EVOLUTION OF PARTICIPATORY CULTURE INSIDE THE VIRTUAL WORLD OF COUNTER-STRIKEby Bernhard SebastianTarget journal: Game Studies (MLA referencing)Abstract Video games are known to cause children to behave with violent behaviour (Liu 1) , however it is unfair to blindly judge the medium without learning more about how it operates. Video games have different genres; the topic discussed here will be about a first person shooter game titled Counter-Strike. Topics will be discussed about the possibilities and examples of how Counter-Strike can change how the game industry works through participatory culture in the form of user generated content. Researching the progression of the three versions of the most relevant game titles from the earliest version to the latest: Counter-Strike 1.6, Counter-Strike Source and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive using Hendry Jenkins theory of Web 2.0, journal articles and the game itself.Results of the research states that Counter-Strike 1.6 and has a problem with the player freedom and its openness creating a toxic community. Valve has created a more polished game Counter-Strike: Source but it enhances the randomness of the game, so to fix the problem Counter-Strike developers introduced a system of how game modifications are delivered to the newest version of the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. A more democratic approach of delivering new content with rating systems and guidelines and commodifying user generated content to support the community that has contributed to the game.Keywords: Video Games, Cultural production, Modding, User Generated Content, Participatory CultureIntroductionCounter-Strike is an online first person shooter game (FPS). It started as a mod or game modification, from a game called Half Life (Kücklich). It was designed by Minh Le and Less Cliffe in 1999 and has been very popular within the gaming community. Half life developer Valve employed Le and Cliffe to polish and develop the game (Calleja 2). In the sixteen years since its release there have been many versions of the game and it has been one of the most popular games played by a growing community.Figure 1: Screenshot of a game “map” (Counter-Strike 1.6)The play takes place in different types of “maps” (see figure 1) and players are able to pick a team of terrorists or counter-terrorists. Players equip themselves with weapons of their choice, mastering their craft in using specific weapons and using them strategically and efficiently. The goal of the game depends on the different types of game mode. Most commonly players play “bomb defusal mode” in which the terrorist obtains a bomb on ‘spawn’ (where players enter the game). There are two bombing sites on the opposite side of their spawn point, the counter terrorists’ mission is to defend the bomb sites while the terrorists have to fight their way through the guarded bombing area. If terrorists have successfully planted the bomb, a counter terrorist has to defuse the bomb within a set time before it explodes (Calleja 9)(Counter Strike 1.6).There has been various versions of the game and the topic discussed will be about how this simplistic game has created many user generated content. These products of free labour has enriched the game but it has their own sets of drawbacks. First we will be discussing about the early versions of the game Counter-Strike 1.6 and its contributions, then Counter-Strike: Source and their contribution and finally Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. We will be using Hendry Jenkins theories as an analysis tool. The argument will be about how player freedom and developer control can be balanced in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and future games.How the game is built around participatory cultureAccording to Henry Jenkins’ definition, participatory culture has a low barrier of engagement, strong support for sharing creations with people, informal mentorship, a belief that contribution matters and a sense of engagement with feedback. Not all members will or should contribute, but they believe that they are free to do anything and their contributions are valued (Jenkins). “Playbour” a term coined by Kücklich is simultaneously voluntarily given and enjoyed. It’s a form of productive leisure akin to knitting, painting, gardening, and fishing, a form of cultural production as a non-commercial product. Half-life is a game released by Valve and the social interactions of Half-life fans has created Counter-Strike 1.6. In a sense Counter-Strike 1.6 started from a mod from Half-life due to its open source creating a cultural production (Jenkins 2). The CEO of Valve Gabe Newell (Half-life’s developer) stated their intentions on why he made Half-life open source by providing the free software: ‘We are going to be offering mod teams a $995 engine license plus royalty to allow them to distribute their mods over Steam a gaming platform….Once a mod team has developed an audience they could think about either being aggregated into some other offering or going all the way to publishing their game over Steam'(quoted in Au, 2002)(Kücklich).After Counter-Strike 1.6 was released by Valve as an official game (Woody 21), the cycle of creativity continues, game communities started to produce new adaptations in the game. Different types of maps, skins (weapon models), scripts, effects & particles, sounds, sprays and tools are uploaded into a websites and one of the most famous, called Gamebanana is where the community can download these virtual objects for free. The community has made an entirely different way of playing the game than was originally intended by altering the game mods.Figure 2: Screenshot of a modified version of Counter-strike 1.6 Figure 3: Screenshot of standard Counter-Strike 1.6 gameplayA comparison can be made by observing figure 2; this is a zombie modification and the roles of the game has changed. Instead of the normal standard gameplay figure 3, figure 2 shows the color palette changed into a more colorful atmosphere, the User Interface (UI) is more busy and loud since there are more people allowed inside the server and people get killed faster in the game compared to the long paced gameplay