In the video gaming world, ‘mod’ or ‘modding’ is short for modification or modifying. Both software (i.e. video games) and hardware (consoles, accessories) can be modified.
Reasons for modifying video games include improving performance (for example enhancing graphics) and customizing gameplay (for example creating custom levels or equipment).
Hardware modifications can be performance-related or aesthetic. Some performance-related hardware mods are controversial as they allow home-made or illegally acquired games to be played on the modified device.
Is Modding Games Illegal?
The short answer is: it depends. We certainly wouldn’t recommend heading out there and making changes to protected intellectual property without doing some due diligence on the risks beforehand. As per the Digital Millennium and Copyright Act (DMCA), it’s illegal to circumvent copyright protection on software in the USA. That said, there are plenty of mods made with the permission of original software creators and modding has long been a hugely important part of video game culture.
CS:GO and Dota 2
Two of the most played and most famous video game titles on the esports circuit currently are Country Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and Dota 2. In 2021, the total accumulated prize money handed out at CS:GO tournaments worldwide topped $21 million – the largest cumulative total for any game. It’s estimated that more than 2.5 million viewers tuned in to The International in 2021 to watch the world’s top esports teams battle it out on Dota 2.
If you’re wondering why we made that seemingly random segway into esports in the paragraph above, well, wonder no more. The reason is that both CS:GO and Dota 2 started out life as mods of another game!
CS:GO is a 2012 release in the Counter Strike series. The original Counter Strike game was created as a mod of the influential first-person shooter Half-Life. Valve – the developers of Half-life – liked it so much that they bought the rights to it and polished it for release as a standalone game.
Dota 2 is the sequel to Death of the Ancients, which itself was originally a community created mod of Blizzard Entertainment’s real-time strategy game Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. It was Valve again who got the ball rolling on this one by hiring the lead designer of Death of the Ancients to create the sequel using Valve’s own Source game engine.
As well as providing a foundation for the creation of brand new titles (and inspiring lots of indie games too), mods can also dramatically increase the lifespan of a game. One game in particular springs to mind in this category: GTA5. Various estimates indicate that well over 100,000 players are active online on GTA5 at any one time. That’s mighty impressive for a game that was originally released way back in September 2013 on PS3 and Xbox 360.
GTA 5 developer and publisher Rockstar has of course done an impressive job maximising the replay value of the game’s online mode (something that Rockstar struggled to repeat with Red Dead Redemption 2), but credit must also go to the sizable GTA5 modding community. The ‘GTA5Modding’ subreddit has over 60,000 members alone and the creativity and quality of many of these mods is truly outstanding. The sharing of these creations on platforms like YouTube and Twitch has no doubt helped to maintain the game’s popularity.
Is Modding a Console Illegal?
The short answer here is: Yes and No – it depends on how you modify your console. If you’re making aesthetic modifications like swapping the shell out for one with a different color, or even pulling apart the console and repurposing it in an entirely different format (for example, fitting Gamecube parts inside a PS3) is basically fine. You will void your warranty for sure, but SWAT teams won’t smash your door down.
Where you are far more likely to run into legal problems is making modifications to the actual console firmware itself. The way the law works in the USA is that when you buy a games console, you own the actual physical console hardware, but you merely own a license to use the firmware contained inside it.
The illegality of modifying the firmware that you license rather than outright own is rooted in the same DMCA rules that we talked about above: Any modifications that result in the user being able to get around a console’s built-in intellectual property protections are illegal.
It goes without saying that modifying a console for resale is prohibited. However, I think we all knew at least one kid who had a ‘chipped’ console that could play copied discs back in the PSX era. The point being that while we obviously don’t support illegally modifying stuff, it’s highly unlikely that law enforcement are going to consider it worth spending their time and taxpayers’ money chasing down every single owner of an illegally modified console. Perhaps just don’t, say, post a how-to video on YouTube…
Retro Console Mods
Some of the most popular hardware mods these days are for retro consoles. The demand for retro gaming hardware in general has skyrocketed in recent years and the prices for some of the more sought-after and rare game carts are truly eye-watering.
Nostalgia sure is powerful and sure does sell. Many of us feel stuck in the rat race enduring a stressful job and seemingly never-ending piles of life admin. What better tonic than transporting yourself back to childhood, where the only concern was which starter Pokemon to pick or how to beat the final boss on Super Metroid?
Nostalgia sells so well that there are plenty of people that put astonishing time and effort to make incredible video game demakes – versions of new releases that are stripped back to fit a lower-spec platform.
Many retro console mods also solve some of the shortcomings of those consoles. Ever try playing a GameBoy Advance on a long car journey? Practically impossible due to that system’s lack of a backlit screen! Now there are a huge number of modders selling original GBA hardware encased in custom shells with custom buttons and, most importantly, backlit LCD screens that make the games of your youth look absolutely gorgeous.
If you’re willing to pay for it, you can even get GBAs with enhanced speakers, high-capacity rechargeable batteries with USB-C charging and all sorts of other convenience and performance mods. Awesome. Of course, there are heaps of mods available for all retro consoles – we just think the GameBoy Advance is one of the best examples.
What does mod mean in gaming? Conclusion
As you can see, modding in gaming can refer to several different things. Games, can be modded and consoles can too. The legality of modding games consoles and software can be tricky, so always seek guidance from official sources if it’s something you’re thinking of doing!