When exploring the topic of development, our current quarterly theme, it is always tempting to adopt the easy terms, unidirectional relations and well-defined economic and industrial terminology of mainstream discourse about production. However, as literature, media and cultural studies have now long argued, the notion that production occurs entirely separately from the eventual reception of a media text is far too simplistic.
Were we considering, for example, the historical film or novel, it might be possible (though unadvisable) to ignore ideas such as Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’ (1967), which emphasises how reception is always an interpretative act that therefore necessarily shares some characteristics with production. However, such a limiting viewpoint is simply unavailable to those of us considering games because the narratives that emerge from such texts are always (though to varying degrees) ones of shared authorship – audience agency being a defining characteristic of the form.
This already significant difficulty in creating clearly defined limits between production and reception in games is further complicated because of the existence of liminal communities of practice. For example, ‘realism clans’ (Chapman 2016, 210-215) seek to police the way their members play (often historical) shooter games in order to collaboratively produce a text they consider more authentic through their play. Similarly, sometimes in forums for historical strategy games, players agree to play in particular ways, making particular historical choices, using particular factions, or trying not to use certain affordances in their playthroughs (Apperley 2007).
However, beyond these examples of what we might term ‘social modding’, lies a more conventional kind of modding – that is, the alteration of actual game software by ‘unofficial’ amateurs. This is a fan practice that has some similarities to fan-fiction, in that it involves adding to or altering the contents of existing media products. As with these similar fan practices, modding therefore further disturbs neat categorisations of production and reception.
Modders, alongside other communities of practice that lie between production and consumption, should be of particular interest to those of us who study historical games, because they offer opportunities for gathering insights into the relationship between these games and the complex cycles of historical exchange that constitute the negotiative and appropriative processes of collective remembering (Wertsch 2002). But what is a mod? And what can such mods tell us about how at least some players view and interact with history in the game form?
Modding and History
Alexander Galloway defines a mod as “a video game that has been modified or otherwise hacked by a user or group of users” (2006, 107). Anne-Marie Schleiner offers us a more focused definition of these software additions as “patches which hack the culture of the game, interventions that offer an unexpected perversion of the accepted semiotics of game worlds and game play” (1999, n.p.). This latter definition, accounting for the signs produced by a game, is particularly relevant to historical games. Whilst many mods seem unconcerned with representational elements beyond their use for structuring gameplay, in the case of historical mods what the game signifies about the past often seems to be central to the changes that are made.
Historical mods often add new factions, environments, environmental features and units, or refine or change the appearance or behaviour of elements that are already a part of the base (i.e. ‘unmodified’) game. Other historical mods may even go beyond this, adding in new processes and mechanics or making other changes to gameplay such as altering enemy NPC AI. Historical mods are also often focused around temporal concerns, such as adding, extending or shortening the historical time-frames within which the events of the game take place. So-called ‘total conversion’ mods may even involve changing the representational theme of a game entirely. For example, the Day of Defeat modchanged Valve’s 1998 dystopian science-fiction FPS Half-Life (Valve, 1998)into a multiplayer World War 2 (WW2) game – changing an ostensibly non-historical game into a historical one.
Today I would like to talk about some research I conducted in 2017. This remains unpublished because it quickly grew into something much larger than a journal article. But here I would just like to discuss some of the key findings that emerged from this analysis. This research involved analysing a number of popular historical mods through paying particular attention to the paratexts offered by mod creators (generally in the form of mod notes, websites and development diaries). This approach was taken in an effort to gain an understanding of how historical modders frame and thus present both themselves, their work and their motivations. While efforts have been made to link to the mod notes quoted below wherever possible, it should be noted that some of the original texts have been deleted in the intervening years (as the mods have been altered or grown) and thus links cannot be provided in all cases.
Historical Modding Communities
Examining mods and the communities surrounding the Battlefield (EA DICE, 2002-present)first-person shooter (FPS)series, Gareth Crabtree (2013) describes an inherent concern with both accuracy and authenticity. This is typical of historical modding communities and, as Crabtree notes, bears similarities to the concerns of historical reenactment communities. Engagement in historical research (or at the very least claims to this) is also typical in such modding communities, with modders often conducting research visits and examining sources such as blueprints, technical data and photographs during the design process. In one case (the Experience World War Two mod), Crabtree (2013, 206) even found that the mod team went so far as to conduct detailed interviews with family members who were veterans of the conflict in order to gain insight into combat experiences.
