Tom Welch

Tom Welch is a PhD Student in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His primary research topic is labor in the digital media industries, particularly in relation to gender and sexuality. He is also interested in industry and audiences approaches to digital platforms.

Contact information:
thomas.welch at

The Affectively Necessary Labour of Queer Mods

by Tom Welch


In this article, I consider how the labour of modifying games can both be exploited by large corporations and also create a queer, affective counterplay experience through which a temporary dismantling of heteronormativity can be imagined. Using the work of Tiziana Terranova, David Hesmondhalgh, and others, I will discuss the exploitation of audience work in relation to the augmentation of the game itself. Later, drawing from theoretical work on labour, gaming, and queer reading practices, I will frame mods as interventions into the code of games in order to unpack their potential for resisting hegemonic attitudes towards gender and sexuality. In the service of this analysis, I trace a definition of modding based on level of interaction with the game object, including cosmetic enhancements and gameplay modifications. I then investigate the ways in which the labour of modding can map onto this definition and energize otherwise uncritical games. My argument is that the act of queer modification of video games constitutes a form of “affectively necessary labour” that builds from and ameliorates a lack of queer representation in gaming, both narratively and mechanically. Ultimately, this paper works to develop a grammar of queer mods and their resulting critical affective experience.

Keywords: mods, queer theory, labour, mechanics, fans


In April 2015, Valve Corporation (Half-Life, Portal, Team-Fortress, etc.) allowed creators of mods for the game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to put them up for sale on the Steam store, a digital distribution platform for PC games. The company professed a desire to expand the revenue streams available to those who created mods. According to Valve programmer Tom Bui, Valve considered the idea a “great opportunity to help support the incredible creative work being done by mod makers in the Steam Workshop…opening new avenues to help financially support those contributors” (McWhertor, 2015). Many Steam users, however, were not as keen on the idea of paid mods. They had two main arguments against them: first, they argued that the proposed pay structure was exceedingly unfair. Second, they claimed that paid mods went against the spirit of the modding community--that Valve was changing an aspect of gaming that was meant to be explicitly non-commercial. For modders, the value of the labour of creating mods was not economic, but rather something more affective, relating to the quality of play and the establishment of community. In the wake of mass protests, Valve canceled the paid mod program in less than a week.

The twin reactions to the Valve paid mods debacle reflect the larger culture behind video game modification. On the one hand, corporations often do rely on modders, benefitting from their work fixing bugs and engaging communities in their games. This constitutes a form of free labour (Terranova, 2016) where the work of users is appropriated without compensation. At the same time, the free labour provided in the creation of mods heavily augments the gaming experiences of average players and modders alike. Moreover, creators often use mods to proactively address issues that are not otherwise considered. Whether it be the inclusion of alternative forms of representation, gameplay changes, or stylistic changes, the labour undertaken in the mod economy takes many forms. Underrepresented groups in particular often use mods to reflect the kinds of representation they would like to see in games. Others still use mods as a basis to tell entirely new stories. Whatever the case, there is a nonfinancial value in modifying games.

The interaction between free labour, modding, and representation is an intricate but important system within game communities as a whole. Though it is an important aspect of modding, the free labour of modders appropriated by publishers is one small part of this web of systems. In particular, I am interested in the use of mod labour to create alternative mechanics, systems, algorithms, and representations within game spaces on behalf of marginalized groups. Though game publishers can exploit the labour of modders for profit, mods can also represent alternatively valuable forms of labour and community building; modding is often simultaneously productive for both publishers and players. This is not to dismiss the impact of the exploitation of modders. Rather, I am interested in the affectively productive power of mods that exists in spite of publisher exploitation. Queer players labour to create mods that productively and fundamentally enhance their play. The methods and motivations for this labour will be the main focus of this paper.

Using a variety of mods, this article will critically examine how the act of game modification from queer authors and with queer intent can manifest. Though their methods and results may differ, all of these developers see something lacking in traditional games that they are attempting to fix with modifications. Queer modification of video games constitutes a form of affectively necessary labour which both stems from and ameliorates a lack of queer representation in gaming, both narratively and mechanically. Crucially, modding can be a form of praxis that developers use to move gameplay towards a queer future. This article will build on the work of scholars such as Evan W. Lauteria, who has argued that queer mods can build “anti-normative play spaces through an orientation to queer sexualities and genders” (2012, p. 4). First, I will put the fan practice of modifying video games in conversation with discourses of free and fan labours and queer conceptions of value. I will further this argument by exploring cosmetic mods such as Duy Nguyen’s Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town True Love Edition, as well as mods with a more mechanical focus, like Arcane Kids’ Bubsy 3d: Bubsy visits the James Turrell Retrospective and Robert Yang’s triptych Radiator 1.

