Where Does One Even Begin?

Definitions and Typologies

One of the more ambiguous aspects of my research proposal was defining which games I would be working studying. I had hoped that the identification of a corpus would come to me organically as I began exploring online game hacking communities, but it quickly became obvious that “I’ll figure things out as I go along” is not a particularly valid research approach.

As a starting point, I have decided to focus on two main criteria that I feel can help me narrow down potential games to hack. First, I want to work with projects that are self-described as hacks rather than mods. While the differences between hacking and modding are contested – some would argue that they are essentially the same – I am inclined to believe that hacking leans a bit more toward the illicit. Many prominent game hacks begin with a disruption of DRM or TPM1Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Technical Protection Measures (TPM): technologies that companies develop to prevent unintended duplication and modification of their hardware and/or software. and are undistributable through commercial markets due to copyright issues. Modding, in contrast, is commonly characterized as a legal practice that is anticipated by a developer and is quite often monetized through some sort of marketplace or workshop2Bailey, Wm. Ruffin. “Hacks, Mods, Easter Eggs, and Fossils: Intentionality and Digitalism in the Video Game.” Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, edited by Zach Whalen and Laurie N Taylor, Vanderbilt University Press, 2008, pp. 69-90.. I’m not suggesting there is some sort of neat-and-tidy legal dichotomy between hacking and modding, however, but I do want to consider how the legal aspects of game alteration lead to the formation of different communities and self-identities.

Secondly, I am interested in utilizing the moniker of “classic” games to help me identify potential case studies. The term “classic” is a tricky one, due to the difficulty of pinpointing cultural significance within such a young medium as well of the ambiguity of the term itself. However, when used as more of a divining rod (and less of an absolute marker of cultural significance) the classic moniker because quite useful. Videogames are often referred to as classic not just because they are presumed to be cultural touchstones, but also because they have been deemed worthy of revisiting. This is quite similar to how so-called classic songs are frequently covered and remixed, even years after their original release. Simply googling “classic games” is a simple way to begin my search for videogames that are likely to cultivate vibrant hacking practices.

From my initial research (both online and through a variety of literature), two resources have come to the forefront: RomHacking.net and its wiki counterpart Data Crystal.

Online Resources

RomHacking.net is certainly not an unexplored resource and, in many ways, it is the most obvious destination to begin searching for videogame hacks and tools. The website has been featured quite prominently in a few ludology books – particularly in reference to game translation projects – and my previous hacking work has taken me there from time-to time3Full disclosure: I have an account at RomHacking.net. I signed up for it about a decade ago and used it to ask for hacking assistance for a previous project. . Data Crystal is a little less well-known than its bigger sibling, but is still an expansive resource in its own right. If I had to draw simplified distinctions between the two, I would say that the former is a more community-focused portal while the latter is more of a informational, encyclopedic resource.

a screenshot from romhacking.netOne of the biggest surprises from my early forays into RomHacking.net is the sheer volume of content which is presented on the website. Although hacking is often considered an underground activity due to its legal status, the website is not shy about presenting recently completed work. New projects, tools, and updates are prominently displayed on its front page, complemented with a variety of images and hyperlinks. Updates are frequent, occurring three or four times a week, and are sorted into categories (Newest Hacks, Featured Hack Images, etc…) akin to content streams on a social media website. I found myself getting lost in the myriad of projects, tools, and posts on the website – areas that I will explore in more depth in future posts.

a screenshot from the website data crystal

Data Crystal is more of a utilitarian website, which is evident from its barebones design and technical focus. Sorted by a simple hierarchy (game system -> game -> technical information), it is a valuable resource but one whose usefulness varies based entirely on the amount of effort that has gone into documenting a specific game and if the hackers have bothered to keep their wiki pages up-to-date. For example, an extensively hacked game such as EarthBound may feature a variety of tools, completed hacks, and technical documents, whereas a less popular game such as Kirby Super Star may only have a single tool available. Information ranges from very accessible (such as links to game editors with simple interfaces and fleshed-out tutorials) to impenetrable (such as sprawling ROM maps4An oversimplified definition of a ROM map: a document that outlines where information is stored in a video game, based on hexadecimal addresses. that describe the content in videogames, presented in hexadecimal code).

Although the vast amount of content may be intimidating, there are ample tutorials and introductory guides scattered around RomHacking.net geared towards new users. The main Getting Started section written in a particularly welcoming manner:

So, you want to be a ROMhacker? If you're reading this, you're probably overwhelmed at the large number of utilities and documents available on this site. What should you be looking for? What do you need? Where do you start? This section will try and help clarify these things for you. It doesn't matter if you're going to try and do translations, graphical hacks, or level hacks, you really need the same fundamental knowledge for any kind of ROMhacking. We have taken the time to label all the documents and utilities in our database that we feel are helpful for beginners just like you. However, sometimes these beginner documents still don't quite start at the beginning. That's what we're going to do here. We're going to show you around and point you to what you need to know to start helping yourself with all our beginner level documents on your own! After all, ROMhacking is very much a self taught hobby.

Although this paragraph may seem pretty generic, the wording does hint at some potential community sensibilities. It touts the wealth of information on the website but also stipulates that much of that content is not for beginners. The last line is particularly interesting – “ROMhacking is very much a self taught hobby” – alluding to the practice being somewhat of a personal pursuit. This reminds me quite a bit of the ethnographic work of Gabriella Coleman, author of Coding Freedom, who found that broader hacking and open-source software development communities often encourage a strong interdependence among members while still promoting an individualistic meritocratic approach to work: “we’ll point you in the right direction but then you’re on your own.”

This attitude rings true to my current situation. With such a vast amount of hacking resources at my fingertips, I now need to find starting points for my own research.

Footnotes and References   [ + ]

1. Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Technical Protection Measures (TPM): technologies that companies develop to prevent unintended duplication and modification of their hardware and/or software.
2. Bailey, Wm. Ruffin. “Hacks, Mods, Easter Eggs, and Fossils: Intentionality and Digitalism in the Video Game.” Playing the Past: History and Nostalgia in Video Games, edited by Zach Whalen and Laurie N Taylor, Vanderbilt University Press, 2008, pp. 69-90.
3. Full disclosure: I have an account at RomHacking.net. I signed up for it about a decade ago and used it to ask for hacking assistance for a previous project.
4. An oversimplified definition of a ROM map: a document that outlines where information is stored in a video game, based on hexadecimal addresses.

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By Michael