Game Mods and Autonomy in the Cyber-Public Sphere

This is a proposal for a larger body of work focusing on authorship and identity in cyberspace. I’m trying to look into the re-appropriation of programs, software, and tools that are turning Internet users into producers of various types of media. I’m interested in what happens when people start to use programs made available to them by corporations, but not necessarily for the purposes that the tools were designed for.

In “The People Formerly Known as the Audience,” Jay Rosen declares that the collective online public is no longer comprised of “the owners and operators of tools that were once exclusively used by media people” (Rosen, 2006). With the growth of the blogosphere facilitating the cultural shift from “audience” to “user,” creative content and distribution has allowed media consumers to become producers themselves. In cyberspace, the postmodern public sphere mediates the “space” by putting cultural acts in the hands of its participants rather than institutions (Poster, 1995). In spite of these claims, some have argued that cyberspace has allowed institutions to wield corporate and political power over Internet users by providing the tools for them to effectively commodify themselves. In 1994, Carmen Hermosillo (handle: humdog) condemned cyberspace for capitalizing on her interior thoughts through the online boards she was posting to, and turning the act of blogging into a means of production.

While it is true that consumers are constantly gaining greater power and autonomy as players become producers, corporate conglomerates will always protect their own interests when faced with the re-appropriation of their media tools and platforms. Henry Jenkins’ refusal to see media consumers as either totally autonomous or totally vulnerable to institutional governance suggests that there is no definitive answer. Thus, I hope to explore whether the cyber-public can exercise agency and control over creative content through participatory culture in certain areas of the Internet.

The primary case study will be the Steam Workshop, a game modding tool introduced by the Valve Corporation in early 2012. The tool advertises that “everything here is created by members of the Steam community, just like you,” and its aim is to allow players to create, upload and engage with content by fellow Steam members. In recognizing the online cultural shift as outlined by Rosen and explored by Jenkins and Rheingold, the Valve CEOs set out to encourage a new kind of engagement with games by providing modification tools to the public, albeit it in a rather restricted way. With only a limited number of titles to choose from, each item created within a game must meet certain “submission requirements” before it is published.

Though the workshop is certainly innovative and supports freedom of creation, the power ultimately lies not with the public, but with the corporation that gives its members a false sense of autonomy under the guise of providing authorial freedom. I’m going to be exploring different examples of mods made available through the Workshop and will record my findings as I go.

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