Videogame Hacks and Notability

Reflections on Parameters

In my last blog post, I discussed some parameters I planned on using to guide my searches through online game hacking archives. Since then, I’ve scoured the internet and organized a list of game hacks that I could potentially use as case studies in my research. Although I am sure I will be delving back into these resources throughout my research, I thought this would be a good moment to reflect on my criteria and to document other parameters that led me to specific videogame hacking projects. As a quick review, my original parameters were:

  • Projects that are self-described as hacks rather than mods.
  • Projects that used the “classic” moniker to describe the games they hacked.

These two parameters served as an excellent starting point but, unfortunately, did not narrow down my corpus nearly enough. It quickly became apparent that hacking communities that focused on “classic” games were some of the most productive, creating dozens (if not 100s) of unique hacks each. Sifting through these hacks proved to be difficult, due to both the size of the archive and the incompleteness of the documentation. Although the game resources still existed, it wasn’t always evident whether the game was complete or simply a beta or demo. Furthermore, tracking down any sign of the original author proved to be quite challenging. Any tangible contact information – save for perhaps a passing reference on a messageboard – was often absent.

As a result of these tribulations, and also recognizing the limits of a one year research project, I decided to shrink my potential corpus by adding three more parameters:

  • Hacks must have one (or more) organizers with freely available contact information, whether that is a real name or an internet handle.
  • The community surrounding the videogame hack is still active.
  • The videogame hack or hacker is notable in some way.

The first two points may seem obvious in retrospect, but I was genuinely surprised at the sheer number of videogame hacks and how ephemeral their creators were. By including these two parameters, my project becomes less focused on historical work (unearthing the lost hacks of the past)1Documenting lost videogame hacks sounds like an interesting and rewarding project, but is beyond the scope of my thesis and more attuned to the current videogame hacking scene. It also lessens the amount of labour required for the project, allowing me to focus more deeply on interviews and analysis. The third point, notability, is an admittedly frustratingly ambiguous term. What makes a videogame hack notable? I am not particularly interested in coming up with a precise definition, but I can describe why I consider some of my selected projects notable.

A Highly Visible Online Community

Somewhat of an extension of my second point, except the videogame hacking community is not only active but also cultivates a visible and approachable online presence. This may take the form of social media accounts, online contest and tournaments, or a well organized website that shows off the work of hackers. An example of this would the The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Randomizer hacking community, which runs huge tournaments twice a year, maintains a strong presence on Twitch and Discord, and regularly appears at conventions such as Awesome Games Done Quick.

Media Coverage

Journalistic coverage is often cited in academia as a reason for notability, and this is especially true for videogame hacking projects. It is very rare to see videogame hacks in the news cycle, barring a gigantic lawsuit from Nintendo or the occasional appeal for lessened copyright laws, so it is intriguing to explore the reasons it has emerged. An example of a videogame hack that became notable through media coverage would be the Play as Pauline Donkey Kong hack, which was featured in Wired magazine and then repeated across other blogs.

A Unique Intersection With Copyright

Since copyright is so intrinsic to the nature of videogame hacking, it makes sense to search for case studies that explore the topic in unique ways. Finding these exceptional examples is challenging, but can also lead to a better understanding of the barriers inherent to the practice of hacking. Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes and Super Mario Online are rare examples of developer intervention (i.e. what happens when the game publisher pursues legal action against the hacker). The Sonic the Hedgehog hacking community is a unique case study because it embodies the exact opposite: acceptance from the developer and distribution on major platforms.

Although many of these prospective case studies may change as my project progresses, I feel that I have a much more manageable corpus to work with. Using these diverse examples as a starting point, I hope to start engaging in interviews and textual analysis as early as next week.

As a closing note: I have created a links section for this website as a way to aggregate news articles about videogame hacking. This is meant to be both a personal resource, as well as a reference for scholars interested in exploring the topic.

Footnotes and References   [ + ]

1. Documenting lost videogame hacks sounds like an interesting and rewarding project, but is beyond the scope of my thesis

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By Michael