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Author: Matt Eley


MA Hypermedia Dissertation (Short) – Matt Eley 2005

Download a Microsoft Word version of this dissertation, including all illustrations and footnotes

Q – What does the growing consumer culture of videogame modification reveal about changes in the culture industry, and does this offer the possibility for a radical new artistic form?


This paper offers a discussion of the modification of videogames in relation to the writings of the Situationist International and the Frankfurt School. Videogames are one of the few areas of contemporary popular culture that actively encourage a real involvement from consumers, a product that exists entirely as digital information, that requires active participation, and that can be directly reconfigured by consumer and producer alike. Such an interaction between consumers and producers offers a useful situation that both may exploit.

The issues discussed here are arranged around the broad distinction between artistic and fan made modifications and the blurring of boundaries between consumer and producer. Through the communities and gift economy of the Internet, modification has simultaneously become a major threat to the homogeneous structure of this particular culture industry and one of its best allies. This contradiction will be discussed through the theory of Adorno and Debord. Firstly Adorno and the Frankfurt School’s work on the ‘Culture Industry’ is used to understand the relationship between videogame hacking and its recent commodification into a consumer practice using commercially supplied modification software. Secondly, Debord and the writings of the Situationist International will be used to explore how modification can be understood in light of the notion of the Spectacle, its artistic détournement and the recuperation of such cultural negation.

“The nineteenth-century dispute as to the artistic value of painting versus photography today seems devious and confused… Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography is an art. The primary question – whether the very invention of photography had not transformed the entire nature of art – was not raised. Soon the film theoreticians asked the same ill-considered question with regard to the film. But the difficulties which photography caused traditional aesthetics were mere child’s play as compared to those raised by the film�?, (Benjamin 1999 p220).

In a similar light, at the end of the 20th Century much had been made of the question of whether videogames might ever be understood as an art form. But just as Benjamin’s observations addressed what was overlooked in early debates around photography and film – the question of what this new mix of art and technology really meant for our experience of social and cultural life – so to does current discussion on videogames often overlooks Benjamin’s point; it must be recognised that games are a unique form of cultural commodity in which consumer-led customisation and modification is not only possible, but actively encouraged. Not only are issues of aesthetics complicated by this new cultural form, but so too are methods of production and consumption. In recent years, advances in digital technology have been utilised by both consumers and producers within the culture industry, this has redirected the production process away from the closed commodity relations of earlier mass culture and towards a supposedly more open dialogue between audience and author.

As a mainly digital commodity, videogames provide the key example of this reconfiguration of the producer-consumer relationship; this can be found most clearly in the recent expansion of the online videogame modification scene. Artistic and fan made modification and total conversions are all part of the popular practice of rewriting the code of a commercial videogame in order to change the way it looks or plays (see figures 1, 2 and 3). Changes range from minor visual and audio adjustments to the creation of completely new games. For the time being this commercialised practice is mainly restricted to FPS (First Person Shooter) PC games , and while modding was once achieved by forcibly hacking a game to access its code, it is more common today to use the commercial software development tools supplied.

The defining example for this process is Counter Strike, a modification of Valve Software’s classic game Half Life. A project originally initiated by 21 year old computer science student Minh Le, as a freely downloadable multiplayer modification for Half Life; it went on to be one of the most popular online games ever (Kline, Dyer-Witheford, de Puter 2003) . In fact “it became so popular that Valve began helping Le and his now-considerable band of collaborators to write code and later arranged for Sierra to publish the ‘mod’�? (2003: p252-3). In addition to being a freely available home-made upgrade, Counter Strike is now packaged and sold over multiple formats as a stand-alone game; this does appear a very real case of consumers having the means with which to produce media and distribute it on a mass scale.

Figures 1, 2 and 3: From left to right, Half Life 2, it’s most successful mod (Counter-Strike Source) and a recent student-led total conversion (Eclipse) all running on Valve Software’s Source engine.

In its earliest beta versions during the summer of 1999 the mod was technically similar to most fan led independent projects and far less sophisticated than many popular modifications at the time, but as Valve showed an interest in Counter-Strike’s potential for innovative gameplay, and so contributed funding and technical support, the project overtook all others . Valve’s positive attitude toward user led modification of its own intellectual property illustrates newly emerging economic practices within the videogame culture industry. For Dyer-Witheford “video and computer games are made in complex, transnational webs of paid and unpaid labor�? (2002), there are three collectivities within this web: the conventional programmers or knowledge workers who write the games, the new proletariat created by the exploitative outsourcing of hardware production to developing world countries, and a new kind of audience, the player who engages in consumer led production or ‘prosumerism’ (as coined by Toffler 1981 p261) with which this discussion is primarily concerned:

“Of particular importance is the encouragement of the player « modding » (modification) of games through shareware, open source and player editing capacities… This process is now widespread throughout the computer game side of the business, where it serves not only to renew interest in games, but also as a sort of voluntary training and recruitment arenas for future workers in the industry�?, (Dyer-Witheford 2002).