The nearest theoretical understanding of queerness to the labour of queer modders is José Esteban Muñoz’s formulation in Cruising Utopia. Muñoz sees queerness not as something that is present or achieved but something that is a horizon, a utopia, or what Giorgio Agamben calls a “potentiality.” There are several benefits to this distinction. First, as the author points out, by “holding queerness in a sort of ontologically humble state, under a conceptual grid in which we do not claim to always already know queerness in the world,” one is not trapped by contemporary, rights-focused queer fights (2009, p. 21). This definition is important not only because it rejects contemporary manifestations of queerness which assert themselves through neoliberal-driven political agendas like the drive to marry or serve in the military, but also because, for Muñoz, queerness exists most strongly, however counterproductively, through a renegotiation of the everyday. Queer modders gesture toward utopian queerness through the labour of making games. As I will demonstrate, they are less interested in navigating the present landscape of politics and more interested in imagining its latent possibility.

Moreover, queer games (and therefore queer mods) share a not-yet-here definition of queerness through the very nature of the medium. Much of the joy of experiencing games is that the onus of discovery rests with the player. Queer modding is a future-oriented activity that imagines a queer utopia through altering game objects to imagine new forms of play. Queer games act not as a static representation of queerness in a way that a film or novel might, but are literally a performance of queerness represented through the structures and mechanics of the games themselves. Equally of note from Muñoz’s understanding of queerness is a fascination with the quotidian and averageness that is at the heart of his definition. If the default for video games is a power fantasy where the player exists in a fictional world, then mods that change a game to be much more mundane and average perhaps ironically can make the game queerer. Queer mods are an affective and labour-intensive intervention into the game object, as well as the activity of gaming, that see the potential in games for the manifestation of a queer future.

What Is a Mod?

The question is a deceptively simple one: what is a mod? In Players Unleashed!, Tanja Sihvonen defines modding as “the activity of creating and adding of custom-created content…by players to existing (commercial) computer games” (2009, p. 2). Under this framework, mods are the addition of content to the initial (commercial) game object released by a publisher. This kind of modding practice dates back to the earliest popular game modifications, in which assets (images, sprites, sounds, etc. that are found in the game’s asset library) would be simply be replaced to create a superficially different version of the game. For example, Castle Smurfenstein is a mod of the 1981 Commodore 64 game Castle Wolfenstein (Muse Software, 1981). In the original game, the player character fights Nazis, but in the mod the enemy sprites are replaced with images of the Smurfs (Pangborn, 2016). This kind of modification is still popular today in many PC game franchises, from The Sims to Mass Effect. As Sihvonen points out, however, these mods can also alter a game’s underlying code and algorithms, creating new mechanics and rules.

Mods that simply replace assets often rely on the two-part system of engine and content employed by many video games. It is relatively simple for players to replace items in the asset library, which are then taken up by the game engine and placed into the game. However, many mods consist not only of changes to assets but to gameplay as well. Alexander Galloway articulates the ways that modding can alter a game object:

(1) at the level of its visual design, substituting new level maps, new artwork, new character models, and so on; (2) at the level of the rules of the game, changing how gameplay unfolds--who wins, who loses, and what the repercussions of various gamic acts are; or (3) at the level of its software technology, changing character behavior, game physics, lighting techniques, and so on (2003, pp. 107-108).

This breakdown lends itself well to a taxonomy of mod labour. In keeping with Galloway’s definition, I will be discussing mods that operate on all of these levels. These are not necessarily discrete; a mod can be and often is two or even all three of these types of mods. In fact, as I will discuss later, queer mods often operate on multiple levels in order to fully modify gameplay and “queer” the original game object.

Queer Gaming and Fan Labour

Players who labour to modify games are usually fans first. Modders, as Matthew Wysocki writes, are “dedicated audiences interested in using their energy to alter their objects of consumption and even create additional content for their own and others’ utilization. In doing so, they add value to works that have been produced for them” (2015, p. 199). Although publishers often rely on mods to create extra value in their games without investing additional capital, modding has always been and continues to be a fan-based activity. This is because the major impetus for modders to create mods is to experience content in the game that has not been, or will not be, created by the developer. In the case of sex-based mods for example, many modders laboured out the desire to see more mature content tackled in games (Wysocki, 2015). For queer modders, motivation comes not only from a lack of representation in games themselves, but also a lack of representation in the modding community more generally. In an interview with Waypoint, modder Girafarig explained his motivation for creating the queer sex mod “Horny Bachelors” for the game Stardew Valley (Eric Barone, 2016): “There were a lot of lewd mods for the bachelorettes, so I thought ‘Why not make some mods for people who like guys?’ (AKA me). So I taught myself how to mod and made it a reality!” (Klepek, 2017). This attitude illustrates the motivations that many queer modders exhibit.

