Firmware Updated – Series Conspectus
Reclaiming Gaming through Modding and Community
A journey into the nuances, culture and development of the video-game industry and its various practices. Join us on an anthropological examination of the impact the medium has had on business, modern society and its various communities, as guided by one who regularly partakes in its many facets.
Gaming has become a vision of what people wanted it to be, and it was molded on virtual reality. This is ironic, given that the OASIS, as it’s envisioned and commodified in the film adaptation of Ready Player One [ 1 ], is somewhat antithetical to Ernest Cline’s message in the book, which was in turn inspired by the changing gaming market. But, especially on the PC front, gamers and the aftermarket have reclaimed the Oasis out of necessity. Valve did a lot to enable that over the years; Counterstrike: Source was probably one of the biggest tipping points in what a game could be, just because of the open-source coding [ 2 ]. That game extended into many branches across its life cycle, through a number of amazing mods that fans put together.
Counterstrike was the first real example of the gaming community saying it could do so much more with the product that it had been given, and that was something of a catalyst for getting the gaming industry to where it is now. With a little bit of coding knowhow, and some time and patience, the community could be the change it wanted to see in a game that had open-source coding like Valve had provided. Since then, a lot of developers have embraced that over time. For all its faults, Bethesda does fully embrace modding in its community, with the exception of Fallout 76, which, as an MMO experience, is tightly controlled [ 3 ]. As for the rest of their games, they provide carte blanche for engagement with the material. In this series, we will delve into how gaming has become a medium that the audience have reclaimed so they can mold it into what they want to see.
This change and adaptation is also user-driven in how changing modern cultures are reflected in game development today. This really is one of the best times for progressive culture in gaming. Look at it this way: a lot of the people who grew up playing video games now in their 20s and 30s grew up seeing mostly male-dominated protagonist roles. Those people have grown into their own identities, genders, and sexual orientations, and have reached a point where they have gaming and coding knowhow. So, many of them make the representation they wanted to see in video games into a reality. There’s been this massive rise of really clever ideas in indie games where they have vastly different protagonists from what the industry has seen.
These games do amazing things and build amazing narratives that appeal to people that may not have necessarily had representation before. Until now, every video game has been crafted around the narrative of the white male, around power fantasies of a big, strong guy going around and smashing things and kicking ass until he gets his way. There are a lot of female gamers who feel marginalized, and a lot of gamers from the LGBTQ community that haven’t had representation or role models, especially the trans and non-binary community, but we’re seeing a change in that now more than ever. Not necessarily in triple-A gaming, which still has a long way to go; companies like EA or Ubisoft or Activision still haven’t fully embraced that culture, but they have taken steps in the right direction. Sony has had games like Horizon: Zero Dawn that embraced female protagonists, but they still have other fronts that they can continue to progress. Indie games, specifically, is where they’ve managed to get the job done in terms of progressive representation.
All pieces of geek culture intersect at logical places because the culture is so prevalent. The media is there; people work with it in different ways, so the average gamer gets exposed to all different aspects of the community passively, whether they think they might be into it or not. To say you’re into one but not the other is complicated at this point, because it’s all over the place. Take the Machinima series Red vs. Blue by Rooster Teeth, which was one of the first big pop culture-inspired items at the time. That series lent itself to other things down the line; if not for Red vs. Blue, people might look at some of these works of video game parody or alternate takes with derision, because without a precedent they would seem bizarre and out of place; that’s assuming they would come into existence at all.
Another such series is There Will Be Brawl, a massive noir-style, live-action video series based on Super Smash Bros. Brawl that follows Luigi in a gritty crime drama after his brother’s medical practice has fallen apart and they’ve had to resort to dealing underground, illegal shrooms out of a basement [ 4 ]. The series has a bizarre premise, for sure, but it’s no more out there than a lot of fan fiction, and without the platform provided by things like Machinima and The Escapist—both of which provided the budget for the series—it likely would never come to be. Another weird and wonderful Machinima is the Poop series, which involves going into games and using existing words and dialogue from the game’s code, rearranging them into situational humor that twists the original game. If you ever wanted to see Mass Effect’s Shepherd obsessed with Garrus’ ass, this series is for you.
