms of digitally-mediated participatory culture.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Göteborg University (Gothenburg)

Gothenborg, Sweden

June 11, 2004 - June 16, 2004

105 works by 152 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (24), ALLC/EADH (31), ACH/ALLC (16)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None