Games Without Wages

The video game industry has long relied on the unpaid labor of "modders." Is it ready to finally pay up?

The 2013 E3 Gaming and Technology Conference in Los Angeles. Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

In 2005 researcher Julian Kücklich argued that video game modification developers, or “modders,” had a long way to go until they were recognized as real workers, and not just people playing at game design. The game industry, after all, had no incentive to change these perceptions: they benefited from modders’ unpaid labor.

But with their April 23 announcement that they would begin compensating modders, Valve, the digital game publisher and developer, has called this assumption into question. The change in policy — which only applied to Steam, Valve’s digital distribution platform — was immediately met with a mix of surprise, anger, and cautious optimism from gamers, developers, and modification makers. The CEO of Valve, Gabe Newell, went on Reddit to explain his company’s actions, and was promptly “downvoted” into oblivion.

On April 27 Valve cancelled the program, at least until they could iron out the kinks. In its own way, the whole ordeal reflects the growing class struggle over digital labor, leisure, and play in the games industry — as well as society writ large.

Modders create new content for existing digital games. This can be as rudimentary as adding new abilities or objects with which game players can experiment or as complicated as redesigning the whole game, adding new artwork, stories, and options. Thousands of mods have been created, often providing more compelling content than their parent games.

It is in this way that mods show their economic value to game developers and publishers. In return for letting modders use their games, they reserve the right to claim ownership over all mods. On some level, it’s mutually beneficial: modders get a “hobby,” developers and publishers get free content. But because it’s based on unpaid labor, the relationship is also highly exploitative.

Many have argued that mod makers were some of the first “free laborers” online, before the more contemporary enclosures associated with the development of web 2.0. Just as Facebook’s value as a social networking platform is created by the unremunerated affective labor of all their users, the gaming industry reaps the benefits of modders’ uncompensated work.

Even more insidious is that many modders consider their work a trial run for jobs in the digital games industry. The success stories of popular mods exert a real pressure on mod culture — successful game franchises like Counter-Strike, Defence of the Ancients 2, and Team Fortress (all owned and developed by Valve) all started as mods.

Building a portfolio as a game designer with a series of mods is also common. At the core of this is an assumption that fuels the digital games industry: that while you might not get paid for your hard work modding, at the end of the road is the job of your dreams — complete with onsite laundromats, comped massages, and goofy workplace slides — in the industry of your dreams.

The “labor of love” ethos is also important in modding culture. These nascent video game designers, it is felt, should not charge for work because it gives back to the community. When that modder joins the games industry proper, he or she is asked to use that passion for the scene to stave off burnout — despite long hours and a crippling layoff cycle.

You love games, so you buy them. You buy games, so you mod them. You mod games, so you eventually create them. Encouraging payment for mods, detractors say, threatens this passion pipeline.

Recently, a rush of class-consciousness has hit the modding scene, with all of the attendant arguments. For some, the influx of money has ruined the supposed purity of modding. And yes, commodifying things that were previously done for enjoyment is a hallmark of living under capitalism.

But the purity argument ignores that modding is already monetized. There are entire subgenres of game that are sold primarily on the backs of the free mods available. If there’s an argument that the mods of indie games with low sales should stay free, there’s a much stronger one that the mods of games with budgets in the tens of millions should carry a price tag.

This is what makes Valve’s decision to introduce paid mods so curious. Valve, it should be said, is an odd company in the world of American business. They have a flat corporate structure, with group decision-making and fluid teams that can flit between projects as workers see fit. There are no managers, and the only disciplinary force workers are subject to is peer review, where their ongoing employment and raises are decided.

Valve also openly brags about hiring the most expensive talent in the world and introducing them to a workplace where they don’t have to work on anything they don’t want to. Pet projects with constant trial and error are the norm, and when things need more attention the company brings in the necessary people to figure them out. (This is how Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis ended up doing high-profile work for them on virtual economies.)

All the same, Valve is a corporation that relies on the passion pipeline as much as anyone else, whether they’re aware of it or not. And their desire to positively shape game production is frequently inhibited by their lack of dedication to committing sufficient capital. Their early access program, for instance, is an excellent way to let little-known developers finish their games; it’s also a poorly curated mess with few ways to protect against scams because they simply won’t look after it.

So it is with the paid mod program. Modders raised real concerns amid pearl clutching about the corrosive effects of paying workers. People lifted free mods from other sites and charged for them on Steam. It quickly became apparent that the relationship between free and paid mods, whereby a free mod might rely on a paid one to work, was poorly thought-out. Modders were forced into the role of businesspeople, having to determine price based on unknown elasticity and the cost of their own labor. And just as with the early access program, it wasn’t well-curated.

All of this led to the quick rollback of the program and the revelation that what we were left with was naked rent seeking. The numbers don’t lie: Modders got 25 percent of the sales, Valve another 30 percent, and Bethesda (the creators of the base game in this case) a fat 45 percent.

On top of that, the agreement states that Valve can choose to hang on to amounts under $100 until the wages due to the modder exceed that amount. In this case, a modder must sell $400 to get $100. Presumably, Valve keeps any accrued interest as the modders’ 25 percent sits in the bank. It is quite clear that the conditions under which modders and other digital laborers extract money from rent-seeking services like Steam will be a recurring problem.

If the lid is off on the paid mod topic, let’s stop with half measures. Modders should think about ways to bypass rent-seeking platforms like Steam entirely. While it won’t work well with older games, the new game Cities: Skylines proves the viability of a different route. In that game, mod makers have turned to Patreon, the crowdfunding platform, to fund their creations. Patreon still operates in the current atomized paradigm, but not having to share the fruits of one’s labor with rent-seeking corporations is undeniably better than the alternative.

An even better fix — both for modders and the industry as a whole — would be a modding site containing content from several games across many genres, owned and operated by the modders themselves.

Still, it would be foolish to think that all modders could just leave a platform like Steam cold turkey. Steam makes up more than 70 percent of the marketplace for digital games. It also has an in-depth toolset for developing and posting mods alongside a large community that already exists.

The cost of starting over is high, and fighting to get paid for one’s digital labor within the existing structures of power is also important. Collective action and raising the consciousness of unpaid labor contributing to corporate profits is key.

And while it might seem that the foregoing is only relevant to a small subsection of passionate laborers who make mods, the reality is much more sobering: the sharing economy is growing, and more and more of us are finding ourselves subject to the dictates of platform capitalists.