Fibreculture Journal (Jan 2005)

Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry

  • Julian Kücklich

Journal volume & issue
no. 5


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Computer game modification, or "modding", is an important part of gaming culture as well as an increasingly important source of value for the games industry. The example of Counter-Strike, originally a modification of the first-person shooter Half-Life, and subsequently sold as a stand-alone product for Xbox and PC, shows that "mods" can not only increase the shelf-life of the games industry's products, but also inject a shot of much-needed innovation into an industry seemingly unable to afford taking commercial risks.Modders, however, are rarely remunerated for taking the risks the industry itself shuns. While successful modders, such as Counter-Strike's creator, Minh Le, enjoy a celebrity status that enables them to find employment in the games industry, many modders are either uninterested or unable to translate the social capital gained through modding into gainful employment. The precarious status of modding as a form of unpaid labour is veiled by the perception of modding as a leisure activity, or simply as an extension of play. This draws attention to the fact that in the entertainment industries, the relationship between work and play is changing, leading, as it were, to a hybrid form of "playbour".The following paper analyses the relationship between the modding community and the games industry from a political economy perspective, without disregarding the pleasures and rewards individual modders may derive from their work. Within this context, the questions of whether modders can be regarded in terms of a "dispersed multitude", and how the power that comes with this status can be realised more fully, deserve special attention. At the same time, this paper seeks to gain insight into the changing relationship between work and play in the creative industries, and the ideological ramifications of this change.