This particular emphasis on notions of/claims concerning accuracy and/or authenticity is supported in my own analysis of historical modding communities. And, in fact, I have found that historical modding generally seems to be motivated by two distinct but overlapping concerns: the desire to correct perceived inaccuracies and dissatisfaction with the original story/content decisions of the developer.
Correcting Perceived Inaccuracies
Divide et Impera, a mod for historical strategy games Rome: Total War II (Creative Assembly, 2013), provides an example of a mod seemingly motivated by a desire to correct perceived inaccuracies or insufficient nuance in a game’s existing historical representation. For instance, the notes for the mod claim that it adds “Realistic army sizes in scale representing the army numbers of the period…[and]…Formations behavior simulating the way they worked in real life”, alongside a wealth of other changes, many of which seem to be done in the name of enriching the historical experience offered by the game.
Similarly, the mod notes for The Europa Barbarorum Project note how the
…project started in January 2004 as a team with the intent of informing The Creative Assembly about the historical nature of the “barbarian” factions in Rome: Total War [R:TW]. Our aim was to gather as large an amount of historical information as we could and pass it on to the Creative Assembly, prior to R:TW’s release, in order for their portrayal of the ‘barbarian’ factions in the game to be more accurate. Later, the team expanded their aim to also correcting ahistorical representations everywhere on the map. As it became clear that CA [Creative Assembly] would not use this sort of information, the group decided to transform the project into a modification. Europa Barbarorum I created for R:TW has received critical acclaim and has been downloaded well over 100,000 times for each version.
Here there is a clear sense of resistance to the version of classical history offered by the game’s creators, who are seen to be ignoring what these modders consider to be important aspects of Roman history. Despite beginning only as a research project, these perceived inaccuracies were considered important enough that the team eventually decided to act as revisionists, moving into modding practices to actively correct the version of history created by the developers.
Examples of the desire to correct a perceived lack of nuance in game-based historical representations also include the Anno Domini 1257 mod for Mount and Blade: Warband (TaleWorlds Entertainment 2010). Whilst the base game recognisably represents the Middles Ages in terms of material culture and basic gameplay systems (feudal and dynastic dynamics, for example), the specifics of factions and geography are fictionalised. The Anno mod corrects this by replacing these elements with historically specific ones which, in the modders’ own words, “reflect the reality of 13th century Europe…and attempts to be as historically accurate as possible”. A number of similar mods also exist for the Civilization series. These are particularly interesting because they alter the balance that the randomisation of starting geography offers, evidence that at least some players prize historical accuracy over gameplay.
Dissatisfaction with the story/content decisions of the developer
An obvious example of a mod that seems to be created in response to dissatisfaction with story/content decisions (i.e. feeling that something important to the history has been left out, or, less commonly, something extraneous included) is the Eastern Front mod for WW2 real-time strategy game Company of Heroes (Relic Entertainment 2006). This mod adds the Eastern Front to the game’s historical representation of WW2, as the base game deals only with the Western Front. A similar example is found in the Darkest Hour mod for the multiplayer FPS WW2 game Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 (Tripwire Interactive, 2006), which adds the European theatre of operations to a game that concentrates exclusively on the Eastern Front.
This latter case is particularly interesting because Red Orchestra, before receiving its own commercial release, actually began life as a total conversion mod (of Unreal Tournament 2003) that sought to create a WW2 gameplay experience that added in elements of historical combat that, at the time, had been largely ignored by the games industry (e.g. ballistic physics such as bullet drop and projectile trajectory angles) and which removed other elements common to FPS yet perceived to be inaccurate (such as crosshairs and medkits). This sense that important historical themes or elements have been ignored not only within particular historical games but by the industry as a whole is a common theme that seems to motivate some historical modding.
For example, the Eve of Destruction mod for various versions of the Battlefield FPS series seeks to represent the history of the Indochina and Vietnam wars because this history is seen to be underrepresented within the FPS genre.
