The Right to Hack?

I asked on Twitter if gamers had a “right to hack.” The response was somewhat more even than I had expected.

ImageTo be clear, when I say “right to hack,” I’m talking about a player’s ability to get into the nuts and bolts of the game, wether setting or systems, and make changes they felt like making. For the purposes of the conversation, I didn’t care whether we were talking about tabletop games or video games. Call it kitbashing, homebrew, house rules, or actual code manipulation, if you will.

Most of the conversation asserted that it was, in fact, the player’s right to bend systems and setting to taste. In fact, some approached the topic from a “just try to stop me” perspective, indicating that for some, it’s more than a right and nigh upon a duty. Especially from the tabletop RPG angle, I can see this. Groups of tabletop players literally need to make their own mark on their games, because the improvised stories that emerge from them — and indeed, outside the written body of work for these games — are the game’s content itself. A publisher can construct a scenario, but once that scenario is in play, it’s inherently being manipulated toward the player group’s end.

It becomes a bit different in video games. The “right to hack” takes on an almost Oliver Wendell Holmes approach, in which a player’s manipulation of the game systems is allowed to travel as far as where another player’s game experience begins. For instance, if I’m playing a game by myself, I can hack it all I want — I’m changing the experience only for myself and I’m not affecting anyone else. But when I do it in a situation in which other people are involved, I’m not only affecting my game but theirs. If we agree to share that modified environment, that’s fine, but if I’m playing a version of the game that offers me different and not-agreed-upon differences, I’m playing against the spirit of the entertainment.

Most remarkable about all of this talk was the sense of community that the conversation indicated. When hacking tabletop games, the expectation was that the changes made were accepted by and intended to satisfy the players collectively. I’m not hacking my fighter to have an unfair advantage to outperform yours by breaking the rules. My vampire can’t use Mage magic while yours has to use by-the-book Disciplines. Changes that are made affect the players as a whole and, indeed, the gamemaster who’s coordinating the whole affair.

In terms of video games, the “right to hack” may begin with a single player, but eventually grows to encompass and benefit the whole community of players. Now, that’s not really surprising, given that few people want to identify themselves as cheaters, but the very idea of what we being hacked here game a sense that it was being performed in the interests of fair play. Not so much, “I’m going to do this,” but, “Lets’s do this.” For example, the old WoW add-on that showed the spawn locations and best routes for completing quests was initially created by a player seeking to most efficiently level his character, and that player then shared the mod with other players to offer them the same benefit. In fact, Blizzard eventually saw how many people had been using the mod, saw that it had benefit to their players, and rolled it into the “official” game system.

I love this sort of thing. As a game designer, design is really only the beginning of the process. A game is nothing but a box of pieces, a book, or some code until it’s played. The game comes to life when the player brings the spark of activity to the inanimate parts in question. If that design needs to change to accommodate a player or community’s breath of life, that’s not only fine but desirable. The game itself is just a thing. It’s what we do with it together that matters, and if what we do with it changes the nature of the game in order to facilitate that player-to-player interaction, more’s the better. After all, what right should I have to stop it?

In fact, I think there’s a certain responsibility, or at least an enlightened self-interest, for publishers to watch how their games are being hacked and to criticially determine whether those hacks do, in fact, improve the game experience so that they can be integrated into future editions, expansions, patches, or what have you. There’s no playtest so thorough and useful as actual in-play games, and with the ready communication and online, updatable nature of modern games, a designer who wants longevity for his titles would do well to turn today’s best hacks into tomorrow’s core rules.