Computer Game 'mods' Raise Concerns
Jack Davis enjoys playing computer games, writing software and drawing pictures of AK-47 machine guns. But the 16-year-old's penchant for combining the three hobbies puts him in the crossfire of an emerging battle between the electronic-game industry and children's advocates.
Jack is part of a cottage industry of gamers who write "mods," or software modifications, which add features to computer games and are posted on the Web. In Jack's case that means designing 3-D pictures of guns and hostages to embellish a popular and extremely violent shooter game called Unreal Tournament. And therein lies the controversy.
Mods are a growing phenomenon that game producers encourage because good mods help build a fan base for a game. They also save development costs -- sometimes as much as $200,000 -- because companies can simply buy the rights to the best mods instead of financing an extensive development and testing operation. Game companies encourage mod creation by occasionally hiring star mod writers.
Trouble is that many mods are for games rated "mature" by the industry. Similar to a movie rating, that means the industry considers the software inappropriate for people under 17 because they contain intensely violent or sexual scenes. But a number of mod writers are younger than 17.
It isn't illegal for kids like Jack, a high-school junior from Castle Rock, Colo., to create mods, just as it isn't illegal for kids to have "mature" games in the first place, even though big retailers like Kmart and Wal-Mart won't sell them to minors. Some mods even diminish the gore and violence in shooter games. But the fact that kids often make mods that add whiz-bang weapons to games raises a red flag among child-welfare advocates, who say the industry isn't doing enough to keep kids out of the mature-game business.
David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a nonpartisan organization that looks at the impact of entertainment on children, contends that underage mod makers are the moral equivalent of teenage pornographers. He thinks the game industry should apply the same rating system used on games to the mods themselves and restrict children's access to Web sites where mods are posted.
The issue is starting to catch the attention of Congress. "This is a whole new problem," says Dan Gerstein, communications director for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut. Lieberman is the author of a bill that would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to penalize companies that intentionally market adult-rated entertainment directly to children. But the legislation is finely tailored to address deceptive marketing rather than prohibit kids from making mods for mature-rated games, Gerstein says.
Game companies say they are essentially powerless to regulate mods because they're usually written by people in their homes and posted on Web sites. (The companies' games, on the other hand, usually can't be downloaded from the Web but instead must be purchased from retailers.) Mark Rein, vice president of Epic Games Inc., the Raleigh, N.C., developer of Unreal Tournament, says people are getting upset about mods when the problem is that parents let their kids have the games. "If you don't have the game, the mod is worthless to you," he says.
Game companies voluntarily agree to abide by the policies set by the nonprofit Entertainment Software Rating Board, which gives game ratings and has the power to impose fines and sanctions if a company misrepresents the content, nature or rating of a game in its advertising. The companies are worried that, because kids are writing mods for their violent games, people might think they are tacitly supporting the practice and aren't following ratings guidelines.
Sierra On-Line Inc., the Bellevue, Wash., game unit of French media conglomerate Vivendi Universal SA, says it doesn't encourage under-17 mod writers for its mature-rated shooter game called Half-Life, and it doesn't plan to publish mods written by minors. If a company buys the rights to a mod, it will generally pay members of the mod-writing team thousands of dollars each, but a number of game firms say they have never paid a teenager for a mod.
Jack says he has never earned money from mod-writing, and he doesn't understand the fuss. "I think it's ridiculous in the first place that they have the rating systems at all," says Jack, who got involved in mod-writing a couple of years ago, when, with help from older teenagers he met on the Internet, he learned how to use a 3-D drawing and animation software program. His first mod, created when he was 14, allowed players to shoot paint-balls in Half-Life. "I just think it's fun," says Jack, who hopes to become a computer engineer.
Some older mod writers have mixed feelings about the teenagers' involvement. "If the idea is that they're not supposed to be exposed to it, then they shouldn't be," says Fred Peeler, a 34-year-old from Berkley, Mass. Last year, Epic and France's Infogrames Entertainment SA issued a special boxed edition that included a mod created by Mr. Peeler and two partners in their mid-20s, paying each between $5,000 and $10,000.
Jack's father, Tim, says that while he is concerned about the violence in the computer games his son plays, he makes sure that Jack is involved in other social activities, such as playing high-school football. Davis adds: "I always have conversations with him on how violence can affect people around the world -- things you do for fun and what happens in reality."
Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.