The Ethics of Commodification:

Game Modding and the New Digital Economy

Judy Ehrentraut is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Waterloo, specializing in posthumanism, wearable computing, and utopian/dystopian theories of technology. Her dissertation examines how personal computing devices such as mobile smartphones and heads-up wearables are changing how we view and redefine our digitized bodies within physical, augmented, and virtual spaces.

With the emergence of the active Web 2.0 user and their relationship with affective labour, more media consumers have transformed into producers. Despite the liberation that this has offered some, cyberspace has allowed institutions to wield corporate and political power over Internet users by providing the tools for them to effectively commodify themselves (Hermosillo). Through collective intelligence, which Henry Jenkins qualifies as the mobilization of the skills of the masses, companies have been accused of appropriating online user-generated content for commercial purposes. As a result, theorists such as Tiziana Terranova have insisted that the new digital economy that is run by “free labor” consumes culture by embracing productive activities while simultaneously exploiting them. As a product of the creative online industry, game modding is voluntary and unwaged while being enjoyed and then commodified, which makes it difficult to establish whether online producers are becoming slaves of the digital economy without their knowledge. The trouble lies in the divide between those that believe tools and support from the gaming industry are worth the exchange of their services, and those that do not. With Skyrim’s paid modding model to look back on as well as the more recent DOTA2 subscription mod tool, I explore the position of mod systems as a potential for-pay commodification strategy as well as the resistance that has come with it.

Liberating the Digital Economy

Within the realm of game modding, more and more companies have introduced customization tools for public use in an effort to build community and fan involvement into commercial game development. The game industry has tried hard to maintain the impression that gaming constitutes “a people’s technology which encourages and enables participation by all who wish to participate” (Scacchi), yet this ideology has, for some, disguised the power structures within which the modding community operates. It stands to reason that thousands of modders are willingly operating within a capitalist system that has provided the tools for their activity and resulting commercialization. However, capital does not necessarily descend on the authentic culture of creation in order to appropriate it, but has helped to facilitate it by channeling collective labor in ways that purposefully coincide with capitalist business practices. The fact that modders voluntarily take up this form of free labor makes it difficult to blame capitalism or commodification via cyberspace for the uncertain position that modding holds in the digital economy. In essence, if modders are being taken advantage of and are potentially aware of it, we must ask why they are choosing to participate in this activity at all.

In Hector Postigo’s study of game modding culture, he states that in the early days of hacktivism, modders saw their endeavors as a way to “break in” to the industry in order to express themselves artistically, and as a way to get more out of their favorite games. Similarly, Jenkins states that modders are players who want to take the experience of a game beyond its traditional constraints, becoming not just consumers of content, but producers as well. However, since more and more companies are purposely developing tools so that their users can add to their existing product, it is important to note that it is not simply the games that are being commodified through commercialization, but the modders themselves. Despite the glamorization of digital labour being seen as liberating, Terranova has called it the “modern sweatshop” of Web 2.0 that employs “NetSlaves.” Likewise, in his study on crowd management, Daren Brabham argues that positive affirmations of crowdsourcing activities such as modding, often hide the fact that those that reap the greatest benefits are not the individuals, but the large corporations. Despite the current amicable relationship that exists between most large game studios and the modding community, some critics see the exchange between the two groups as severely exploitative (Scacchi).  While it is apparent that game companies can thrive off the hard work of the modding community, we cannot disregard the enjoyment that modders experience from being involved as producers of new content for these games. Yet, the fact that modders mod for fun does not make the industry’s commodification of their leisure time less problematic (Kücklich). For Kücklich as well as Postigo, the modding community serves as a testing ground for new ideas that can prove profitable in the future.  When it comes to mods that are larger-scale and more than just individual items for a game, many companies will only purchase and then license a mod once it has already gained a large following, in the hopes of developing it into a full-fledged low-risk title. Of course, game companies do also occasionally hire modders rather than just purchasing the rights to their work, but only those that have already proven their worth and expended resources to garner a reputation and build a portfolio on their own time.

The Valve Solution

One of the first significant examples of this was the Valve Corporation’s decision to hire modders as full-time employees for the development of Counter-Strike (2000), originally a modded version of Half-Life (1998). However, Valve only paid for the time and labor of their newly hired modders from the start of the new Counter-Strike project and not for the work that went into the previous mod. While such a business transaction may appear lucrative, Valve actually prides itself on the fact that it built its empire through a partnership with the community (Christiansen). With the creation of Steam (2002), Valve has directed much of its energy to facilitating a platform for players to create, upload and engage with content produced by fellow Steam members. Valve took this even further with the release of the Steam Workshop, initially appearing in 2012 as a way to mod the game Team Fortress 2 (2007). This service was implemented to give customers with a Steam account a platform through which to create and then submit new items for consideration, in order to expand the already existing game. Since then, the Steam Workshop has expanded to include levels, maps, and other features as new games are consistently added to the list of games that are officially accepting mods (Giantbomb).