Tiziana Terranova details the unpaid labour given by volunteers on the early internet. She calls this work “free labour,” an amalgamation of different activities which are nonetheless exploited by corporations and which animate the internet with “a continuous production of value which is completely immanent in the flows of the network society at large” (2016, p. 408). For Terranova, free labour signals a shift toward a new norm where “work processes have shifted from the factory to society” (2016, p. 407). The modding community fits this definition well. Modders work not to make a living, but to support a pastime that they genuinely care about. Yet, it is precisely this work which is being taken up by the publishers of the game. With no compensation for their efforts, modders participate in the society factory, manufacturing modifications for games. Still, it may not be precisely accurate to say that mod labour is exploited per se; as David Hesmondhalgh points out, exploitation is an extremely specific Marxist concept for which the term “free labour” may not fit. He reminds us that there are many benefits to much of the free labour on the internet (2010).

Especially for queer patrons of the early internet, these self-regulated spaces acted as a necessary safe haven where the lines of gender and sexuality could be blurred through anonymity. Anna Anthropy describes the online community surrounding ZZT, a 1991 game connected to a kind of hybrid chatroom and game creation/game modification space. Participants in this early online space gave their own labour to make games and teach others. While ZZT had much of the typical geek masculinity of contemporary game spaces, there were also undercurrents of “queerness and confusion, fledgling explorations of kink, voices starting to find themselves after years in dark tunnels” (2014, p. 72). As one interviewee explained, “I don’t know what would have become of me had it not been for ZZT, if I had tried to find creative outlets in person in the small Texas town I grew up in really don’t know what would have happened had I not had this sort of safe-yet-dangerous online space. NOTHING GOOD” (2014, p. 72-73). So, while the free labour surrounding ZZT was undoubtedly making money for Tim Sweeney and Epic Games, it also provided a safe, if conflicted, space for queer teens to explore their identities. Using the quotidian, they were able to gesture toward a queer futurity in whatever small way they could. It is from this history of the utilization of game and online spaces by queer people that contemporary queer modding practices emerge.

This is not to say that we should not critique corporate appropriation of modding labour. Modding labour, however, does not only exist to be exploited. We should be intentional and specific with the language we use to best understand modding communities as they function economically. Modding is a diverse fan practice that participants enjoy for a variety of reasons. Queer mods in particular allow modders to shape their play into experiences that transform gaming into something affectively beneficial. While modding is labour, it is a labour that is profitable from a community and identity perspective.

The relationship between fandom and fan labour has always been a particularly heated topic vis-á-vis free labour. As Abigail De Kosnik notes, fandoms organize themselves in opposition to social norms and to the “serious” areas of life such as work (2013). Modders are no different. They see often see modding as an explicitly anti-commercial activity, one that is more reliant on community and a desire to change their fan object for the better than on any monetary gain. In fact, fan programmers are often required to perform extra work in order to circumvent copyright-protected media. Derek Johnson observes that fan modding requires “considerable technical labor” that must be “performed to get around encoded protections designed to prevent unauthorized uses of copyrighted corporate culture” (2009, p. 54) As one Reddit user pointed out, “Modders choose to work on mods for many reasons: fun, practice, boredom, the joy of creating something…This system has for years made PC gaming what it is. Modding in my opinion is the primary benefit of PC gaming over console” (Reddit Gaming). The act of creating mods and sharing them is part of a larger community culture of gamers interested in the modification of PC games. This sharing economy consists of groups of people who give their work away for free for the benefit of other members of their community. This often runs at odds with, or at the very least parallel to, the monetary goals of large game publishers; modders and fan programmers very often form gift-based communities that run counter to the commodity-oriented culture industries (Postigo, 2007).

Terranova, too, concedes that free labour does not necessarily have to be considered exploited. She explores the dual nature of the labour of participating in the creation of a community on the internet, writing that “the labor of building a community was not compensated by great financial rewards (it was therefore 'free', unpaid), but it was also willingly conceded in exchange for the pleasures of communication and exchange (it was therefore 'free', pleasurable, not-imposed)” (2016, p.418). Like the labour of running IRC channels and building ZZT games, the labour invested in the creation of mods not only has monetary value, but affective value as well. This creation itself can challenge traditional modes of power often inherent in the gaming experience. This is especially true for underrepresented groups, who are often excluded from mainstream video game representation and spaces. Modding enables these groups to create their own communities and play experiences that match their desires.

Queer Labour

Terranova’s conception of free labour introduces the idea that such labour can be valuable for the labourers even if it is not monetarily rewarded. Although modders are not compensated for their labour, they receive social benefits from the communities they help to create through the digital gift economy. De Kosnik points out that fan labourers often work to make a fan object more suitable to themselves. “The goal of most fan labor,” she argues “is to modify a commodity, which is made to suit everybody, so that it suits the fan laborer, and other fans who share the laborer’s particular tastes, much better” (2013, p. 133). I would argue that this is especially true for queer fans because the media that these fans enjoy often fails to reflect them on a basic level. Queer modding is often not just a labour meant to challenge the norms within gaming, but also to make gaming objects more amenable to queer modders and queer fans.