It seems then that both the consumer and the producer are benefiting from this situation in ways that fulfil their own particular aims. For example, despite Counter-Strike’s success and eventual commodification as a boxed retail edition, its developers continue to view themselves as the ‘CS-Team’, as consumer-producers and not a software company. Such an attitude underpins what Kline, Dyer-Witheford and de Puter (2003) have highlighted; that videogames today may offer a far more complex evolution of the consumer relationship with the culture industry than Adorno (2001) had observed in his analysis of the hierarchical worlds of popular music and film in the early 20th Century. The importance of such changes shall now be discussed.

Videogames in the consumer society
Marx lived in and wrote about an industrial capitalism of exploitative bourgeoisie owners and wage slave factory working proletariat, building upon Hegel’s philosophy and combining it with Smith’s economic analysis of processes of industrialisation, particularly the increasing division of labour (1976 p109-117). In his early writings Marx formed an image of humans as essentially productive beings; it was not simply the labour process that was alienating them in 19th Century industrial capitalism, but the sub-division of that labour process into a multitude of unfulfilling tasks. While ‘species being’ or human potential (Marx 1994 p74) , could be the outcome of a “society [that] regulates the general production and thus makes it possible… to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic�?, (Marx and Engels 1974 p54). As Guarneri (1991 p3-8) states, Marx and Engels classic image of communism borrows greatly from the American utopianism of Fourier, a society of free labour, an ideal without class antagonism but high in material wealth, art and culture.

Under capitalism, productive labour had become severed from this utopian image of humanity and returned to a state, where – like animals – people felt that they worked only to keep themselves alive and through the abstraction of exchanging money for time and labour power, had lost the satisfaction of any particular cultural of labour (see Marx 1994 p71-5 and Giddens 1971 p14-15). Since then there have been dramatic changes in capitalisms structure, into ‘post-Fordist’ or ‘post-Industrial information age’ (Bell 1999) of consumer capitalism. Today workers exchange their labour power (be it physical or mental) for money, not just to satisfy their basic needs for subsistence but in order to buy commodities most of which function as signs rather than material objects (Baudrillard 1998). However despite the changes of the 20th Century, the division of labour remains high and therefore still alienating in the way Marx described:

“Hence the rule of the capitalist over the worker is the rule of things over man, of dead labour over the living, of the product over the producer […] Thus at the level of the social – for that is what the process of production is – we find the same situation that we find in religion at the ideological level, namely the inversion of subject into object and vice versa […] This antagonistic stage cannot be avoided… [and]… what we are confronted by here is the alienation of man from his own labour�?, (Marx 1976 p990).

Yet with the rise of the digital technology and the Internet, more and more commodities are marketed with the claim to offer a capacity for creative productive labour in ones free time. This situation – easily identifiable in the case of Counter-Strike and many other videogame modifications as well as current claims for interactive media’s general authorless (see Barthes 1977, Manovich 2001 p61) – would seem on first observation to provide a realisation of non-alienated labour through cultural production. The non-alienated productive process and free online distribution of cultural artefacts in videogame modification stands in direct contrast to the traditional capitalist system. For which ‘alien labour’ is the outcome, an almost mechanical productive process that is geared towards producing commodities and further capital, neither of which the worker owns because during the productive process they no longer own their own labour power, for they have sold it in advance to their employer under contractual agreement (Marx 1976 p1016).

In contrast much has been made of the potential offered by post-Fordist intellectual property and the extent to which the online gift economy counters the strictly constructed divisions and contractual obligations, sharing what Marx described: “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single labour force… The total product of our imagined association is a social product�?, (Marx 1976 p171). Information can appear in this way to be both the commodity and the means of production, distributed within an online videogame modification community. Yet the original source code and software development tools remain the means of production and are thus owned by the capitalist class even when distributed amongst those consumers who modify it, because as consumers of intellectual property they are automatically denied the usual rights of individual ownership. So while software like Flash is a tool, a means of production, purchased from its producer under a licence agreement that allows you to produce your own intellectual property. A game like Half Life remains a commodity, a consumer item, despite being packaged with production tools. Such games are not sold as a means of production because their licence agreement states that anything you produce cannot be sold without further permission. Openly modifiable games allow you to engage in productive activity, but only under the mutual understanding, control and guidance that unless permission is granted, modifications cannot be sold as commodities. Unless one purchases the actual game engine, the authorship of videogame modification does not extend fully into the realms of intellectual property rights in the way that authorship of a game does (see Lessig 1999 p133).

This means that most mods must remain free, a situation that is inherently positive for niche markets that once had to be specifically targeted and sold distinctly customized versions of otherwise standardised commodities (Ross and Nightingale 2003 p64). Today a niche or subculture can create its own commercial quality content using self-modified mass cultural products in a way that is not encouraged in other less directly changeable popular culture. Some might argue that this digital culture is completely intertwined with the relativism, plurality, pastiche and quotation of postmodern popular culture; “destabilizing the distinction between production, performance and reception�? (Gilbert and Pearson 1999 p126) within new cultural practices. Yet the ‘freedom of information’ that has become the hallmark of digital culture’s emphasis on free production and distribution, is at root an element of the hacker ethic (Levy 1984 p40), the deeply ingrained ideology within the very structure of contemporary digital communications since the mid 1960s. This digital culture, most clearly seen in the form of the Internet, has been built in the image of the world of scientists and academics (Barbrook 1998), a mixed economy of gifts and commodities. From this perspective, digital technology finally presents a workable solution to the achievement of Marxist hopes for non-alienated labour through acts of independent cultural production within capitalism.

