The first time I applied for a job in the game industry, I found myself faced with a bit of a conundrum. 99% of the positions available required some sort of experience in the industry or, at the very least, a portfolio of work that had been produced independently or at a game design school. At the time, most of my professional experience lay in the world of audio editing and graphic design, and I didn’t really have anything game-related to show. That is, asides from my videogame hacking work.
I had some serious reservations about adding a videogame hack to my resume. Although HyperBound, my only fully completed hack project, had gained some traction online (and even appeared in a book by Anna Anthropy), I viewed it as an unpolished experiment. My inexperience as a hacker was quite evident throughout the whole gameplay experience: I had hardly added any new music, graphics, or maps to the base game, and most of the coding I completed was haphazard, at best. That is not to mention the cringy dialogue and the simplistic structure of the narrative – factors which have actually dissuaded me from revisiting HyperBound to this day.
The main source of my hesitance, however, was not the game’s quality. It was rooted in the perceived illegality of videogame hacking. Even though I never distributed HyperBound directly – I always used a patch file instead of sharing a modified version of the original ROM – the foundation of the project was essentially just EarthBound, a game for the Super Nintendo. Although I wasn’t worried that some random independent developer would report my hack to Nintendo, I was concerned that it would be viewed as derivative or morally wrong. Would I get blacklisted from a company because they thought my work was lazy (“he’s just editing a game instead of making one from scratch”) or that I was untrustworthy (“if he’s stealing and hacking material from Nintendo, would he do the same to us?”). At the end of the day, it didn’t really matter. It was the only game I had to put on my resume so I had to include it.
Perceptions of Derivative Works
This is not an unusual problem facing those who work in videogame hacking, music remixing, or other similar forms of cultural production. Although we are more than happy to engage in these activities in our free time, as a hobby, bringing our creative outputs into the wider world to share can often be an intimidating task. Beyond the obvious challenges inherent to sharing copyrighted content – which can require specific tactics to evade attention and persecution – there is also the perception that these types of practices exploit other people’s work. Instead of going out and making a new song or building a game from scratch, it is argued, these makers illicitly capitalize off the popularity of other people’s property. It’s a tough idea to push back against, especially in an age where copyright and intellectual property are so prevalent.
However, it’s becoming ever more common to see hackers leveraging the skills and cultural capital they’ve accumulated through their work into commercial pursuits. I would argue that this transition should not be viewed as necessarily positive – it could be considered part of the growing push for artists and creators to turn every aspect of their creative output into paid labour, and the corporate desire to absorb and monetize every aspect of fandom – but many hackers speak fondly of hacking as a “training ground” that eventually led them to careers in software and game design. For some, it has allowed them to transition slowly from player, to fan, to hacker, to game developer. For others, it simply allowed them to improve upon skills they already possessed while becoming more knowledgeable about a game that they deeply love.
There are some obvious success stories that have emerged from various videogame hacking subcultures. Toby Fox, after hacking EarthBound for years, eventually dedicated his time toward the immensely popular Undertale. Members from the Project M team got together after the mod’s cancellation and released their own fighting game, Icons: Combat Arena. And countless other hackers, I’m sure, have used the practice as a way to improve their coding, programming, and game design skills for personal and professional applications.
I did eventually secure a job with my cobbled together resume of hacking projects. Although my stint in the industry didn’t last long – mostly for logistical reasons (I didn’t burn set any bridges on fire) – it was strangely validating to have my hack recognized by professional game designers. I’m sure that this desire for recognition must be shared by other hackers and remixers too, and it’s interesting to consider what the dangling carrot of “professional acknowledgement” might mean for those who entangle themselves in ostensibly illicit media practices.