In “Queer Value,” Meg Wesling borrows Gyatri Spivak’s phrase “affectively necessary labor” to describe “those activities that work toward the aims of the body's comfort, pleasure, and the satisfaction of desire …[which] might usefully be understood as a form of self-conscious labour that produces value” (2012, p. 108). Acknowledging affectively necessary labour produces a space within capitalism that makes sense of and allows for queer desire and performance to be understood as labour, and importantly labour that is not exchanged for currency per se. As Wesling states, “The compulsory repetition of gender as performance might usefully be understood as a form of self-conscious labour that produces value, both material and social, even when (or precisely because) that performance is asserted to be natural” (2012, p. 108). In other words, understanding the performance and construction of gender as a kind of continuous, affective labour allows us to disrupt the idea that these performances are natural or normal. Reflecting on the drag queens represented in the documentary Mariposas en el Andamio (1996), Wesling sees queer labour as a material act that seeks to imagine and reify alternative forms of value, much in the same way that Muñoz sees queer performance as a gesture towards utopian potential. The desire to modify a specific game in order to challenge the existing gender dynamics and heteronormativity latent in games and to extend queer representation and mechanics in games is an affectively necessary labour that challenges the value structure of video games. It is affective because it is labour that allows many modders to feel comfortable in game spaces, and queer because it imagines new spaces for possibility through a reinterpretation of the quotidian.

Not every mod, however, can challenge those dynamics equally. The power of each mod to imagine alternative gaming experiences often rests in its deviance from the original game object. Queer and feminist modifications to video games are often the most successful when they reimagine gameplay in new and creative ways. We might imagine video game modifications on a coordinate plane of queer possibility. One axis represents cosmetic enhancements, or the swapping and appropriation of assets in the game in order to evoke or augment the player’s relationship to that game. Castle Smurfenstein operates primarily on this axis, because its only modification is to switch the pixel sprites from the original game. The other axis is mechanical alterations. These mods change the rules and systems of gameplay to allow for emergent gameplay possibilities. Both cosmetic and mechanical modifications are opportunities to queer games and subvert player expectations via gameplay.

Queer mods envision a future of gaming unconstrained by straight representation or a capitalist marketplace, one which approaches queerness as the horizon imagined by scholars like Muñoz. Put simply, queer game mechanics and content radically alter both the games marketplace and the media landscape to invent a gameplay that is unfettered by the necessity of capital for game production and rehashed stories of achievement and machismo as selling points. The labour performed by the modder is a measure of the affective distance away from the desired game object and toward alternative visions of a queer future. Kara Keeling’s “Queer OS” serves as a useful template for understanding the queer potential of game modifications. As Keeling explains, “Queer offers a way of making perceptible presently uncommon senses in the interest of producing a/new commons and/or of proliferating the senses of a commons already in the making. Such a commons would be hospitable to, perhaps indeed crafted from, just and eccentric orientations” (2014). Queer mods rely on crafting gameplay experiences that run counter to the “common sense” of traditional gameplay generally and the game that is being modified specifically. Sihvonen has explored this kind of modding, too, noting that many modders engage in a kind of “pornographic hacking” that, at its most robust, alters not only the appearance of avatars but also addresses the game’s code in order to find mechanical uses for these modifications (2009, p. 292). Queer mods excel in finding alternatives to gameplay that typically relies on fighting, shooting, and the accumulation of achievement to tell stories.

If these are the kinds of gameplay that permeate the marketplace, then it is useful to think about the ways in which gameplay itself functions as a beacon towards late-capitalist trappings of labour and production. Adorno and Horkheimer argue that “even during their leisure time, consumers must orient themselves to the unity of production” (2012, p. 14). Truthfully, many games reproduce the experience of the workplace in the digital-based service economy in the same way that “The Culture Industry” argues that film reproduces the conditions of the factory. Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) that require repetitive killing of the same type of enemy (called grinding or farming), either to earn items or gold to participate in the large-scale economies of the world, replicate the tedious actions of the production line, or more likely the insertion of data into a spreadsheet or word document. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004) and shooters like Half-Life (Valve, 1998) entrench players in capitalist systems in a way that precludes “play”--that is, the Derridean notion of freeform interpretation of meaning (Golumbia, 2009). These games, which one might call “straight games,” have rigidly defined goals and objectives which resist creative interpretation and deviance from a culturally-regulated definition of victory and defeat. Thus, queer mods are those that disrupt or alter these “straight mechanics.” They replace mechanics that incentivize the accumulation of wealth and the defeat of enemies, instead focusing on gameplay innovations that often have not been seen elsewhere. This is Queer OS in action: modifying a common sense often taken for granted in gameplay (for example, that getting a higher score is better or that shooting all of the enemies is the right goal) and inverting the overall experience.