However this situation sets up a contradiction, as “behind the label of the independent ‘self-employed’ worker, what we actually find is an intellectual proletarian, but who is recognised as such only by the employers who exploit him or her… [Simultaneously] in a sense, life becomes inseparable from work�?, (Lazzarato 2005 p3). Perhaps this is the reality of the videogame modification pastime of the bored Silicon Valley white-collar information worker , “lacking the free time of the hippies, work itself has become the main route to self-fulfillment for much of [this] ‘virtual class’�? (Barbrook and Cameron 1996). This ‘knowledge class’ (Bell 1999 p213) is just as alienated today as the workers Marx had written of because they do not directly own the means of production, or the outcome of their labour power, by definition they remain the proletariat:

“As long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood…�? (Marx and Engels 1974 p54).

Yet with however little free time they have, the ‘knowledge class’ in today’s digital consumer capitalism can purchase a commodity like Half Life, and then produce new cultural artefacts (extra levels or entirely new games) with others online, in their spare time, using the software provided them and a free exchange of ideas. There is no fixed division of labour, no exchange of labour power for money, this is non-alienated productive activity, roles are swapped between artist, level designer, programmer; and the work is distributed freely. In fact companies like id Software have gone one step further and released the actual source code of their games freely over the Net, for people to seemingly do with as they please, “in a way that the American founders would have instinctively understood, ‘free software’ or ‘open source software’… is itself a check on arbitrary power. A structural guarantee of constitutionalized liberty… like freedom of speech or the press, but its stand is more fundamental.�? (Lessig 1999 p7). But is that what this situation really presents? Is it not true that rather than living in a non-alienated society of productive labour, we must continue to work to purchase commodities that let us explore (in our own free time) the possibilities that common ownership might theoretically offer. Such a problem may be approached via Adorno’s critique of the culture industry.

Adorno and the videogame culture industry
“The prominence of player-devised game modifications [for] collective multiplayer games makes interactive play porous to infusions of creativity from below. Much of this only elaborates and intensifies preset genres and conventions. But it can create surprises�?, (Dyer-Witheford 2002).

In light of the somewhat romanticised issue of videogame modification, Dyer-Witheford’s observations may actually signal a new level to Adorno’s idea of pseudo-individualization. “By pseudo-individualization we mean endowing cultural mass production with the halo of free choice or open market on the basis of standardisation itself�?, (Adorno 1990 p308). When consumers are treated as producers, often they are really presented with only a narrow set of choices that are directed by, and aim to, support the confines of the existing hegemonic structure of the culture industry. One example of this process is the Sony Net Yaroze, “a seven-hundred-and-fifty-dollar version of the Playstation that allows gamers to write their own code�? (Kline et al 2003 p204). Marketed as consumer liberation, a return to the golden age of the 1980s ‘bedroom coders’ , the ten thousand Yaroze sold can also be read as a consumerist exploitation of hopeful college graduates, an overly expensive consumer commodity, or as an extra unpaid arm in Sony’s worldwide R&D workforce. This is a new (more elaborate yet efficient) take on the older processes of the culture industry; where “the attitude of the audiences toward the natural language [of the commodity] is reinforced by standardised production, which institutionalises desiderata which originally might have come from the public“, (Adorno 1990 p307). Although the idea of DIY is attacked by Adorno as ‘pseudo-activity’ (2001 p194, 201) when it is packaged and sold as yet another commodity, there is the claim that:

“Today’s generation of gamers feels deprived, deceived and disillusioned by an industry fast conglomerating into fortified hives where little creed exists beyond the maintenance of power and profitability… As publishers tear the features from their faces to avoid scaring the money back into people’s pockets, so their audience increasingly chooses to draw a less bridled infusion of energy and spirit from the past. Homebrew software may be freely available, but it more importantly represents freedom – something of which there’s ever-decreasing evidence among commercial developers.�? (Edge: Sept 2005)

This scene is commonly noted to be driven by a passionate underground of independent producers, seemingly a-political despite tendencies towards illegal action such as bootlegging, unapproved emulation, cracking and hacking, simply done for the pleasure of it. While Adorno might observe this as another level of individualising false consumer consciousness, the common aspect that drives all independent cultural production is this idea of “being creative [which] remains… a sort of dream world or utopia�? (McRobbie 1999 p134). To be part of the culture industry, either as an artist (by overtly challenging conventions) or as an independent producer is what drives audience interaction, as McRobbie notes, in independent music:

“Here we have, with the growth of cultural capitalism, something similar to the scenario Marx himself looked forward to: cooking, looking after the children and doing the ironing in the morning, writing lyrics and composing tracks on the home computer in the afternoon, and playing them for money in the evening!�?, (1999 p135).