The Rise of Online Social Communities
Humor has a social component of course, and it’s this socialization, as well as cooperation and competition, that are all primary components of gaming. The guilds and factions in classic Massively Multiplayer Online Games were essentially social organizations. Players found groups of like-minded gamers with whom they could explore the game’s world. Players could often change guilds and factions freely, if they decide they’re no longer gelling with the other players or if they want something else out of the game. The different guilds range from casual to hardcore, like any other aspect of gaming. Some guilds in MMOs had playtime requirements, asking that players be on as much as 8 hours a day, six days a week, and make sure they raid with the guild at least once a month, otherwise they’d be kicked out of the guild. Other guilds were much more casual, where half the guild roster doesn’t log on for half a month, but pop in every now and again.
For someone who plays games where guilds and factions are available, they are enticed to join now more than ever because there are usually rewards for being part of this online social group. In a way, it also gets to that point where many people don’t want to play games alone over a long period of time. Some people don’t necessarily crave that kind of social interaction but most seem to, and playing in a guild or an alliance is a simple way to get that. It might just be a matter of getting a “hello” when they log in, or they might go on a quest with a couple of other people. This serves to add a little more interest in replayability to the game over time.
Then, of course, if you’re playing a game with a group of friends, there’s the constant argument over which of your friends is really into the game, and which of them are just casual players. That can also push that argument a little further, as the one hardcore player might want to find a guild of like-minded players, or the casual player might just want to chill out with their friends because their friends are playing the game. In that way, guilds, alliances, and factions offer a little bit of everything for everybody.
Yet there were barriers to communication in MMOs, especially with the limitations of in-game text chat. This changed with Discord; while telecommunications platforms and services like TeamSpeak and Ventrilo could provide voice connectivity for gamers, it seems that Discord was one of the first services that openly advertised itself as chat for gamers. For the longest time, the places where people went to do stuff like that would be official forums or fan-made forums.
It’s easy for longtime gamers to accumulate so many logins for forums that they don’t even remember anymore, where they would post about what they were playing with other players. Discord was the first real resource that was specifically advertised towards gamers, and it really is a wonderful tool. Between voice chat, text chat channels, and the possibility to provide a home for any online gaming community even for players who belong to more than one, Discord can essentially function as a message board of its own, but more like a realtime chatroom.
The big benefit to Discord is that it doesn’t bleed its users’ IP addresses the way Skype is known to do. What’s more, Discord has really grown into its own platform in and of itself, with the advent of the freeware leading to other endeavors incorporating tools of the video game market, such as streaming. There are now tools like Roll20, where you can play boardgames or Dungeons & Dragons remotely [ 5 ]; it’s not a video game, but it’s an example of video game technology and social engagement shaping other mediums. A lot of it comes from the PC market specifically. Compared to PlayStation and XBox, and even Nintendo, to a certain extent, there is this idea of “party chat,” where eight friends can be playing eight different games, but they can all chat together using this party chat system.
For the longest time, PC didn’t have that option. You could only communicate with someone if they were playing the same game as you were and it had integrated voice chat functions. When Discord offered this as an app, it closed many gaps in the PC gaming market as a result, and enabled gaming to come together on PC in a way that it hasn’t in a long time. Roll20 helps with this too, as they’re one of the top platforms for playing D&D or any other tabletop RPG from home, but some people choose to just run their games through Discord, which makes perfect sense.
Discord is essentially the operating system-based party chat that PC was lacking compared to console gaming, which is why it’s grown the way it has and received the support from the PC gaming community that it has. At PAX East, Discord even has a merch booth [ 6 ]. It might seem bizarre that people would want to buy hoodies and T-shirts for a messaging app, but it goes to show how much of an impact the app has had on the gaming community.
From Cooperation to Competition
With Battle Royale, you either love it or you hate it. There’s not really an in-between with this genre. The games are fiercely competitive. The biggest titles out there right now are Fortnite (which still gets a lot of views), Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (better known as PUBG), Call of Duty: Warzone (a more recent arrival), and Apex Legends (which also draws a lot of viewers and a lot of players on Twitch). The whole gist of these games is that it gives the player one life to live as they fight against a lot of people at once in a free-for-all environment, with some games featuring up to 100 players in the matches. It’s a very different mindset that goes into those games.
Not everyone has that fierce competitive streak; there’s no such thing as playing a Battle Royale casually, just because a player can get into the game and get a lot of loot and play for a good 5 or 6 minutes and not run into anybody, only to get killed in an instant, by a sniper they don’t see. This can be one of the most frustrating experiences in gaming. Then you can look at people like Ninja, who built their career on Battle Royale games, and basically became an eSports multi-millionaire within the span of a year because they were good at it.
