Players Unleashed! Modding The Sims and the Culture of Gaming
by Tanja Sihvonen
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, Holland, 2011
224 pp., illus., 30 b/w. Paperback, € 20,00
ISBN: 978 90 8964 2011.
Reviewed by Hannah Drayson
Taking as its central example the computer game, The Sims (2000), Sihvonen’s book analyses the practice of game modification, or ‘modding’. Modding is the reconfiguration and reworking of commercially released computer games by players through the production or alteration of game content, characters, sounds, graphics, new maps and levels. The game’s creator, Will Wright, is well known for creating computer games that offer players ‘possibility spaces’ that make it possible for players to build and control a range of simulated scenarios (Sim City, 1989; Spore, 2008). In these games players are not required to complete a particular quest or arrive at a pre-specified outcome, but instead, game-play is led by the player’s own concerns. Because of this, The Sims makes a useful example in a discussion of modding because the game is explicitly intended as a platform for user creativity; Sihvonen’s book provides an exploration of the way in which The Sims game enables player’s creativity. Sims players are pre-eminent modders and creative expression, and interventions of players are central to the game dynamic of The Sims game-play, which is centred on activities of interpreting game content, configuring it, and modifying it––practices that are not only carried out by a small subset of hardcore players but also are a highly popular and common activity.
In an introductory anecdote, Sihvonen describes her early experiments with the game, some of which involved killing her Sims; for example, by encouraging them to go swimming and, then, deleting the ladder that would allow them to climb out of the pool––the result being that exhausted, they drowned. While Players Unleashed is based on a broad survey of player activities using The Sims and the communities and platforms that support and serve these modding practices, this example is exemplary of the way users of any technological platform, including games, will often seek to use that platform to achieve not only a range of forms of self-expression but also to test the limits of their own imagination and agency within the space of the technology. Citing David Serlin, “modders do not play games, they play with games,” (p.105), Sihvonen sets out to explore the way in which The Sims game supports this type of player intervention and expression. The result is a close reading of The Sims that draws together multiple threads and ideas regarding the forms of player creativity it supports, and a number of insights into of game technology and computing are focused on an analysis and assembly of approaches to and discussion of this particular gaming environment. Thus, Sihvonen surveys a number of the key issues and literature that can contribute to an understanding computer games from a play-centred, ludic perspective  as materials that offer a canvas for performance, exploration, appropriation, creation and détournement.
Sihvonen offers a framework for talking about the various forms of ‘modding’ activity (p.89-90): interpretation; “semiotic interpretation of the game -what it is for - how should we play, what do the elements mean? [including] glitches and bugs which might be exploited by users - design flaws which allow players to, for example build a house on columns which are then removed - leaving a floating house” (p.92). Another category is that of configuration where elements of the game are adjusted to provide player configured aspects to the game such as personalised avatars. Reworking ‘the deconstruction and reassembly of game elements’ (p.89) offers the most important focus for discussion. Playing with the game is the active intervention by players on the materials (files and code - digital content and assets) on which the game is based. These are edited or replaced using other software tools either provided by the game designers or produced by the modding community. Finally a further category, that of redirection (using the game to produce new media content) is discussed. This aspect of modding is present in activities such as machinima and gamics (comics produced using screenshots from games).
What is particular of interest is the way in which modding appears to allow a space for users to reconfigure software products to their own uses. Player instigated reinterpretation and modification of game content offer examples that illustrate how game software production fits into a wider framework of analysis for the critical understanding of the interplay between media technologies, industry and culture. Arguably, the way in which a media technology and their protocols emerge from patterns of use and adoption may be as much influenced by the concerns of users of that technology – in this case the players – as that intended originally intended by its designers or the material affordances of the existing technological platform. The forces that shape technological and media products can, in the case of modding communities, be seen to lay with the concerns of players, as expressed through activities like modding. As Sihvonen tells us, modding practices and games that enable them allow players to access “negotiations of technological agency, identity and gender” (p.186). Talking about modding reveals further aspects of the interactions between the designers or authors of computer games and their public.
Modder activities not only impact upon the experience and agency of players themselves but also the industrial production of games. These modding practices have been part of the game industry in one form or another and offer an unpredictable, if sometimes extremely valuable, outlet for player creativity and production. As Sihvonen notes, fan cultures have already been noted as active (often unauthorised) authors in the story-worlds in which they have imaginary investments – exemplified in Henry Jenkin’s (2006) discussion of groups of fans writing alternative materials for story-worlds such as Harry Potter, etc. A number of games developers have made tools that enable different levels of modding and associated player practices, such as the production of ‘machinima’ (cinema produced in games) part of their products since the early days of FPS (first person shooters). Companies like Id and Valve have included software tools that made it possible for players to produce their own levels, resulting in some cases, in the production of entirely new titles based on existing game engines – such as Valve’s Counter-Strike (1999), produced by players as a modification of Half-Life (1998) and then officially released in 2000.