of the standard game, instead of using a gun the player is equipped with a zombie hand that can instantly kill the enemy (neither counter terrorist or terrorist) and turn them into zombies. It gave the players an opportunity to play the game without the tense and the pressure of winning for the team, instead the player feels like having more of a lighter paced gameplay with less tension since the game mode is not intended to be serious.Modding and their contributionJenkins made a number of points about online fan communities, describing them as:”expansive self-organizing groups focused around the collective production, debate, and circulation of meanings, interpretations, and fantasies in response to various artifacts of contemporary popular culture. Fan communities have long defined their membership through affinities rather than localities. Fandoms were virtual communities, “imagined” and “imagining” communities, long before the introduction of networked computers.” (Jenkins 2006 137) The Counter-Strike community has the desire to create more content within the game, by gathering information; accumulating, retaining, and continually recirculating relevant information (Jenkins 39). This shows an organic growth of cultural production where the modding community creates and adds meaning to the game and shows that the game is owned by the fans and not the company (even though the freedom given it has its drawbacks that will be discussed later). Mods are not intended and designed by the company for a mass produced game, but a voluntary action developed by the community for free. And since the community has a different point of view from the company and how they receive and perceive information from a community standpoint, they know better what the community wants. They can make unimaginable things that the company have never thought about because they do not have any restrictions or rules.One of the most popular mods in the game is called Deathmatch. This mod is introduced in the early version of the game (Counter-Strike 1.6). This mod alters the gameplay by giving a different set of objectives. Instead of the normal ‘defuse the bomb’ objective, the gameplay is described as a game in which a player is spawned in a map with the objective of killing other players regardless of the team. The player will spawn and has unlimited resources to buy any weapon of their liking and if any player dies, they will respawn in a random location.Since it became one of the most popular mods played on the community server, the company Valve has decided to incorporate the mod inside the newest version of the game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Here we can observe a mutual symbiotic relationship between consumer and producer. It benefits the company since mods are a low risk innovation and supply the game with an alternate direction (Moody 21) and it keeps the other fans interested in engaging with the game because there is something new in the game made by the community to keep players interested with fresh new content. As well as for modders to become some apprenticeship into the industry as the amateur modders develop a portfolio for future careers (Moody 21).Problems of player freedom Figure 4: Ingame Sprays Figure 5: Ingame fictional character replacement Counter-Strike: Source provides creativity and freedom within the game aside from complicated ways of creating mods. One of the easiest ways are custom sprays. Sprays are an in-game feature where players can insert any type of imagery, upload it to the game settings and it acts as the equivalent of graffiti spray paint (Wright 7). There have been many creative types of custom made sprays in-game (see figure 4) and according to a well known personality in the Counter-Strike scene nicknamed “TheWarOwl” the most favorable game version that allows most out of player creativity is Counter-Strike: Source (version of the game currently discussed) because of the improvement of the game engine called Source. There are also player models (see figure 5) and custom weapon skins (see figure 6). By combining all these tools to create custom skins, sounds, sprays, the player can create an entirely different game with the game engine that has been given, such as the zombie mod previously mentioned (see figure 2). Source engine has created a platform to test mods and redevelop them and turn them into other well recognized game titles such as Chivalry Medieval Warfare and can be treated as a creative tool like Photoshop.Figure 6: Display of creativity, changing a gun model into a violinHowever, once modified, the game looks very disorganized because it has given the players more control within the game. From the figures above, the game looks random and has lost its theme. However Wright quoted an interesting point by Brian Smith :”Brian Sutton-Smith describes when he speaks of play and games as “anti-structural” occasions for “experimentation with variable repertoires” and “making free with a given social heritage.” Sutton-Smith notes that “we may be disorderly in games either because we have an overdose of order, and want to let off steam, or because we have something to learn through being disorderly (1972).” The acceptance of both disorder and creative player actions within a bounded universe like Counter- Strike offers the game player a context in which to exercise safe ritual license with behaviors that would not be tolerated in the “real” world of everyday life (for example, “trash” talking).” (Wright 11)This explains how some players are able to behave in a certain way without thinking, such as posting pornographic imagery by abusing the spray feature, acting weird, screaming on the mike, having fun with stupidly designed mods. Some players find it hard to play the game as it’s intended design. However, if a player gets too out of hand, gamers in a server have the option to kick (remove a player from the game) a player deemed too inappropriate and a nuisance to others, giving it a more democratic approach by the collective players. It is true that video games are a means for escapism, perhaps due to the lack of excitement and emotional arousal in people’s lives, and this may be why gamers channel their