And what a wild time for eSports we are in. It’s strange to be writing this article now, given the major changes that the field has undergone, but at the same time, it’s kind of perfect. eSports had very humble beginnings. Unreal Tournament, Quake Arena, and even Halo 2 were the prime, early eSports games that people were out there making money on. eSports got its start with smaller tournaments sponsored by PC gaming companies. The various sponsors got their name in the spotlight, and the game developers saw more exposure as well. Today’s prizes are much different, though; a big money purse for an early game like Quake Arena tournament would have been between $5,000-$10,000, whereas now a player could earn more than $50,000 for winning a modern tournament.
As a whole, there’s still a big debate over whether or not an eSports athlete is a “real” athlete, but now we’re seeing things like Overwatch League, or League of Legends: World Championship, which are actually broadcast on ESPN. In his Disney+ documentary, The World According to Jeff Goldblum, the titular celebrity visited the eSports scene, giving it further clout in the public eye [ 7 ].
Meanwhile, the second you hit the Asian market, there’s no longer this discussion; eSports athletes are real athletes. In Asia, there are people who are actually groomed for the profession in high school and college, who go straight to eSports after graduation. The prevalence of things like League of Legends, Starcraft, Counterstrike, Overwatch, and a lot of other games that aren’t even available in Western markets means that their players can make a legitimate living. The downside is that there’s a high level of burnout, even among the western eSports athletes.
People tend not to make it past their 30s as an eSports athlete, due to the amount of hours they have to put in and the amount of training they have to do, retiring after a decade or two in the industry, which, to be fair, is not unlike a physical athlete. The only ones who continue to play in the later years of their lives are members of the fighting game community. Yet for fast-paced, twitch-based reflexes, where milliseconds can make a difference in games like Counterstrike and League, burnout tends to kick in fast. Meanwhile, as the technology develops, so does the eSports community. There’s now a professional eSports VR league, which can be pretty surreal to watch, as it’s mostly just people with a bunch of equipment on and crouching in weird positions to play video games, but they certainly bridge the gap between eSports athletes and “regular” athletes.
Virtual and Augmented Reality: The Next Step?
Virtual reality is in an interesting position. A handful of motion-based gameplay mechanics, things like Nintendo’s Wii, PlayStation’s iToy, and the XBox’s Kinect had everyone expecting VR to be a passing trend. However, Virtual Reality headsets had surprising staying power. With more developers putting their all into VR, the genre has become much more interesting. There’s now a virtual reality Resident Evil game; also, Valve released a title in the Half-Life series, Alex, only on VR. These games are getting to the point where they’re not just gimmicky but actually getting critical acclaim, making it worth it to go out and purchase an Oculus or a VIVE to play these games.
Now, VR does ride that strange line where there are some people who genuinely can’t enjoy them, as many people report motion sickness as a reason they can’t play them. On the other hand, there are many people who can play VR for hours without any problem, and that’s really been the technology’s target audience. These companies have another major target, and that’s gamers with money. VR is very gated by price. Even for people with the PlayStation VR, there’s still a significant price tag.
For PC gamers, there are certain minimum specs, as well as the Oculus, so the cost is often, at minimum, $500 for a VR setup, which is not exactly a price that is accessible to a lot of people. It will probably be another 10 years or so before that price reaches accessibility comparable to most gaming consoles now; even the new announcement that the entry-level Oculus Quest 2, the successor to the Oculus Go, will be available at $100 less than its predecessor, still means you’re spending $300 for the headset alone [ 8 ]. That said, the VR market likely will continue to become more democratized if this trend indicates anything.
On the flipside, there’s Augmented Reality. When people think of AR, the first thing they likely think of is Pokémon GO by Niantic and the Pokémon Company. Niantic has experience with AR prior to Pokémon GO; the company developed a game in the early 2010s called Ingress, which featured similar gameplay with users physically going to certain geographical points. Pokémon GO built on that idea, and Niantic even went on to create a Harry Potter-based game called Wizards Unite (April 2019-January 2022), which used the same kind of system.
