Game Mods - A Different Sort of Play

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Game Mods

"A Video Game may be modified  in thee basic ways: (1) at the level of its visual design, substituting new level maps, new artwork, new character models, and so on; (2) at the level of the rules of the game, changing how gameplay unfolds--who wins, who loses, and what the repercussions of various gamic acts are; or (3) at the level of its software technology, changing character behavior, game physics, lighting techniques, and so on." - Alex Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, pp. 107-108


  • Half Life 2 was released with editing tools and the Source engine Software Development Kit
  • "Portal" began as a third party mod, and after burgeoning popularity the team was brought to Valve to create an "official" mod, or rather totally new game based off the engine
  • In this sense, Portal is a commercial example of game modding
  • The mod acts as a total conversion, recontextualizing or changing all of the graphics and skins. Some of the game physics and "rules" are tweaked (such as a total lack of quantifiable health and not dying from large falls), but the most drastic difference is in the gameplay.
  • The largest change is in Galloway's catagory of "The Rules of the Game", in which the engine and original code is being used to create an entirely different sense of gameplay. Gone are all the alien combine police, the zombies, and gun; the focus on violence and killing in the FPS genre becomes entirely about the terrain and puzzle aspects that are almost always given second place to violent action.

Why I am displaying this piece

  1. Valve's use of releasing the SDK of the Source engine is a commercially motivated move to sell more copies of Half Life 2. Unlike Operating Systems, giving users the ability to modify the game increases the shelf life of the game by regulating the release of new content to the players, giving games longer shelf lives and attracting a larger audience of gamers who also wish to hack.
  2. However, unlike open source programming the Source engine, what is released, is not returned to the company and circulated around like the Linux kernel. Instead, the tools are released, an individual or small group of modders use the tools to create a new gameplay experience, and then it is released. There are less (if any) giant open source collaboration projects involving game modifications.
  3. Yet, at the same time, what makes Portal special is how users drastically changed the mechanics of Half Life 2's gameplay, shifting it from an action shooter to possibly the first purely FPS puzzle physics game, and as a result were hired into the company. The exact same thing happened one gamic generation ago with Half Life 1 and the mod Counterstrike, and because of these two successes Valve is regarded as one of the richest and most innovative game companies. I feel there is a straddling between the Corporate Commercial and Open Source model with the phenomenon of Valve game mods.

Acid Arena (Quake 3 Arena mod, 2002-2005)

By Jean Luc Renin (and others)\\

From ThinkingGames (

"Acid Arena (Turbo) is an almost total conversion of Quake3. All resources from the original game have been overwritten with a huge library of psychedelic imagery. True to its title, this modification presents a garish, nightmarish version of the arena FPS. Compete with rabbit suits and giant fruit, this modification is a hyperactive fairytale gone wrong. Regardless of how it plays, the level and character design is childish and beautiful and the distortion of the players and the normally familiar FPS pickups   is inspired (if not frightening)."

  • An example of Galloway's first catagory, merely a pure substitution of models, maps, guns, etc. while keeping gameplay and technology the same.
  • The game can be played in a very similar way, but the aesthetic world and gamic universe/premise is totally changed.
  • An aim not to create a new game, but to create a new visual and aural experience from a familiar format.
  • More representative of "typical" game mods.

Jodi - "SOD" (Castle Wolfenstein Mod, 1999) & "Untitled Game" (Quake Mod, 1996 - 2001)

SOD \\

Untitled Game 

"The fresh, formalist radicalism of Jodi's work occupies a similar position today as Godard's films did in the sixties, albeit without his militant politics. They arean excellent example of the countergaming technique of 'foregrounding.' Jodi works with computers in the same way  that Dan Sandin works with video or Raymond Queneau worked with words--irreverently manipulating a medium at its most fundamental level" - Galloway

"Untitled game foregrounds the gaming apparatus both through the use of visual material and through code. The work often lapses into pure data, streaming real-time code up the screen with little or no representational imagery at all... This is a way of foregrounding the apparatus of teh game's source code. But at other times, the code is ignored, andthe image apparatus is foregrounded purely through the kaleidoscopic interplay of images" - Galloway

  • These two works are concerned with revealing that the representational space is based off purely abstract (and arbitrary) code.
  • SOD's website not only contains the download but also the full C-Library of Castle Wolfenstein 3D.
  • Control, visual representation, and gameplay (three elements that make a game enjoyable and playable) are abstracted and removed. There is no clarity or correlation to a desired action and a pressed key.
  • Flattening and removing the representation of represented space.

nostal(g)_PW (Computer Program, 2002-2003)