Similarly, many mods seek to add in topics that are generally excluded from commercial titles due to their sensitivity and the perceived ‘limits of play’ (Chapman and Linderoth 2015; Linderoth, Chapman and Deterding In press), such as slavery or colonialism. This latter theme is one that the Civilization series has generally steered clear of engaging overtly, despite its fundamental logics existing in the game genre’s DNA (see Part 1 and Part 2 of a post exploring this issue). By comparison, the Colonialist Legacies series of mods for Civilization V adds a number of civilizations (factions) to the game, all of which have some relation to the common theme of colonisation (including pre and post-colonial examples). In doing so, the mod makers hope to “educate players about cultures they haven’t been exposed to”.
Historical Modding as a ‘Public Good’
The above quote from the makers of Colonialist Legacies demonstrates a fundamental theme of historical modding that consistently emerges within the various paratexts analysed: the notion of historical modding as a kind of ‘public good’.
For example, to return to Europa Barbarorum, the mod notes state that “The aim is to give the player…a deeper comprehension of the ancient world and its correlations”. Similarly, as one of the modders of Forgotten Hope 2 (a mod converting Battlefield 2 to a WW2 setting) put it, “by adhering to historical accuracy we can educate others (and ourselves!) about the less popular aspects of World War 2…by keeping the memory of WWII alive we can prevent history from repeating itself” (Crabtree 2013, 204).
The same or similar sentiments abound in the mod notes attached to many historical mods. The sense conveyed is that, in creating these mods with unremunerated labour and revising the ‘official’ versions of the past offered by the games industry, modders are engaged in an act with public benefits realised through memorial, moral and educational functions.
For instance, the mod notes for the aforementioned Eve of Destruction mod state:
No other military conflict is comparable to those dramatic years of the 20th century. Most rumors spread about the Indochina and Vietnam War are not honest, even though it was the best documented war in history. No other military conflict was ever so controversial, pointing to an unloved fact: our enemy was not the only source of evil, the evil could be found within ourselves. The “Eve Of Destruction” mod is a tribute to the U.S., ARVN and Vietcong/NVA soldiers who fought and died in Vietnam, and also to the Vietnamese people.
Even in this short description, we find moral, memorial and educational justifications for a mod that deals with a period of history often considered to be controversial (and thus less often represented by the games industry than the ‘safer’ territory of WW2).
In a sense, such justifications echo the framing used by the games industry, which generally sells historical games on the back of claims about accuracy anchored in the oft-unspoken notion that such games serve some kind of educational, memorial or artistic function beyond mere entertainment. The difference here is, of course, that most modders are unpaid amateurs, and so claims that their efforts are in service to a public good are perhaps more believable.
Sometimes discussion of mods focuses on the opportunities that such practices can open up for modders in terms of being recognised by development companies and therefore getting their mods chosen for full release and/or joining the games industry as a result. This could be seen to colour claims that historical mods are truly performed in service of the public good. However, instances of employment from modding remain the minority compared to the thousands of mods created. Furthermore, whilst economic concerns might sometimes explain the desire to create mods, they cannot fully explain the particular changes that historical mods tend to make. Nor does it seem fair to scrutinise modders’ motivations to a degree that we do not with other forms of historical practice. Of course, even professional historians benefit from the publishing necessary to advance their careers, yet we do not evaluate their work in these terms.
Certainly, the relationship between historical modders and their audiences might lead them to, for example, emphasise the accuracy of their creations, just as the games industry does (and the prevalence of this rhetoric in the industry would indicate that this is viewed as effective marketing). But a passion for both history and historical games also often seems evident in modders’ discussions, their dedication to particular epistemological ideals in practice, and the extent of the research they often undertake in pursuit of their voluntary labour.
Historical Modding as History
The vast majority of modding efforts go unremunerated. Furthermore, there is a wealth of evidence within these communities of practice that demonstrates their investment not only in the importance of history itself but also in the notion of games as a serious form of historical discourse. Undoubtedly the paratexts I have considered involve positional work by their authors. Yet, as noted, to focus solely on this would be to hold historical modders to a standard to which we do not hold professional game developers or historians. This would be a mistake when even a cursory examination of these historical modding communities reveals that a sense of earnest engagement is often enthusiastically apparent.