In 2015, Valve attempted to incorporate a model to pay modders for individual items created for Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls V in the Steam Workshop. The idea was that modders would produce content, giving Valve their pick of literally hundreds of items created by hard-working individuals who would receive compensation for only the individual items that were of use, but not for their accumulated time.  Of course, this model failed disastrously shortly after its inception, mostly due to issues surrounding pricing, plagiarism and intellectual property rights. The modding community was originally built on a sharing economy, a model complicated by the introduction of money in exchange for items that may have been part of a collective effort of modders, not all of which would receive credit. The cancellation of paid mods on Steam received much attention in early 2015. DOTA2’s new paid mod subscription service, not even a month old, is already experiencing issues. Regardless, it is worth noting that ideologically, the for-pay system was constructed in the hope of eradicating the precarious position that modders are still finding themselves in. Valve’s intention was to allow players to identify more with their game, but not without tremendous limitations; modders are always going to be subject to restrictions that one would not normally expect for non-contractual, unpaid labor. While the members of the community  are intended to work without economic incentive, the games that they modify are commercial products, meaning once a mod is made, a modder has no rights to even sell their modified version. In fact, modders only have as much control over their work as is given them in the licensing agreement with the studio, the EULA. Generally, a game’s full source code is not distributed with the game’s release – rather, certain files that allow modders to customize parts of the game are made accessible, but in a limited capacity. Open source refers to “a model of software development in which the underlying code of a program […] is by definition made freely available to the general public for modification, alteration, and endless redistribution” (Vaidhyanathan). Generally, modders are not given open access to the IP of these games, nor do the companies give them legal, free reign over the code. Terranova believes that were the open source model implemented into game modding, there would be the potential for modders to transcend alienation from their work through involvement with the entire process as well as the end result.

What Are We Modding For?

The question remains as to whether the development of mods for existing games can be seen as a counter-hegemonic force that is opening up new avenues for creative expression. However, we must question how modding can be completely counter-hegemonic if a modder’s ultimate goal is to be hired by a game company and get paid for their work (Christiansen). When Valve offered the creators of Team Fortress (1996), a Quake mod, the opportunity to release Team Fortress 2 (2007) as an independent game, the modding community disagreed over whether or not that constituted as a “sellout.” It seemed that the controversy was focused on whether or not a company such as Valve, which aggressively markets mods of its games, hurts or helps the larger modding culture. Kushner points to two quotes that succinctly identify the opposing positions within the modding community over this issue. The first is by Chris Rogiss, a programmer who worked on the Quake mod Urban Terror (2000): “The whole point of making a mod is to be free and not have some company telling you what to do.” On the contrary, Tom Mustaine, a modder whose career led to employment at Ritual Entertainment, has stated: “The secret desire of every mod creator is to get recognition from the companies who are making the games.” What this recognition is, however, is not entirely clear, for it does not necessarily refer to financial remuneration. It could mean Internet fame, or even the ability to continue to create and modify within an industry that will not pursue legal action against such activities, but will encourage them.

Evidently, the digital economy perpetuates the increasingly blurred territory between production and consumption. However,  it is important to recognize that although theorists such as Christiansen, Hermosillo and Terranova consider this free form of labor exploitative, a significant number of modders actually feel differently. Valve’s Robin Walker, a former modder who contributed to the original Team Fortress stated that the company offers a 25% cut to modders for their items. Run through the Steam Workshop, this submission process for Team Fortress II is, in a way, currently being used as a platform to pay modders for their in-game work (Pearson). Interestingly, in response to a fair number of commenters scoffing at the 25% cut, there were equally as many, if not more readers who thought it was fair. One commenter stated: Guys its all on Valve to decide what’s a fair cut. Valve provides the game, the system to put up the item for sale, and everything else. They need to make money too. Nobody does stuff like this to support modding. I think 25% is fine” (“Xyos212”). Another commenter chimed in: “Since when [do] people mod for money? I’d be more than happy with a 0% cut if something I made would make it to the official game and anything over that is just bonus” (“asdfglol”). These comments suggest that from the modders’ perspective, Valve is not being exploitative and has the right to earn 75%, as “they made and supported a game that is going on six years old and gave the modders a platform to build from” (“Junkie”).  Clearly, there are modders who are more than satisfied with receiving some or no financial remuneration for their in-game items, and regard that practice as a token of goodwill from the game companies in their efforts to facilitate community involvement.


In 2003, Lawrence Lessig discussed the importance of protecting one’s “freedom to tinker” and their ability to reinterpret, to learn from, and to improve technology (Postigo). There is enough evidence to support that by outsourcing risk to the modding community, the gaming industry has made free labor look like an industrious, collaborative process rather than what scholars such as Hermosillo believe it to be: a form of exploitative “playbor.” Conversely, there will always be modders that consider the limitations to their rights over the finished product, as well as their spent time and effort, well worth the opportunity to participate in the modding practice. Thus, no matter what position one takes in an attempt to uncover whether exploitative practices are taking place, it is difficult to make a definitive statement about the power struggle between the industry and modders. Overall, it must be acknowledged  that different modders engage  in this activity for different personal reasons; one cannot fairly say that there is undeniable exploitation at play, or that those who do not realize they are being exploited are effectively being duped. The only element of certainty lies with the fact that so long as modders voluntarily mod games, they will continue to exist in a precarious state.


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