By Kris Kubasik 

..."this is the true story of Root beeing confused when reading lines of code from right to left in a blind act of transparent reduction. After the day of the Kernel, the sim pilot was trying to land the Iron Bird, the engines were screaming and the navigation instruments didn't respond to the usual protocol. The gauges were like sound artifacts drawing poligons in such a way that the landscape became geometry. Acording to the lecture given by the instruments there was only one airport available for landing...close to the latitude S16* 30.8432' and the longitude W68* 10.1797', elevation 100.000ft over the sea level above the clouds and the rain. Upthere, air was and the sky will be like a dark promise of no time and no space. By the time the prototype aircraft climbed to such an altitude strong winds from the north made the landing procedure a nightmare. There were black butterfly flying machines moving slowly and the wings seemed to brake below the line of the horizon. Sudently the airplane stalled and crashed, a bright red light moved from 1024v 333h to the right in a loop of 336 degrees...everything seemed to brake in lines and colors. But the strong enough structure resisted the incredible impact. A invisible force modified the main angle of the world and the perpetual flight started with no destination but the own departure point...jr.Kubasic the name of Kernel!..." - from Retroyou website

Conversion mod of open-source flight simulator

  • Like Jodi, is exploring the idea of glitch, obfuscation, and lack of control.
  • Still retains an aspect of the representation of flight, but barely.
  • Revealing the artificiality of the representational space, removing the illusion of flight from a game that tries to create an illusion.

Velvet Strike (.wad files, 2002)

by Anne-Marie Schleiner 

"Velvet-Strike is a collection of spray paints to use as graffiti on the walls, ceiling, and floor of the popular network shooter terrorism game "Counter-Strike". Velvet-Strike was conceptualized during the beginning of Bush's "War on Terrorism." We invite others to submit their own "spray-paints" relating to this theme." - from the Velvet Strike Website

-Not an actual "game mod", but uses the open tools of the game to stage an intervention.

  • Counterstrike is often labeled as being "realistic", but as Velvet Strike's creator Schleiner points out: "So "realism" is not about faster game engines, graphics processing and "photorealism". It is about reproducing characters and gameplay environments that are considered closer to "reality" and farther from fantasy."
  • Uses the simplest of given game tools to create a community of socially aware gamers: anyone can submit their own sprays, they get posted, then people may come and download them.
  • These sprays do not disrupt gameplay, but question the nature of the gameplay's so-called realism by acting as activism on real life terrorism and events.

 Adam Killer (Half Life mod, 1999-2001)

By Brody Condon 

from (

"An iconic example of early computer game modification art, Adam Killer
is a series of modifications of the popular first person shooter game
Half-Life. The player/performer navigates through a game level filled
with multiple copies of the same character being "idle" on a white
plane. As the characters are mutilated with different weapons, an
exploited glitch creates a harsh trailing effect. This turns the
environment into a chaotic mess of bloody, fractured textures. Adam
Killer is disseminated as a multi-channel video installation and DVD
documention of game play."

  • The usual act of gameplay violence becomes an empty gesture that creates a new aesthetic background.
  • Gameplay mechanics are essentially unchanged, but the point/goal of gameplay is no longer the focus.

Conclusion - So What?

Game modding literalizes the "play" of programming and interaction discussed by Stallman, Raymond, and Moglen. Not only are the given rules, scenarios, and imaginative worlds are played, but so is the apparatus itself. Creation of new content becomes a play in itself, as opposed to merely manipulating what is offered.

"Wrap the Internet around every brain on the planet and spin the planet. Software flows in the wires. It's an emergent property of human minds to create. "Due directly to the GPL," as Vallopillil rightly pointed out, free software made available to him an exhilarating increase in his own creativity, of a kind not achievable in his day job working for the Greatest Programming Company on Earth." - Eben Moglen, Anarchism Triumphant

Game modding reaches from using the game as "found object" to social space to blank canvas.

Mods that become commercial games (like Portal) offer an strange mixture of Open Source and Corporate Modelling: usually a SDK or editor offers full or partial control of game mechanics and code, allowing the creation of new content by the user. Some users buy the game and get the kit as a bonus, but some (hackers) buy the kit and get the game as a bonus.

One issue that exists in open source coding, as Raymond touches on in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is that cleverly written code gets in the way of progress more than clearly written code. The most impressive game mods, however, are a result of one individual or group's style. Everyone has access to the game code, but what you do with it that is different from the next mod makes it significant. Game mods are about open source style and artistic expression, while open source programming eliminates style for clarity.


Galloway, Alex. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2006. 

 Finally, A Small Treat 

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