Circumventing the Law!

I was recently accepted into the Digital Games Research Association’s (DiGRA) annual conference in Japan to present on my research, and I received an interesting bit of feedback from one of my peer reviewers:

Despite the potential ethical dilemma of providing tips for circumventing the law, there are other interesting aspects of this kind of work.

Providing tips for circumventing the law! I guess I’m a rogue scholar now.

Of course, these sorts of legal concerns are not a new aspect of my research. My university ethics review forced me to think about how I could work with participants who may be breaking the law, specifically how to protect their identities while still allowing them the agency to contribute to the project. Looking back at earlier versions of my research proposal — in which I toyed with the idea of creating an interactive documentary or even hacking videogames myself — it’s clear that these sorts of considerations helped shape my work. Pursuing a written thesis instead of a multimedia project, allowing full anonymity for my participants, and avoiding personal involvement in videogame hacking were all important decisions driven by legal and moral dilemmas.

However, this is the first time someone has raised the concern that I may be teaching others to break the law. It was never my intent to present my research as instructional but, by necessity, I do outline many of the tools and techniques that videogame hackers use to create their work. For example, I discuss the ways in which the Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes development team created their hack and facilitated distribution through IPS patches. Although I don’t direct readers to copyrighted content specifically, such as the ROM images that many game hackers use as the basis for their work, I do point to pretty much every other piece of hacker ephemera out there. One could, hypothetically, read my thesis and use it as a launching point to get involved with videogame hacking.

That being said, it’s not like this stuff isn’t readily available already. The word “hacker” may evoke ideas of some sort of dark, secret, deep web, but most of these resources are simply a Google search away. As I outlined in some earlier posts, many videogame hacking communities have high-profile websites in which they offer forth tools, tutorials, and other documentation. You can even join their messageboards to ask community members (anonymously, if desired) how to start hacking your favourite game. The small number of case studies that I present in my thesis pale in comparison to these comprehensive resources.

But do I have a responsibility to alter my research when I present it at public events? It’s one thing to have this information in a thesis, secreted away in an academic archive, but another thing entirely to present it at a conference with hundreds of attendees. I’m not sure if I have an answer, but I think it is useful to consider how much of this apprehension is rooted in the public perception of hacking. I doubt I would face the same sort of scrutiny, for example, if I was presenting on music remix — an activity that has similar copyright considerations but has been somewhat normalized due to its prevalence in popular and academic discourses. Many of the old tropes of the outlaw hacker persist, framing the practice as more malicious as those rooted in other types of media.

I’ll be presenting my research at both the CGSA conference in Vancouver this year and at DiGRA, so I guess I’ll see if any further questions about the legalities of my work come up. My goal isn’t to sway academics into videogame hacking, but it would be interesting to see how much interest my talks spark in the practice.


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By Michael