This is equally true of modification, where “emphasis on the skill rather than on stardom does not mean that the utopian dynamics of these new apprenticeships for the night-time economies of dance and club culture are denied“, (ibid p135). Both areas of independent production share the major draw of what Bourdeiu terms ‘cultural capital’ (1993), and as even Adorno (2001) noted, we can observe a dual consumer mindset gravitating towards self produced culture, because “what the culture industry presents people with in their free time… is indeed consumed and accepted, but with a kind of reservation�? (p196). Such reservations may grow stronger while commodified production replaces interaction as the consumer fantasy (Manovich 2001 p61, and Darley 2000 p194, Barthes 1977) of the digital culture industry – with the aim of making the consumer feel like an active producer – because “we do not require all music to move to ‘enhanced’ formats which require opening-out, to arrive raw or unmixed requiring that we reheat it prior to consumption�?, (Gilbert and Pearson 1999 p132). Clearly if you buy a modifiable commodity you are still consuming while you create, in the extreme it could be argued that such willing interaction with the media spectacle may just further absorb consumers into a Baudrillardian hyperreality (1983). This trend for consumer modification plays on the myths of authenticity that surround DIY cultural production in art, music and literature (Adorno 1990, 2001), which originated through dissatisfaction with the homogeneous produce of the culture industry, and it may still offer some small innovations through remixing these cultural commodities with an open attitude typical of the Hacker ethic (Levy 1984), but since id Software’s Doom its structure has become a new form of consumption.

Doom (the culture industry’s commodification of hacker ideology)
Doom is an important historical break in videogame modification; id Software’s release of a set of editing tools and the full source code of their classic game blurred the division between videogame producers and consumers . In the years since, and with the increasing sophistication of the web, the division has become radically distorted, as “id turned every player into a potential programmer�? (Kline et al 2003 p204), and these ‘potential programmers’ formed online social networks for the production and distribution of new content.

Id Software built a commercial model upon (and in the process assimilated) the existing underground culture of bedroom programmers, hackers and crackers that appeared alongside pre-web 8bit commercial microcomputers like the Sinclair, C64 and Amiga. A few key players like Jeff Minter may have managed to turn a subcultural interest successfully commercial but most remained underground in a way that mirrors McRobbie’s (1999) observations of the music and fashion industry. By the early 1990s with the introduction of the web and online gaming, this DIY attitude found a platform of communication that allowed its numbers to increase exponentially. The new structure, design and distribution methods of Doom provided the catalyst for “a virtual kustom kar kulture – a community based on shared, self-made chunks of the Doom universe called .wad files. Players became part of Doom’s world not just because they played the game, but also because they constructed bits of it�?, (Herz 1997 p90). Doom presented the moment at which industry recuperated videogame modification practices like hacking and cracking and sold them back to a mass audience as a commercial commodity.

The Origins of Videogame Modification
While the prosumerism originally encouraged by id Software provides the contemporary model for modification, modding’s roots are to be found within the same institutional situation as the Internet, the Cold War computer labs of ARPA funded academic institutions during the 1960s (Levy 1984). The Internet was however to remain for decades an elite network of military and academic users, before the online expansion that arrived with the web in the early 1990s (see Castells 2001, Giese 2003). In a complete contrast, videogaming rapidly moved from its earliest foundations in military applications, to more experimental forms in the university labs of the 1960s and finally to civilian popular culture in the arcade with Computer Space in 1970 and in a domestic setting with the Magnavox Odyssey in 1971 .

Despite such early commercial adoption, modification has always been at the centre of digital gaming culture, which “with its origin in the unauthorized play of military-industrial programmers, is a child of hacking�? (Dyer-Witheford 2002). The unofficial exploration of early computer architecture – making the hardware at the time do things beyond the military bureaucracy which it was designed to process – was common within institutions like MIT (Levy 1984) and quickly led to Spacewar (1962), officially labelled the first computer game, in a re-imagining of history that ignores any earlier and more serious military links, thus following the fantasy of the innovative individual typical of the Californian Ideology (Barbrook and Cameron 1996); after all the graphical user interface was the product of military research that occurred much earlier than the Xerox PARC desktop (see Levy 1984). There were in fact multiple experiments into making early computers perform game-like functions beyond their intended use. Examples range from Douglas’s 1952 EDSAC noughts and crosses and Higinbotham’s 1958 oscilloscope tennis game (see Edge: July 2005 p73), to Levy’s (1984 p26) description of a similar tennis game created at MIT in 1959 that shows an imaginative (mis)use of the coloured lights on the front of old IBM 704 mainframes.

With its early commercialisation, videogaming code – a spectacle sealed within arcade cabinets and plastic ROM cartridges – soon became entrenched in the clear and familiar circuits of the one-to-many consumer-producer relationship that typifies the mass culture industry. However with the Odyssey (the first TV game console), and the earliest arcade cabinets, the effect on the television set was to shift broadcastings existing cultural hegemony into new cultural circuits. Such manipulation of material technology occurred at the tail-end of the Fordist industrial society and the digital content that ran on these new systems came to prominence with the following movement into a post-industrial information society (Kline et al 2003). With the shift in platform architecture, to actual ‘computer games’ on the more customisable microcomputers in the mid 1980s boom driven by companies like Amiga, Sinclair, and Apple (Kline et al 2003 p94-5), the minority coding subculture of amateur experimental software producers – descendants of the MIT ARPA elite hackers – became “a huge underground culture [which] grew up, mostly in Europe, to craft and appreciate these demos, even holding parties to celebrate the art�?, (Burnham 2001 p290). Demos, hacks, modifications of existing software, these consumers were also active producers. As Willis’ ethnographic study noted at the time, the computer was beginning to offer a site for advanced symbolic creativity that rivalled other areas of cultural media for its productive uses (1990 p40-2).

