“Playbor” in Video Games

Off the Network paints a rather alarming picture of the exploitative flaws inherent in our current digital networks. Author Mejias’ discussion of “playbor” struck me in particular, as I have contemplated the concept in the past. Mejias specifically outlines “playbor” as “both a form of labor and a form of play” that “contributes in very specific ways to a capitalist social order” (Mejias 24).

As an avid video gamer, I often encounter user-created modifications for games published by sizable companies. These modifications, or “mods”, are typically created by individuals unaffiliated with the developers working for free. Mods range in scope from the virtually insignificant to the colossally ambitious, and can have a tremendous effect on a game. A frequent aim of mods is to fix a perceived flaw within the base game in order to improve the user experience. Mods often fix many bugs and oversights which the developers left intact; these two mods for the popular game Skyrim correct an important performance issue and a malfunctioning gameplay mechanic. The same website hosts over 450 mods which identify as fixing some manner of bug within the game.

The creators of these mods almost certainly received no compensation for directly improving the quality of Bethesda’s product. Nonetheless, hundreds of modders took and continue to take it upon themselves to improve the game. I frequently install mods for games I play when available, and have wholeheartedly supported the practice of modding. Nonetheless, Meijas’ work caused me to once again consider the ethics surrounding modding. Modding appears to fit nicely into his definition of “playbor”, a practice Meijas finds objectionable. Bethesda actively encourages users to generate new content via the release of detailed mod tools; I’ve seen more than one poster online express the belief that mods make Bethesda games worth buying.

While the ability of users to take an active hand in shaping their experience seems positive, game developers do derive benefit from users working without pay to make developers’ games a more attractive experience. As Mejias contends, I’m not really certain whether the reward of recognition and fame within the gaming community is enough. I don’t know how exactly the existing network could be reworked to reward creators of user-generated content more equally, but the prospect’s worth thinking about. The model adopted by Valve, owner of the popular video game digital distribution network Steam, may offer an example. Valve encourages users to create professional-quality content for implementation into Valve games and awards the creator a percentage of all profits derived from their work. Valve’s system is far from perfect, and doesn’t translate well to the far more complex interactions between mods and their parent games. Even so, Valve’s practice of engaging with UGC on a more even level demonstrates the potential for users to demand greater power.

 

Citations

Mejias, Ulises Ali. Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World. Electronic Mediations, vol. 41. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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