Still in its infancy, AR seems a perfect match for smartphone technology, thanks to its portability and accessibility. As we live in an era where most everybody has a smartphone, we’re seeing a surge in AR gaming, often from people who don’t even consider themselves gamers. Outside of that, however, there haven’t been a lot of examples of AR gaming. Microsoft did some experimentation with the technology with their Holovisor, which had a lot of AR implications, but when highly inaccessible Google Glass fizzled out, there was really nothing left on the market.
Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands
While VR and AR are finally blooming, modding and home-brew hobby content has been a near-constant in the PC gaming community. Console gaming did not get the benefit of mods and home-brew content in their games until very recently; Fallout 4 was the first one to offer the option of mods for their console games. Skyrim was able to backdate mods into their game as well. However, one of the biggest and most interesting things in the gaming community is MUGEN.
Elecbyte built this open-source, two-dimensional traditional fighting game, similar to Street Fighter II in its mechanics and graphical style. The idea was to keep it open-sourced so that people would be able to build their own characters with their own movesets. The result? An open-source game that can have Goku from Dragon Ball Z fighting Ryu from Street Fighter, or even Peter Griffin from Family Guy fighting Homer Simpson. When SaltyBet, a free game that allows you to place virtual bets on live competitive events, discovered the game, it decided to set up a bot that would constantly run CPU-controlled matches for days on end. SaltyBet went on to run tournaments, which got very popular very quickly.
When they initially launched, SaltyBet would only run tournaments on Tuesdays, but on those days their viewership would be out of control [ 9 ]. Users could set up an account and bet on the matches with virtual currency. This currency was largely accrued through betting on matches, but when a users’ currency fell below a certain amount, the website would offer a stimulus so they could get back on their feet, thus preventing unlucky accounts from stagnating. This system helped the website gain some virality, and as time went on they would introduce new features, such as the ability to buff fighters for a large amount of currency. MUGEN and SaltyBet are a constant source of enjoyment, and though their viewership isn’t what it used to be anymore, averaging between 500-600 viewers around the clock, but they still run to this day.
The genre is more complicated than it’s ever been. Gaming doesn’t just fit into one small envelope; it’s too broad and too encompassing. How everything fits together has become complex. The puzzle pieces no longer necessarily go where they should, but now they fit in a wild and unusual manner. There’s a more approachable front on gaming than there ever used to be. Between that and the social interaction aspects, it helps the culture surrounding video games progress. Outside of cosplayers and conventions, folks now meet up for AR, going to a park to catch Pokémon or take over a portal, which provides a social aspect to gaming that is narratively and seamlessly worked into the interface of these AR games. Then there are the VR and AR tournaments and are even streams for VR games; in April 2020, Half-Life: Alex was probably one of the most-played games on Twitch [ 10 ], which is an exclusively VR game.
What it comes back to is that people were not getting what they wanted from games. This is especially true when talking about things like home brews, mods, MUGEN, and Machinima. All of this stems from people who weren’t gaming insiders but had an idea that they could do better, or add something to the gaming experience by creating amazing content. It all comes from a level of discontent that came from the gaming industry as a whole. It’s not talked about a lot, because there wasn’t a lot of social media presence for this offerings back during their heyday.
If you look at the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 eras, the internet didn’t really take a hold on gaming until about halfway through the PS2’s life cycle when Sony introduced the new PS2 model that had the expansion slot and the internet adaptor. That was really the first big Internet-accessible console, aside from the Dreamcast [ 11 ] or the original Xbox [ 12 ]. Their Nintendo contemporary, the GameCube, could access the Internet, but it was very niche and only a handful of games supported it, such as Phantasy Star Online, and that was when the experience started changing for most gamers.
Games have evolved. So has the industry, and so has the meta-game market. Again, it comes down to the social aspect: social media is the thing that ties all of this together. Without that level of accessibility through social interaction, we would not have that option. It provides the ability to collaborate with each other, including content creators, users, developers, social media influencers, and the like. Gaming has progressed to where it is because we’ve been able to have open discussions.
In the past, game development was relegated to a boardroom of aging adults trying to figure out what interested the youth of the day that would make them the most money. Now they have a direct line to their consumers beyond the dubious reliability of focus groups. They can now see, in real time, what their consumers are doing and what they want. As a result, gaming is less about a small number of people making all the decisions and more about a committee of people on the internet that tells developers exactly what they want and how they want to see the product progress.