In the last 15 years that promise has been met by the same hacker ideology that underpins open source or free software projects like Linux and Firefox, and also the growing online open source Flash development community that has recently given rise to freely distributed, yet both technically and politically sophisticated, zero-budget games. At the same time it seems that any political features of the hacker ideology that underpinned the basis of videogame modification have been recuperated into the circuits of the videogame culture industry. However in the light of recent political artistic activity in game modification, it may be possible to observe something comparable to a postmodern remixing of the Situationist strategy of détournement in re-politicising this manipulation of the videogame spectacle .

Debord and videogame modification, détournement and recuperation
“Détournement is the antithesis of quotation, of a theoretical authority invariably tainted if only because it has become quotable, because it is now a fragment torn away from its context�?, (Debord 1994 Thesis 208).

Ross and Nightingale argue (2003 p144) that consideration needs to be made of the context that any independent cultural product is made within. If the consumer is ever more so treated as an active producer then changes in the contemporary structure of capitalism and peoples reactions to such changes must influenced decisions to adopt more active and creative roles. It can in no way be said that modifiable software was the sole idea and beneficiary of the software producers as an Adorno-esque observation might assume. For instance in console gaming (which is centered on software purchases) the role of free homemade software, be it emulation, mod or a freeware game, is very different to that on the PC (where the consumer emphasis is on continual hardware upgrades). In light of Sony’s uncomfortable stance on the popularity of homemade games and emulation for its portable console, it is clear that the consumer-producer benefits far more than Sony does; “For the manufacturer, every PSP sold is money lost, with profit reliant upon the [commercial retail] games that homebrew does nothing to whisk from the shelves�?, (Edge: Sept 2005) . Thus the situation of modification may be a continuation of hacker ideology and a site for the struggle of cultural détournement against the constant commodification of independent media.

As Debord wrote, with the maturation of industrial capitalism in the mid to late 20th century the proletariat were suddenly treated “with a great show of solitude and politeness�? (1994 Thesis 43) as the bourgeoisie sought to attend to all aspects of their lives, their leisure and humanity, not just their labour power. Détournement – or the manipulation of the spectacle by negation of cultural commodities – can be seen as a practice of resistance to this commodification of all social life. Yet the process itself has lost much of its radical nature through its own recuperation and re-introduction into the cultural sphere, it is now just another factor used to treat late capitalism’s proletariat consumers as self-consciously knowing cultural producers.

Although not détournement in the political sense, new forms of cultural innovation have often been produced by free manipulation of the uses of existing technology already well integrated into hegemonic mass culture. In the 1960s this process of remixing became clear in relation to television art, and simultaneously the impacts upon TV and the related elements of popular culture that the introduction of Ralph Baer’s Magnavox Odyssey had. In the art world one such example of a similar process is the work of Nam June Paik, who’s flattening and subversion of the TV is comparable to Baer’s more commercial exploration of that same format. “By the 1960s, when [Paik’s] Zen for TV was produced, the broadcast model of television programming and the aesthetics that accompanied it were firmly entrenched as hegemonic uses of TV technology�? (Wilson 2004 p88-89). The resulting interaction between TV and art as discussed by Daniels (2005) also highlights a very similar set of conditions in videogaming. As he notes, the early TV art of Paik was completely reliant on the content produced by commercial broadcasting stations. Manipulating the image on the TV screen with magnets would be redundant without the actual broadcast content provided by the culture industry. Similarly artistic game modification relies on the pre-existence of commercial game engines. But while Daniels (2005) notes that video art (making original programs from scratch) has become the primary tele-visual art because of its distancing from the commercial broadcasts of TV; in contrast modification (rather than original programming) has become the primary artistic form of videogames. Perhaps because of their closeness to the original commercial commodity, modifications are provided a highly visible (mainstream) platform for exhibition that can also dramatically cut the costs of production. Yet this practice ignores the artistic problem of homogenisation which sees any radical culture recuperated in the drive for new content within the culture industry, a problem which video artists are very aware.