It has been argued that the game industry is arguably increasingly dependent upon a range of benefits that the modding community bestows upon it (Kücklich, 2005). Whether or not the economic dynamics of this relationship should be viewed with suspicion is open to debate. Arguably the games industry is increasingly dependent on a player workforce, whose activity is conceptualized by Julian Kücklich as a form of ‘playbour,’ a form of productive play in which gamers produce their own game content, train themselves for work in the industry, do valuable marketing work, and also prolong the lifetime of games by producing further content and levels (in some cases whole new titles such as Counter-Strike) for games that would otherwise have a far more limited shelf-life. While, in some cases, we may consider the mobilisation of modders as a workforce as an opportunistic and pragmatic move for developers, designers like Wright appear to have been acting upon another imperative: exploring the possibilities of what is afforded by computer simulation and the possibility of producing games that offer players the chance to engage with materials in a similar way to which they may with more traditional toys and construction sets––hence, The Sims being described as a ‘virtual doll’s house’. With regards to this question Sihvonen (p.45) acknowledges and discusses this role of player interaction with the industry in this way but points out that the domestication of this type of activity for use by the industry is problematic; modding can, therefore, be conceptualized as an activity that inhabits a contested ground between authorised and unauthorised play, cultural production, and the modification of software as intellectual property. In this light, the possibility that fans are being exploited by developers is a simplistic view of the dynamics of the relationships between these parties.
Sihvonen’s cultural-studies-centred reading of The Sims often returns to the particular ideological uses of the game by players for activities, such as gender play and the production of ‘deviant characters often produced in particularly high relief upon the backdrop of The Sims’ white suburban, conformist landscape that appear to lend themselves to the questioning through play. The ‘doll’s house’ becomes a space in which players can use a variety of tactics to question gender ideologies, resulting in politicised play practices. Sihvonen’s analysis dwells upon this use of the game platform as a text for rewriting alternative roles and lifestyles. Far from understanding modding as an exploitation of player’s free labour activity, or the commercialization of play, Sihvonen presents us with a landscape of different acts undertaken by communities of players that question a range of political ideologies and use the platform to distribute to a public the results of these interventions. The interactions between official developers and public can, therefore, be seen as far more uneasy than a simple reading of capitalistic engineering of servitude but instead an open engine of play.
Many of the examples in the book show how the practices of modding can be seen as a politicised form of narrative construction offering players an outlet for general cultural resistance. This kind of critique is particularly visible in The Sims because of the traditional suburban spaces that are the canvas for game-play and the highly normalized body and lifestyle templates offered to players in order to create their Sims. The setting and game-play of The Sims has, as Sihvonen points out, been criticized in the cultural studies literature for the way in which it ‘conveys the consumerist ideology associated with domesticity and the American suburban mental landscape’ (p.34). However, Sihvonen revisits this critique, suggesting that the underlying intention of the designers seems to encourage modding and player performances that include the ‘subversive re-appropriation’ by players and the ‘bending’ of the ‘original inclinations of the game’ (p.164). Many of the ideological biases that appear to be built into the game are quickly dealt with by cheats, mods, and fixes that are both available through player communities, and, as Sihvonen points out, also described by the developers themselves in the instructions that accompany the game. An example is the ‘Joy Booth’ that bypasses the expensive and time consuming nature of Sim courtship – which in line with the capitalistic ideological framework of the game relates success in love to material gains – the game objects that enable the more complex forms of romantic encounters are also the most expensive (p.166). So while the game is structured around the acquisition and use of objects by the pursuit of increasingly better-paid work, it provides a ground against which many players explore non-traditional lifestyles. It may, in fact, be the case that the developers intended the limitations of the Sims game and the ‘object oriented’ dynamic of play, a provocation to players to question the norms of the game (p.168). This indicates a very different model of the discourses that might emerge between developers and players.
With reference to these discussions, at times the text feels as if it is covering too much ground. Some suggestions and observations would have supported a longer, deeper focus. For example the observation that the sexuality of the Sims is not dictated by their gender in the game but rather emerges from their behaviour. Perhaps an alternative reading of the conservative and consumerist ideology of the game is suggested by this – as Sihvonen points out: The game’s reality is one in which sex of a game character does not result in inbuilt, ‘natural’ behaviours, inclinations or actions. This said, in its breadth, while dictated by its focus on a particular game and set of player activities, the book draws together a lot of material and ties together a great many threads as well as stimulating a range of questions regarding game modification and player communities in games outside of the FPS genre.
 The games studies literature distinguishes between a ludic understanding of game-play - where games are considered as materials for play activities and player performance - and the understanding of games as narratives, which more like films, or novels, can be progressed through by players whose actions reveal the underlying story contained within the text, but who, to an extent are led to conform with predicted aspects of the storyline (Aarseth, 2001). In contrast to this, games like The Sims in particular demand an analysis of the procedures and outcomes of game-play, which cannot be analysed or predicted without attention to the actions of the player within the game-space.
Aarseth, E., Editorial; Computer Game Studies, Year One, Game Studies 0101. Available at: http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html[Accessed December 21, 2011].
Jenkins, H., 2006. Convergence culture: where old and new media collide, NYU Press.
Kücklich, J., Precarious Playbour: Modders and the Digital Games Industry. Fibre Culture Journal, 025. Available at: http://five.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-025-precarious-playbour-modders-and-the-digital-games-industry/[Accessed December 5, 2011].