Cosmetic Enhancements

One way of finding alternatives to conventional, straight gameplay experiences involves introducing various cosmetic enhancements to the game. More than a bug fix, which isolates small errors in the code to bring the game closer to the original intent of the developers, cosmetic enhancements move away from the game to alter the assets in a way that can change the narrative and implications of the game. Queer cosmetic enhancement mods often rely on switching gendered assets from one avatar to another within the game, or by making assets normally only available to one gender or sexuality of character available to multiple characters through intervention into the code of the game.

It is worth noting that the intent of a modder is not always to break or even necessarily rebuke the game object as such. More likely, they enjoy the game with some reservations that can be changed through modification. Mods are a tool used to rectify failures in otherwise salvageable games. McKenzie Wark argues that “gamespace is built on the ruins of a future it proclaims in theory yet disavows in practice. To the extent that the gamer theorist wants to hack or ‘mod’ the game, it is to play even more intimately within it” (2007, p. 22). Modders often labour to create meaningful changes to the games they love and appreciate because they want to see more of themselves in the game. This labour mirrors Spivak’s affectively necessary labour. Acknowledging the affective value of these kinds of modifications is an important step in locating the purpose of this fan labour generally and its significance to queer modders and players specifically.

Mods are a particularly useful method for queer gamers to create their own representation in games. In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, Anna Anthropy notes that modding can be a fundamental part of expressing oneself through gameplay, through the action of investigating the gameplay of games past. She writes that once one acknowledges the mutability of games at the hands of a single individual, it becomes easy to bend the game to fit the kind of representation that the player wants to see. She likens this process to that of establishing “house rules” in non-digital games; modifications are the act of making the game more fun for a specific place and time that is unique to the player (2012).

As an example of a cosmetic mod, we can consider the work of ROM hacker Duy Nguyen. In 2013, Nguyen created a hack for the 2003 game Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town (Marvelous Interactive Inc.) with the subtitle “True Love Edition.” The hack was simple: Nguyen swapped the avatars of the male (Pete) and female (Claire) player-characters of Harvest Moon, meaning that Claire could woo female characters in the game and Pete could marry male characters. This was in stark contrast to the original game, which only included heterosexual romances. Nguyen explained his motivation for making the hack in the patch notes for the ROM. He wrote,

Falling in love is one of the most memorable moments in any Harvest Moon game. Unfortunately for some, it always seemed like you had to choose between who you want to be and who you want to love. I think some of you out there have been waiting for a game like this for a very long time now… This project is important to me on a very personal level. I love the Harvest Moon series, but struggled for the opportunity to play the game the way I wanted. I felt that if I really wanted a game where I can be myself, where I am allowed to make the choices I wanted to make, I would have to take it upon myself to make that happen. Falling in love is my favorite part of any Harvest Moon game, and for the first time, everything feels right. I hope you enjoy falling in love again (n.d.)

It is very clear that Nguyen’s motivation for creating the mod stemmed from a desire to see his own wants and desires reflected in a game he loves. He labours not for economic gain but to recreate an affective experience that he sees as more authentic to himself. More than that, though, he labours so that other people can see their identities mirrored in games as well. Through an alteration of the game object, Nguyen has created “new spaces for resistant play” (Lauteria, 2012). Borrowing from Hannah Arendt, Wesling notes that we might distinguish between alienating labour and self-actualizing work (2012). We should figure such a distinction into our consideration of the labour of queer mods. This work is more than just sustaining; it bears a relation to the worker and leaves its mark on the world. Like the fan labourers that De Kosnik discusses, Nguyen modified the game object to make it more fit for consumption for himself and queer players like him. He created a space where non-heterosexual players could experience a beloved game in a way that feels authentic for their identities. He did this by resisting the heteronormative structures that had been placed onto the original Harvest Moon and imagining queer futures.

Still, the “True Love Edition” of Harvest Moon did nothing to alter the gameplay of the original game. While players could marry same-gender avatars due to an asset swap, the mechanics of wealth accumulation, repetitive farming, and the rewarding of consistent player interaction with points of love did not change, and so the underlying straight mechanics or “common sense” were not transformed. I advocate moving further from representation as the end-all category of queerness in games and more into an investigation of mechanics. Queer mods have the potential to do more than altering representation via asset swaps. Often, they can alter the fundamental mechanics of the game in a way that revolutionizes gameplay as a whole. Using Queer OS as a framework, queer mods can push the norms and conventions of gameplay and create a queer uncommons for exploratory play.

Mechanical Alterations

It is at this point that my argument both differs from and expands on the scope of Evan Lauteria’s argument. Though Lauteria explains the role that mods occupy in allowing queer players to explore novel forms of resistant play, the mods that he discusses in Ga(y)mer Theory do little to actually undermine the mechanics of the games in question. For example, though the modification of Dragon Age (Bioware, 2009 - 2014) that Lauteria discusses allows players to romance players indiscriminate of their gender presentation, the mod does not alter the mechanics of regularly checking in on the non-player characters in order to earn romance points, which is typical of most Bioware games. We might call this a “straight mechanic” in the same way we might refer to mechanics that stress the accumulation of wealth as “straight.” Consider Naomi Clark’s assertion that what is particularly valuable about queer games is their ability to blend representational and mechanical systems in ways that reinforce each other (2017). Mods that only tackle one aspect of this dichotomy are not queering gameplay on the whole.