The aesthetic experiments of Paik’s TV art share a perspective to the artistic modifications of Jodi. In their works: Sod (a 1999 mod for Wolfenstein 3D) and Untitled Game (a 2002 mod for Quake), Jodi have (as Cannon 2003, Paul 2003 and Stallabrass 2003 all reiterate) deconstructed the game engines created by id Software to raise a number of important issues about software . Their minimalist and reductive interpretations of these classic games aims to make apparent the abstract nature of simulated perception and artificial physics inherent in game design. These mods highlight the entropic chaos of code, and the controls imposed upon it by player and designer alike. Despite all this rhetoric, the work of Jodi remains inherently influenced by the commercial technologies and designs produced by id. While for outsiders to the gaming community their work might seem radical and confrontational, a modern day cultural détournement of the commercial videogame spectacle, this practice has been a central cultural issue in gaming since the early 1980s, only recently becoming industry-led common practice (Kent 2001). After all, Jodi’s mods focus mainly on manipulation of the visual aspects of the original game, it must be questioned whether this counts as détournement if the militarised point and shoot first person adventure gameplay remains. As Baumgartel (2005) explains, the creators of Doom initially had concerns about opening up their games, and encouraging modification by hackers, (this was the first time such behaviour had been actively encouraged). But having seen the producerly reaction from both fans and artists and more importantly the way most mods remain faithful to the confines of the original gameplay format, it was clear that this new open source and shareware model of the digital economy offered a non-threatening expansion to this relatively new area of the culture industry. Game developers have, it seems, found a way of producing vast amounts of new content that prolong the use of their products, while also giving consumers all the content they could desire and the ability to play at being active producers, and all for very little extra cost .

While any radical possibility for détournement in videogame modification may well have been recuperated by the industry early on, it has also been argued that perhaps détournement is too strong a concept for contemporary activity such as artistic modification, like “culture jamming [which] is, at root, just a metaphor for stopping the flow of spectacle long enough to adjust your set.�? (Lasn 1999 p107), not quite reaching “the violence of détournement itself [which] mobilizes an action capable of disturbing or overthrowing any existing order�?, (Debord 1994 Thesis 209). Although quite a negative claim, it may well be far from suitable to label modifications like 9/11 Survivor, Waco Resurrection and Escape from Woomera (see figures 4, 5 and 6) as a violent revolution to gameplay, when their effects seem to offer a more gradual subversion of gaming themes .

Figures 4, 5 and 6: From left to right, scenes from Waco Resurrection, 9/11 Survivor and Escape from Woomera.

While early user-modification of source code, may have prompted developers to react to the technical innovations and social awareness of this small movement, today the videogaming culture industry has (by actively inviting modification and source code alteration via specially designed tools) managed to homogenise and subdue much of this negation and violence, repackaging and selling the process as another consumer item. This problem is of central importance to Net.Art, yet as Stallabrass notes in his discussion of ®™ark’ spoof websites and subversive consumer activism, perhaps such actions are “too straightforwardly oppositional to suit the Situationists’ requirements… but the cultural context of such interventions is very different now that détournement is a staple advertising technique�? (2003 notes p91). Similarly for artistic videogame mods, if the culture industry supports modification, and assimilates so much of it back into its circuits, can any mod, however politically aware, or culturally subversive, really be labelled detournement? A similar story is found within punk’s continuation of Situationist strategy:

“An attack on the established values and institutions of music, culture, and society, punk provided a vehicle for the growing disaffection of the post-sixties generation. It attacked royalty, the culture industry, and the political authorities, shocking the bourgeoisie and antagonising the establishment�?, (Plant 1991 p144).

Yet despite its initial power, much that was punk was soon engulfed by the rest of the culture industry. “Indeed, punk was accommodated so swiftly that the possibility was raised that it was in some sense already recuperated before it had begun�?, (ibid p144). This is certainly a case in point for the current wave of artistic videogame modifications, the political statements of these artists is often lost within the entrenched gameplay and thematic grammar of ‘militarised masculinity’ (see Kline et al 2003 p251-56, Herz 1997 p197-213) that has long homogenised videogames. As Stalker (2005) notes, despite the artists best ethnographical intentions, Escape from Woomera still plays very much like the point and shoot engine its built from (Half Life) and shares a close resemblance to the recent commercial game The Great Escape, it seems that artistic modifications are destined to remain part of the spectacle, as perhaps even “Political acts of violence can also sink to the level of pseudo-activity, resulting in mere theatre�?, (Adorno 2001 p201). They are the practical material outcome of the belief that individual acts of immediacy have the power to change society one step at a time. But “very little is needed to turn the resistance against repression repressively against those who – little as they might wish to glorify their state of being – do not desert the standpoint that they have come to occupy�?, (Adorno 2001 p199).

In punk this reversal took place in the quick adoption of the movements style and attitude by mass culture, a pamphlet circulated in the late 1970s called The End of Music suggested this recuperation of anything which at first seemed subversive of the spectacle is common to all elements of art and culture; “just as Dada anti-art hangs in galleries and surrealist dreams sell cars, the Situationists joined every other failed critique and abandoned their weapons on the battlefield where their slogans were captured for T-shirts�? (Plant 1991 p146). The message is clear, for the modern day consumer of commodified lifestyles, “Organised freedom is compulsory�? (Adorno 2001 p190). Even the promise of revolution, the power to challenge and reconfigure the systems of society, including the culture industry itself, is presented as yet another commodity, as Barbrook and Cameron put it, “over the last few decades, the pioneering work of the community media activists has been largely recuperated by the hi-tech and media industries�?, (1996).