These changes can manifest in real time. Pre-internet, if a game was shipped broken, then it would stay broken; nowadays, if players discover a bug, it’s a simple matter for developers to put out an online patch that solves it. That, more than anything else, is what has pushed gaming to the heights it has reached today. While it may sound simplistic, it’s all thanks to social media. If social media hadn’t become as prevalent as it did, we would still be gaming in the dark ages. The future really is as open as we think it is. We are in an era where the sky’s the limit when it comes to gaming. There’s a whole generation in school right now that is going to enter the industry and blow the socks off of everything that’s come before it. These people will make it big in the industry, but even the indie studios artists tend to be impressive over the last 5-10 years. We really do live in an age of wonders when it comes to interactive media. Representation is going to be at a level where everybody sees the people they want to be in games. Resist Encom; Flynn lives!
- “In a fit of ironic art-mirroring-life-mirroring art, 2018 saw a beta release of the Oasis environment from the novel and movie Ready Player One, as a commercial endeavor through Steam. The book’s premise has very much become a half-step prescient view of our near-future.” Directive Games Limited. “Ready Player One: OASIS Beta.” Steam, Vive Studios, 23 Mar. 2018, store.steampowered.com/app/779650/Ready_Player_One_OASIS_beta.
- “The state of gaming and technology has changed dramatically. As if Game Streaming and competitive play weren’t enough innovations, the fields of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality have grown by leaps and bounds.” Jurdi, Nour. “Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in Education.” Safe Space, 30 June 2020, safespace.qa/en/topic/augmented-reality-and-virtual-reality-education.
- “Whole modding and homebrew communities have assembled to ‘tweak’ existing content, or completely rewrite games with a new premise. To an extent, the industry has embraced this practice, in some cases releasing devkits. The Total War franchise comes to mind.” Kent, Emma. “Nexus Mods Removing Lifetime Membership Option.” Eurogamer, 20 July 2021, www.eurogamer.net/nexus-mods-removing-lifetime-membership-option.
Logistics management professional by day and nerdy superfan by night, Rob Kaba has management skills equally suiting both corporate logistics or tabletop and MMO games. He embodies these roles, providing critical assistance to any endeavor lucky enough to have him. Mr. Kaba’s most well known for his cosplay of “The Dude”, complete with rug, as producer of Steam-Funk Studios’ first client, Cosplay Court Case. His early assistance was critical for both The Living Multiverse and The Unconventional.
- Spielberg, Steven, director. Ready Player One. Warner Bros., 2018.
- Arez.0. “Guide :: CSGO Modding: How to Download and Install Mods.” Steam Community, Valve, steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=2009480990. Accessed 25 Apr., 2020.
- “Bethesda Support.” Bethesda Support, Bethesda, help.bethesda.net/app/answers/detail/a_id/44429/~/can-i-use-mods-or-other-third-party-programs-with-fallout-76?. Accessed 25 Apr., 2020.
- The Escapist. “There Will Be Brawl: Episode One.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 July 2011, youtube.com/watch?v=pWXX60o1Ezs.
- “Roll20.” Roll20, The Orr Group, LLC, roll20.net/. Accessed 25 Apr., 2020.
- Discord. “Discord PAX South Vlog 2019—NEW BOOTH EDITION.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 Feb. 2019, youtube.com/watch?v=dK5Bbt-diwo.
- “The World According to Jeff Goldblum.” Season 1, episode 6, 13 Dec. 2019.
- Robertson, Adi. “Oculus Quest vs. Oculus Quest 2: Specs and Features Comparison.” The Verge, 16 Sept. 2020, theverge.com/21433030/oculus-quest-2-vr-headset-specs-comparison-htc-valve-microsoft.
- Senior, Tom. “Here Is Your Semi-Regular Reminder That Salty Bet Is Still Awesome.” PC Gamer, Future US, 3 Oct. 2019, pcgamer.com/here-is-your-semi-regular-reminder-that-salty-bet-is-still-awesome/.
- Saunders, Huw. “Half-Life: Alyx, As Seen On Twitch.” Cultured Vultures, Cultured Vultures, 3 Apr. 2020, culturedvultures.com/half-life-alyx-as-seen-on-twitch/.
- segadotnet. “Dreamcast Internet Browsing in 2017.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 Mar. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=xfqvdoPgaLw.
- Gladstone, Darren. “Microsoft Xbox Review: Microsoft Xbox.” CNET, CBS Interactive, 10 Oct. 2002, cnet.com/reviews/microsoft-xbox-review/.