For that reason, when defining what makes a queer game, it is necessary to look at both the mechanics and the content in tandem. merritt kopas discusses queer mechanics in her talk “Interrupting Play,” noting that “if we fail to examine [game] systems in favor of focusing on surface imagery, then we will end up playing straight games” (2014). For kopas, queer futurity in digital games is marked by the refusal to accept representation as the end-all of queer desire; a game that simply slaps in a male NPC as a romance option for a male player-avatar, for example, is not queer. Queer games conceive utopic gameplay through a forward-looking restructuring of game mechanics. kopas stresses that queer games consist of a fundamentally different set of rules and structures.

Queer mods can utilize alternative mechanics to demonstrate queerness through the rules and systems governing gameplay rather than through representation. Los Angeles-based design collective Arcane Kids explores this idea in their mod Bubsy 3d: Bubsy visits the James Turrell Retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2013). The game is a modification of the original Bubsy 3D (Eidetic), a game released in 1996. Busby 3D is widely considered to be one of the worst games of all time and a rip-off of the then-recently released and incredibly popular Super Mario 64. Instead of simply poking fun at Bubsy, however, Arcane Kids uses him as a tongue-in-cheek narrative device to simultaneously explore and critique the art world, gaming, and capitalism.

The player begins by controlling Bubsy, exploring his world and gathering iridescent spheres, which are ostensibly a collectible. As the player progresses, Bubsy approaches a museum plaza. He visits the retrospective exhibit of installation artist James Turrell at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There, Bubsy muses on the works that he sees, oscillating between statements like “Light defines a form, but light also has a form within itself. Light has thing-ness” and “Art is cool ;-).” Eventually, in one of the exhibits, Bubsy falls into a coffin and is transported to hell. A skeleton tells him “There is no alternative. The wheels of capitalism will forever grind our bones into dust.” He is led to an Applebee’s parking lot where the player destroys the restaurant, leaving large glowing letters that spell “ART.” Bubsy 3d’s level of camp sensibility is extremely high. This sensibility is compounded by the way that the game eschews the mechanics of popular 3D platformers from the era. The player can collect as many spheres as they want, but they are not acknowledged by the game as valuable and they have no inherent worth. The game subverts the very core mechanic of many games--dying as an end to the player’s progress. When Bubsy dies at the end of Bubsy 3D, he simply comes back as a ghost in the same game.

Subverting player expectations through mechanics is a powerful way to approach games. One thing that queer mods do well is their self-aware parody of the unspoken rules that govern most popular, contemporary video games. These unspoken rules dictate that certain kinds of games deserve high-quality graphics, that games should be about certain topics, that games should be competitive, and that games are something you can win. The camp aesthetic of play is one that acknowledges these norms and destabilizes them. This is not to say that queer mods should not be taken seriously; on the contrary, it is important to recognize the intentionality that goes into the labour of modding a queer game. We can consider camp gameplay to be a way of “enshrining the preposterous” (kopas, 2014)--such as the preposterously poor execution of the original Bubsy 3D. Doing so creates a new gameplay experience. Mods such as these shift player assumptions by drawing on well-known but poorly-received source material and disrupting what game audiences expect of games through irony and camp.

Camp as an aesthetic of play imagines queerness as utopia. In my understanding of camp, I borrow heavily from Matthew Tinkcom’s Working Like a Homosexual. For Tinkcom, camp is a useful tool in imagining the subject’s relationship to capital. He writes:

I want to explore camp as a philosophy in its own right, one that offers explanations of how the relation between labor and the commodity is lived in the day-to-day by dissident sexual subjects who arrive at their own strategies for critique and pleasure… My examination of camp emerges less from a concern with “progressive” narrative of gay identity… and more from the ways that camp forms a philosophy of how one can and cannot participate in the labor of humans to produce a world for themselves (2002, p. 4).

Games as camp follow a similar trajectory: they do not pretend to exist in a world where capitalism plays no part in the distribution of games. Rather, they make capitalism’s role apparent through gameplay. Wesling, too, sees camp as a particularly fruitful lens for observing the affectively necessary labour of the performance of gender. She writes that the “‘work’ of camp, which offers us insight into subjectivity produced through work, allows as well the chance to consider how… performances of gender might constitute forms of value, produced through the subject’s perpetual labor” (2012, p. 111). Queer modding practices that approache mechanics with a sense of irony are one method of elucidating the constructedness of not only video game systems and rules but also of gender and sexuality itself. Like the drag performers in Mariposas, these modded games ask the player to reconsider value in the context of pleasure rather than economics or technological mastery.