In gaming this problematic situation of restriction from above being placed on the celebrated creativity from below (because of antagonistic or subversive works) is most clearly seen in Valve Software’s recent alterations to the Half-Life online gaming community using its new Steam distribution system . The once optional choice of becoming a part of any number of online PC gaming communities has been replaced with the forced membership to Valves own system called Steam. The game cannot be played without the extra Steam client software and an online account set up on its system, therefore all online activity based around Valves games is now mediated through the Steam network. The heightened control that Valve now has over consumer modification of its software is negating some freedoms of the hacker ethic, and this echo’s Manovich’s (2001) warnings that controlled alternatives do not always offer real choice. This system is good news for the developer, who can not only control piracy and increase profits by direct distribution methods that avoid retail, but can also continue to direct fan led modification projects with an even greater degree of control at the levels of production and distribution than were possible with the highly successful cases of Counter-Strike and Gunman Chronicles (Kline et al 2003 p251-53, see figures 7, 8 and 9).

Figures 7, 8 and 9: From left to right, the original Half Life and the two commercially successful mods, Counter Strike and Gunman Chronicles. Note the homology of visual style and gameplay.

While such mods actually went on to become full commercial commodities available for sale in high street shops, the pursuit of more artistic or political modifications are increasingly pushed into the margins. One case is Velvet Strike (see Paul 2003 p203, also see figures 10 and 11), a mod that allows players to spray ironic anti-war graffiti – for example ‘hostages of military fantasy’ – onto the walls of Counter-Strike’s online locations. Before the client authentication practices of the Steam network, this mod could easily be used to ‘hijack’ online games and enlighten general players usual unthinking acceptance of the militarised nature of gaming, but today many of this mods unsuspecting yet intended audience can no-longer be reached. However negative this seems, such marginalisation is also a positive occurrence; the deliberate distancing of hackivism styled artistic modification from the homogenising tendencies of the industry may allow game artists more freedom to explore the applications of this interactive technology, allowing for further exploration and a shelter from hegemonic mass culture, even if this means it has minimal direct effect on the aesthetics, interactions, or narratives of the mainstream gaming industry.

Figures 10 and 11: Scenes from Velvet Strike, note that despite looking and playing exactly the same as Counter Strike, it features custom made posters and graffiti that aims to question the military theme.

And so perhaps the Spectacle has changed – since the threats of the Situationist led mass culture détournement through punk – adopting a more shrewd postmodern form, which many identify in Baudrillard’s (1983) notions of hyperreality and simularcra. What remains is the possibility that online communities involved in major modification projects that touch on sensitive political or cultural issues, or deconstruct the standardisation of the gaming culture industry, may well producing a détournement-esque subversion of the spectacle, albeit in a way that is markedly different to Situationism of 30 years ago.

Conclusions, videogames and the ideal commodity
“Games are extensions, not of our private but of our social selves… they are media of communication�?, (McLuhan 1964 p266).

It would seem that the modifiable videogame has through its growing popularity among consumers led to the construction of a complex online relationship of social labour. Videogames have long been a media of many contradictions, they may be (in McLuhan’s sense) hot because of their audio-visual intensity or cool due to the requirement of a ‘player’. With the addition of modification tools it would seem that they are increasingly authorless (Barthes 1977), and therefore a commodity form typical of the move to a post-Fordist society. Yet while modification and customisation seems to present great freedom in the creation of an authorial consumer, such an emphasis on a ‘logic of selection’ and collage has, as Manovich notes become a central flaw of postmodern digital culture; “Although computer software does not directly prevent its users from creating from scratch, its design on every level makes it ‘natural’ to follow a different logic – that of selection�? (1999 p129). All potential for creative production disappears amidst a new false consciousness (Marx 1994 p75, Giddens 1974 p13), a consumer society that claims complete freedom, but only from within a hegemonic cultural cage where, “even the individual object which man confronts directly, either as producer or consumer, is distorted in its objectivity by its commodity character�?, (Lukacs 1988 p257). The problem concerns all independent production of popular cultural artefacts, from videogame modification, to independent pop music or film.

This illusion of freedom is for many writers, the greatest trick of postmodern popular culture, for as Baudrillard (1983) would argue; the individual is now trapped, paralysed within a never ending hyperreality of symbolic exchange. Within such a system, the videogame commodity offers the perfect example of a circuit of exchange between both producer and consumer, and among consumers themselves. As Martyn Lee has noted, it is the ideal post-Fordist commodity:

“Fordist commodities were governed by a ‘metalogic’ of massification, durability, solidity, structure, standardisation, fixity, longevity and utility. Post-Fordism’s ‘metalogic,’ in contrast, is one of intensification and innovation; its typical commodities are instantaneous, experiential, fluid, flexible, heterogeneous, customised, portable and permeated by a fashion with form and style�?, (Lee, quoted in Kline et al 2003 p74).

The way videogames are produced and consumed, reflect absolutely the ideals and the arrangement of the post-industrial capitalist system we inhabit today. In this system there may be no such thing as videogame ownership for the consumer; they are merely paying a fee to play a copy of the game, just as with CD’s and DVD’s (Lessig 1999 p127-35), remaining completely against the hacker ethic that information should be freely accessible (Levy 1984 p40), yet as authorship becomes blurred through modification gaming is being led back to its hacker origins. Here modding encounters the debate over claims of authorship for a work containing other artworks, a central issue of appropriation art (Irvin 2005 p123). If you cannot fully own the game you have purchased, can you own the modification of it that you have produced? This has been an ongoing issue for videogames since the early 1980s, as Ms Pac-Man – one of the most popular arcade games ever produced – did in fact start as an unapproved ‘enhancement board’ (created by two MIT students), to be applied to the original Pac-Man arcade cabinet. This was not a unique stand alone game; the students intentions were to sell the enhancement as their own work (which technically it was) however Atari threatened this with major legal action, but eventually settled for a development deal (Kent 2001 p167-173). While the music industry has battled with the effects of digitalisation, resisting sampling and re-distribution, even this early example illustrates how commercial gaming employs these processes to strengthen its cultural hegemony (ibid p170).