Historical mods generally operate through a pattern of revisionism, correcting the ‘official’ version of history offered by developers. This iterative revision echoes the discursive functions of formal historical practice, where secondary sources build upon each other’s argumentation, refining narratives through intertextual exchanges of competing representations.
In historical modding, we therefore see a similar dynamic to the interactions of professional historiography, wherein discourses are collectively built through a similar process of iteration, correction, negotiation and discussion. In this case, though, these processes take place through the medium of games rather than written text.
Nor does the mnemonic chain necessarily end here. Historical mods themselves are sometimes subject to further change through ‘sub-mods’ built by other modders to further refine the changes already made. This is evidence of the complex cycles of exchange that constitute collective memory.
Naturally, historical modding culture also has limitations. For example, though relatively rare given the vast scale of historical modding, the highly problematic strain of mod culture that uses mods (or indeed creates them) to support far-right visions of history (Winkie 2017) must be acknowledged. Furthermore, in the past few years, Total War II: Rome has seen controversy because misogynistic modders created the ‘Patriarchy Mod’ to reduce the numbers of female leaders in the game (though unfortunately such problems are hardly unique to modding and this kind of erasure has all too often been a part of academic history too).
Furthermore, historical modding culture also often suffers from an almost myopic focus on accuracy solely in terms of material culture. Mods also rarely challenge the inherent politics of the games that they modify. Finally, historical modding culture generally remains committed to conservative notions of relatively naïve “reconstructionist” (Munslow 2007) accuracy.
Of course, many of these critiques can be levelled at the games industry as well (and, to some degree, at many similar popular communities of historical practice, such as reenactment societies). And, despite these limitations, historical modding is a practice worthy of scholarly attention because it shows us something long-argued by game developers and those of us working in historical game studies: games can have historical value. Examining modding culture provides us with tangible evidence that this perspective is also shared by at least some players. Not only those modders that spend countless hours altering the content of games to better reflect the history they believe, but also the hundreds of thousands of players who play these mods, similarly seeking revisions or refinements of the historical representations offered by the games industry.
Historical modding practices and discourses indicate that, for at least some players, the historical aspect of games is considered important, is actively engaged with, and is even considered worthy of unremunerated labour. These modders seem invested in the idea that games are a viable form for history and that game-based histories, therefore, have a responsibility to represent the past in line with community-constituted epistemological standards.
Finally, examining historical modding offers support to the notion of history and collective memory not as something that we ‘have’ but as something we experience and construct through ‘doing’ – a perspective particularly important when trying to tease out the unique qualities of the naturally interactive medium of games as a form of history (Chapman 2016).
Apperley, Thomas. 2007. “Virtual Unaustralia: Videogames and Australia’s Colonial History”. Proceedings of the Cultural Studies Association of Australasia Conference 2006: 1–23.
Barthes, R. 1967. “The Death of the Author”. Aspen 5-6, https://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/index.html
Crabtree, G. 2013. “Modding as Historical Reenactment: A Case Study of the Battlefield Series” in M. Kapell and A.B.R Elliot Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, 199–214. New York, London: Bloomsbury.
Linderoth, J., Chapman, A. and Deterding, S. (In Press). “The Limits of ‘Serious’ Play: Frame Disputes Around Educational Games.” In J. Linderoth, B. Sjöblom and A. Frank (Eds.), Representing Conflict in Games: Antagonism, Rivalry and Competition. New York: Routledge.
Chapman, A. (2016). Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice. New York: Routledge.
Chapman, A. and Linderoth, J. 2015. “Exploring the limits of play: A case study of representations of Nazism in games” in T.E. Mortensen, J. Linderoth and A.M.L. Brown (eds.), Dark play: Difficult Content in Playful Environments, 137–53. New York: Routledge.
Galloway, A. R. 2006. Gaming: Essays on algorithmic culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Schleiner, A.M. 1999. “Parasitic interventions: Game patches and hacker art”. Retrieved from http://www.opensorcery.net/patchnew.html
Wertsch, J. V. 2002. Voices of Collective Remembering. New York: Cambridge University Press
Winkie, L. 2017. “The struggle over gamers who use mods to create racist alternate histories”. Kotaku. Retrieved from https://kotaku.com/the-struggle-over-gamers-who-use-mods-to-create-racist-1826606138