Queer mechanical mods, however, are not always preposterous or ironic. In fact, they often invoke the quotidian in a unique and subversive way to explore issues of sexuality and gender. In the introduction to Cruising Utopia, Muñoz identifies Andy Warhol’s fascination with everyday objects and Frank O’Hara’s quotidian, fun, and appreciative poetry as “a mode of utopian feeling but also as hope’s methodology…manifest in what Block described as a form of ‘astonished contemplation’” (2009, p. 186). According to Muñoz, thinking about the present, finding joy in the everyday, and being hopeful about the future are radical strategies for imagining a queer utopia.

Robert Yang’s Radiator 1 (2015) similarly finds queerness in the everyday. Radiator 1 is a full-conversion mod of Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004). The game itself is a triptych of smaller games: Radiator 1-1: Polaris, Radiator 1-2: Handle with Care, and Radiator 1-3: Much Madness. Rather than shooting aliens, as one normally does in Half-Life games, the player of Radiator 1 participates in a story about “stargazing, gay divorce, and Emily Dickinson” (2017). Radiator 1 fundamentally changes not only the assets but also the gameplay of Half-Life 2. Yang describes the mechanics of Radiator 1 as “the FPS without any shooting, the story of Dylan and James in California; stargaze, repress and rationalize” (2009). He replaces the mechanics of shooting with the quotidian activities of stargazing, attending a marriage counseling session, and exploring a house. Yang decisively undermines the traditional mechanics of the game in order to make an artistic statement about a failing relationship.

In Radiator 1-1: Polaris, the first of the three games in the triptych, Yang both capitalizes on and rejects the first-person shooter conventions from the original game. Radiator 1-1: Polaris is told through the first-person perspective of the protagonist as he relives the bittersweet memory of a date with his now ex-boyfriend. The primary objective of the game is to find constellations in the sky as his boyfriend points them out, using the first-person convention of crosshairs as guides, all while listening to a story about Orion finding his true desire through pursuing Polaris, the North Star. If the player performs well, they receive an extra cut-scene where the player hopes his ex-boyfriend kisses him (he doesn’t) and they go home and have mediocre sex. If the player performs poorly, the boyfriend drives him home and dumps him on his front porch.

Yang’s reformation of traditional first-person mechanics enhances the queer narrative of his mod. Unlike Nguyen, the modder of the “True Love Edition” of Harvest Moon, Yang has taken the extra step of changing the mechanics of the game, not just its assets. In this mod, Yang queers mechanics in two ways. First, he challenges first-person agency. The plot remains more or less the same no matter how well the player performs in the game. Second, he ignores the common sense of what a Half-Life 2 mod “should” look like in favor of unique artistic expression. In this way, Yang shifts player assumptions of value in games.

Radiator 1-2: Handle with Care takes a more metaphorical approach to its reconfiguration of Half-Life 2. In this game, the player-character James is attending a marriage counseling session with his husband, Dylan. The player is then transferred to an internal representation of his own mind (complete with waiting-area magazines representing the Id and Super Ego) where the marriage counselor’s voice plays over a loudspeaker and her image appears on a monitor in a clear reference to Half-Life 2. She repeats, “Why do you feel as though you two don’t communicate?” over and over as the player attempts to place boxes into appropriate slots. When the player fails, the game flashes back to a memory between the player-character and his husband. In failing, the player-character is reminded of repressed memories and challenging setbacks in his relationship. Handle with Care replaces the puzzle element of Half-Life 2 with a new box-matching system that requires failure rather than success to progress through the story. Failing reorients the player. The only way win is to fail, queering the OS logics of traditional video games.

Handle with Care replicates the affective labour of marriage counseling through a gameplay experience that plays on players’ assumptions as they relate to the original Half-Life 2. Yang created the mod to reflect on his feelings after the passage of Proposition 8 in California (Yang, 2015). However, it is also a commentary on the mechanics of gameplay that set players up for success. “To this day, it's probably the most difficult game I've ever made, an art game that requires very high movement fluency and knowledge of physics glitches, an ‘art game for gamers,’” Yang wrote in 2015. “At the same time, it also rewards failure if you haven't mastered crouch-jumping, which leads many players to suddenly ‘embrace’ fucking everything up” (2015). Glitches, failure, and hacking are all key components of queer mods, especially in regards to mechanical alterations. As Jack Halberstam points out in “Queer Gaming,” change in games exists not only in the level of narrative but also on the level of code and algorithms. Crucially, Yang’s mod is an intervention into the code that allows players to see the value in failure and glitches. Halberstam applies the idea of failure to game code specifically, arguing that “queer codes represent strategies to rewrite the notion of achievement altogether and to exploit the normative code in order to produce transformative possibilities” (2017). As Galloway notes, it is crucial for modders to change software technologies, and Yang’s rework of Half-Life’s physics exemplifies this.