Yet perhaps because of the ephemeral form of software, if not controlled, unofficial enhancement could have had major repercussions for a commercial consumer industry. The outcomes of such action can be seen to be perfected in Valve Software’s online intervention in the user made mods for Half Life and its sequel. With this move, the diversity of modding now sits condensed under the banner of the ‘commercial prosumer’ (Kline et al 2003 p14), where:

“In production it demonstrates the foundation of a new industry built on the mobilization of an elite immaterial workforce, whose activities are supported by a penumbra of vital but un- or low paid activities conducted either by volunteer prosumers… At the level of production, they reveal the dependence of new media on forms of « dot.communist » activity, such as open source and freeware, and the implosion of the commodity form under the pressure of the escalating piracy inherent to networks. More generally, the digital socialization of youth through gaming discloses a subversive face in a proliferation of cyberactivist and hacktivist practices that both explode within game culture and overspill into more manifestly political spheres.�? (Dyer-Witheford 2002).

This is certainly true of the feminist Art-games that Holmes (2003) considers to be creating a new space for critique of contemporary society and culture. Just as industrial capitalism was defined by the class struggle at the site of the means of production, between capitalist owner and proletariat wage labourer, so to is post-industrial society defined by a similar struggle. This struggle is typical of a society of consumption, seen most clearly in the antagonism between the hegemony of the culture industry and the desires of its consumers. While alienated labour has largely remained, it is not revolution but productive consumption that has now become regarded as the road to a non-alienated common existence. And yet consumption alone does not produce anything:

“Only the real negation of culture can inherit culture’s meaning. Such negation can no longer remain cultural. It is what remains, in some manner, at the level of culture – but it has a quite different sense�?, (Debord 1994 Thesis 210).

However this radical negation may be found through customisation. For Benjamin (1990) access to art through mass reproductions held the ability to enlighten individuals in such a way that quickly and “to an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.�? (p218). Today we might argue that the once individually customised commodity has now become the commodity designed for customisation, not only that, in addition as new customisations appear they are increasingly created with one eye on being commoditised. The era of mass reproduction of art, of the mass of copies that lack the aura of their original, has now been replaced by the era of the customisable artistic commodity, each an individually authored original in its own way. Art available for the people has now become art by the people, or so the culture industry promises.

Following this, Barbrook’s observations on the way Net users interact within its mixed economy is even more appropriate in relation to those involved with the culture of videogame modification, where online-communism really is sponsored by corporate-capital and “without even consciously having to think about it, this person would have successively been a consumer in a market, a citizen of a state and an anarcho-communist within a gift economy�?, (1998 p5). The most striking feature within the duality of this situation is the corrosion of the boundry between alienated and non-alienated labour; for as Lazzarato notes, “Immaterial labour… makes immediately apparent something that material production had ‘hidden’, namely, that labour not only produces commodities, but first and foremost it produces the capital relation�?, (2005 p3). Yet modification crosses many times between the dual forms of immaterial labour, from social relation to capital relation and back again. Videogame commodities are produced and sold, then modified and distributed as gifts, and finally these gifts may be incorporated (with or without an exchange of capital) into future commodities; the contradictions here complicate existing classifications of alienated labour . So while videogames are but one aspect of today’s consumer society, modification represents a general trend of increasing complexity which:

“As Capitalism’s ever-intensifying implosion of alienation at all levels makes it increasingly hard for workers to recognise and name their own impoverishment… the revolutionary organisation must learn that it can no longer combat alienation by means of alienated forms of struggle�?, (Debord 1994: Thesis 122).

There are undeniable benefits and problems in the flattening of the lines of production and distribution into a many-to-many system where consumers can access tools for customisation; and for very little financial outlay distribute their re-workings to their peers digitally. If this sounds incredibly utopian then we must not forget that the freedom to innovate and explore within the homogenized borders of the culture industry is slight and narrowing rapidly with the ever increasing intervention of software producers channelling modification projects down the well walked paths of militarised gameplay so prevalent today. Even the most successful and sophisticated mods are often little more than a scenario change (be it Star Wars or the plights of asylum seekers) for a commercial shoot-em-up or tactical military war game. There is opportunity for development within videogame culture through modification, and the potential is greater than it has been for most past forms of tactical and community media because of digital gaming’s structural compatibility with the distribution and community strengths of the Internet. As a mainly de-politicised, consumer friendly, détournement-style practice, videogame modification is unlikely to generate any radical change, yet as Benjamin might have noted, its processes do illustrate the possibilities that customisable digital media offers for all art and popular culture.

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Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.