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The yin and yang of game mods

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To critics of violent games, video game hackers have become the new threat to America's children because they modify the most popular games to include sexual content.

For the uninitiated, these game hackers, known as ``modders,'' are a terrifying lot.

The Entertainment Software Ratings Board targeted the modders when it noted the widespread availability of a mod software program, dubbed ``Hot Coffee,'' that can be downloaded from the Internet to run with the popular ``Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas'' game. Hot Coffee was the reason the board changed its rating on the Grand Theft Auto game from ``mature'' to ``adults only.''

The Hot Coffee mod unlocked sex scenes hidden on the game. Even though the scenes were originally created by its own Rockstar development studio, the game's publisher, Take-Two Interactive Software in New York, responded by blaming the modders in part, threatening to take legal action against those who violated its ``end user license agreements'' that govern how people use its software.

But game developers view the mod community as a misunderstood and underappreciated lot. Now that the modders are the subject of what they call a ``witch hunt,'' game developers are doing their part to fight back. In short, they say that restricting mods is an infringement on First Amendment rights and on creativity.

Jack Thompson, a Florida attorney who has tangled with makers of video games over this issue, says, ``Creative people seem to be big on creativity and not on much else. If publishers want to encourage the mod community, they need to be careful about that. You can't be so enamored of creativity that responsibility goes out the window.''

On Internet message boards such as ``GTA Garage,'' modders are responding to their critics. The administrators of the Web site GTA Garage, where mods for the Grand Theft Auto series are available, posted a series of letters and wrote in an introductory note, ``Some of us decided it would be a good idea to defend ourselves from the whole `modders are evil' myth they are perpetuating.''


In their letter, the GTA Garage administrators wrote, ``History does show this same sort of fearful over-reaction was exhibited toward explicit movies in the past. And before that, heavy metal, rap music, The Beatles, and comic books were to blame.''

Mods are available on the Internet by the thousands, and many have little to do with sex or violence. Web users can download an image of an Adidas shirt for their characters to wear in Grand Theft Auto, or convert the sci-fi game ``Unreal Tournament 2004'' into a Western gunslinger's game dubbed ``Damnation.''

``The industry looks to the modders for their next generation of talent,'' said John Davison, editorial director at game magazine publisher Ziff Davis Media Game Group in San Francisco. ``This has been going on for more than a decade. The last thing the industry wants to do is close down this avenue.''

Some of the mods are offensive and amateurish, but many are independent works of art in their own right, says Jamil Moledina, executive director of the Game Developers Conference.

``The fact is, the modders, or those who take advantage of tools provided by the game publishers, are longstanding contributors to quality game development.''

Modding has a long and storied history. Game developers started the tradition of including extra hidden features in games, known as Easter Eggs, as a kind of inside joke to fellow programmers or rewards for diligent gamers.

Games such as 1993's ``Doom'' included tools that enabled players to create their own landscapes for the games. Some of those mods, such as ``Porn Doom,'' pushed the edge on taste. But many mods prove so popular that they extend the time that gamers spend with a game by hundreds of hours.

College student Minh Le spent about 20 hours a week working on a modification of the 1997 hit ``Half-Life.'' When he and his friends made it available on the Internet in 1999, ``Counter-Strike,'' a modern police-terrorist shooting game, turned into a monster hit. The game was downloaded by the millions, the creators of Half-Life at Valve in Kirkland, Wash., acquired the rights to it and sold millions more copies at retail. Le parlayed the mod into a job at Valve.

Another successful mod was ``Desert Combat,'' a transformation of Electronic Arts' ``Battlefield 1942'' that gave the online combat game a modern battlefield setting. That pre-empted EA's own ``Battlefield 2'' game by years, and EA eventually bought the developer that created the Desert Combat mod.

Legal liability

Publishers have watched the trend and made it easier to mod games by including sophisticated tools.

Most of the modders are creating content that publishers like. Some are producing annoying content, such as the ones that misappropriate copyrighted characters like ``Hello Kitty'' or ``The Simpsons.'' And some mods are so offensive, such as Hot Coffee or the naked ``Sims 2'' mod, that they're catching the wrath of politicians.

If the mods expose game publishers to legal liability, as with Hot Coffee, then game publishers might think twice about making the tools for modding available, said Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.

``It would be very disappointing to see any formal legal action against modders,'' he said. ``The mod scene is a source of innovation and a significant channel for creative expression.''

Don Karl, a lawyer who represents game developers at Perkins Coie in Los Angeles, said publishers don't want to be put in the position of deciding which mods are appropriate and which aren't.

``Clearly, I can see the pressure intensifying on the game companies,'' Karl said. ``It puts the game companies in the role of being a policeman.''

By Dean Takahashi
Mercury News

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