Finally, in Radiator 1-3: Much Madness, Yang switches to the perspective of Dylan to explore themes of illness and death through the poetry of Emily Dickinson. This final game in the tryptic plays with Half Life 2’s environmental storytelling and puzzle solving. It maps new mechanics into a virtual Dickinson estate where the player must gather three keys while avoiding Emily herself. The game eventually ends with the player’s death. Radiator 1-3: Much Madness deals with issues that many large publishers choose to avoid, both in terms of sexuality and also death, divorce, memory, and illness. It incorporates these narratives and images with the space of the Dickinson home and the hospital room, as well as different locations that the player is transported to via memory, such as the forest from Polaris or a Chinese restaurant. This liminal space is a queer mechanic in and of itself. As Maureen Engel points out, part of queering mechanics is about a recontextualization of game space itself, creating games where “the incongruity and (non)belonging both reflects the queer spaces of the past, and actively produces the queer spaces of the present” (2017, p. 356). Yang achieves this by linking the queer experiences of his characters with the assets of Half-Life 2 and the life and work of Emily Dickinson.

Yang’s motivations for creating the Radiator 1 mods were multifaceted. On an economic level, he began the project because he felt frustrated with how little work he had put out in an industry that requires shipping games. There was also an affective component to the project, however. In his writing about the mods, Yang describes how he wanted to introduce himself and his “moods [and] sensibilities” into the Half-Life modding community, which he had been a part of since 2002 (2015). Radiator 1 is an example both of affectively necessary and economically necessary labour. This mod, and many queer mods in general, can be seen as examples of the kind of self-actualizing work that Wesling discusses in “Queer Value.” They constitute a kind of play that is also affirming labour.


The labour of modding video games can take myriad forms. From cosmetic enhancements to mechanical alterations, modders are constantly inventing new ways to transform and interact with game texts. Though publishers often take advantage of this labour, it also has value separate from its economic potential. Modders build communities through the creation, distribution, and use of mods for various games. Queer mods in particular frequently function as the affectively necessary labour often needed for meaningful participation within gaming communities. Artists such as Duy Nguyen, Arcane Kids, and Robert Yang demonstrate that interventions that disrupt game objects are fruitful and necessary aspects of play and of gaming as a whole.

Queer mods are not simply about making alternate genders and sexualities available in the games they modify, though they can certainly do that. Thinking with authors like DeKosnik, we can see that modding is a specific kind of fan labour that changes the fan object in question so that it more clearly reflects the desires of both the modder and the wider community. Nguyen exemplifies this attitude when he writes, as quoted above, “I think some of you out there have been waiting for a game like this for a very long time now… I really wanted a game where I can be myself” (n.d.). The mods discussed in this article imagine queerness as utopia through their design. I should also note that, although creating mods is a form of affective labour, so too is installing and playing them. Players who use these mods are also labouring to make their fan objects more in line with their desires, especially in closed-off games where adding a mod becomes an act of hacking in and of itself. Queer mods also look at gameplay and mechanics, and often seek to undermine or subvert the “common sense” of video game design. Because of this, they become a powerful tool for destabilizing the accepted norms of both the video game industry and naturalized gender and sexuality performance.

How can we think of modders moving forward? It is perhaps fruitful to consider them as textual poachers. Modders are often super-fans of the games that they mod and are reinterpreting those games to better represent the kinds of ideas and stories that they would like to see. It is also useful, however, to think of mods in terms of hacking. Modders interact with game objects in a fundamentally different way from most players, opening games up to new possibilities--a Queer OS. Through an interaction with the code, modders create the change that they want to see in the world, on whatever scale. We can think of the modding community as a specific kind of “playbor force” (Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter, 2012, p. 23) that blurs the lines between work and play. In doing so, modders redefine both traditional labour and its benefits--from capital to affect. Mods are also often a point of resistance. Authors like Julian Kücklich have pointed out that the modding community could be considered a kind of dispersed multitude that stands in contradiction to empire (2005). Whatever the case, the labour of modding in general and queer modding in particular operates in a variety of value schema that include social, economic, and affective capital.

Thinking about games as a form of affective labour is an important critical lens that can open up new modes of possibility for analyzing games and the culture surrounding them. I would also advocate for a stronger consideration of the role of affectively necessary labour and alternative forms of value in other types of fan labour. Moreover, though I argue that mods constitute a form of affective labour, standard game production and even gameplay can be considered through this framework. A critical analysis of modding cultures reveals the tenuous norms that govern not only work and play but also gender and sexuality, and allows us to conceive of new ways in which they can interact and be reimagined.


A special thanks to both Dr. Jeremy Morris and Austin Morris for their insightful contributions to various drafts of this article, as well as to Jackie Land, Jacob Mertens, and Matt St. John for providing early peer feedback. Versions of this content were presented at the UW-Madison Media and Cultural Studies colloquium and at the 2017 Backward Glances conference, and I deeply appreciate the feedback from audience members at both presentations. Finally, thank youto the editors of this special issue and to my reviewers at Game Studies for their valuable comments and suggestions.


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