frustrations, entering the virtual world to feel in control by doing anything they desire without any real life consequences (Calleja 345). Harnessing player creativityGaming can be seen as an artform constructed in a different way compared to traditional art (eg, mod creation and skins), inside a medium/platform which is a hybrid of online game and web 2.0 (Jenkins 48). Counter-Strike’s creativity has been altered and directed to follow the company’s vision, and that movement can be seen with the rise of web 2.0, as Jenkins states:”Web 2.0 companies rely on the Internet as the platform for promoting, distributing, and refining their products: treating software as a service designed to run across multiple devices, relying the “killer app,” and harnessing the “collective intelligence” of a network of users (O’Reilly 2005). Since Web 2.0’s introduction, it has become the cultural logic for e-business – a set of corporate practices that seek to capture and exploit participatory culture.”(Jenkins 48)Previous Counter Strike titles, which are Counter-Strike 1.6 and Counter-Strike: Source, have similar features to web 2.0 and could be said to be an early version of it, the difference is it is on a more niche platform for computer gamers, rather than an internet web browser. The way to access the game is through a digital distribution platform called Steam, from which players can purchase and download many different types of games. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was released in 2012. It is a clean and refined version of previous Counter-Strike titles, updated with better graphics and smoother gameplay. Valve has implemented features in Global Offensive’s game updates from previous Counter-Strike mods such as the deathmatch mode or gun game mode. Valve also implemented “skins” in another update called the “Arms Deal Update”, which also introduced weapon decorations called “weapon skins”(anon 4). These weapons can be obtained by playing CS:GO and get randomly timed weapon “drops”, trading with other Steam users, opening “Crates” by purchasing with real life money to obtain a virtual “Key”. The tools used for creating and distributing these skins is the Steam workshop.We can treat Counter-Strike Global Offensive as a mature Web 2.0 and it was intended to be one. The previously stated quote from Gabe Newell proves this, and it is also backed up by Jenkin’s statement, it is just not officially termed as Web 2.0:”Web 2.0 represents a reorganization of the relations between producers and their audiences in a maturing Internet market, as well as a set of approaches adopted by companies seeking to harness mass creativity, collectivism, and peer production” (Jenkins 49)The Counter-Strike developers acknowledge in their official blog that the community has a history of creating custom content, so they introduced Steam Workshop which developers intend it to be a hub of player-created content and tools to publish, organize and download content into their games. This is a unique move compared to other well established games, showing they listen to and engage with the community of the game. Some games in Steam allow players to create and submit items for consideration to be incorporated into the actual game. We can see that Valve has implemented the Web 2.0 design in the game.What makes the Steam workshops feature unique is it is ready for immediate use so once it is uploaded, players can access the content immediately. It has a curated item selection which makes the items readily available for players to rate and to have the chance to be accepted and incorporated to the game. And the items from the workshop accepted will split the revenue of 25% with the creator, whereas previously, custom content was given out for free. (anon 8)The Steam workshop is designed to be an easier way to access custom content compared to methods used in previous Counter-Strike titles. Instead of manually downloading custom content and learning how to install them by manually accessing files and scripts, players are able to just scroll down a menu and it will show the lists of what content they want and download it without the danger of receiving viruses or the hassle of manually finding the mod itself. The introduction of this feature gives casual players more exposure to the creative side of the community.Controlled User Generated content The Counter Strike team stated that they were releasing an ongoing series of limited-time updates called “Operations”. The official Counter-Strike blog states that for a limited time, players are able to purchase these operations and they will receive unlimited access to the maps they released in these operations, and the money paid will be rewarded to the mapmakers.The previously mentioned “weapon skins” also have their roles in the operations. Counter Strike Developers created a tool for players to edit their weapons called CS:GO Workshop Workbench. The developers acknowledge that the community has a history of creating weapon skins and the developer has provided the tools to create their own skins in the form of finishes. Instead of creating a weapon that looked like a violin (see figure 6), it has a more controlled look with a spray-painted, camouflage look to create a consistent look to the game (See figure 7). When a new operation is released, new skins are released with the map at the same time.Figure 7 (Accepted Skin)The Steam Workshop system released by the company shows user-generated content is considered a positive feature. However there are drawbacks with the system. The Counter Strike team stated that they wanted more creative control over the game, and provided guidelines to be accepted. Examples of these can be seen below stated by the developers in their website:”Disclaimer: Naturally, we will not accept items that contain offensive imagery or any copyrighted or trademarked material.””Our system for applying finishes gives us some control over the basic aesthetics, giving our Workshop Contributors a lot of latitude for creating different designs without diverging too much from the original look of the game.”To enforce the drawbacks, Jenkins states: “The flaws of Web 2.0, at their core, can be reduced to a simple formulation: the concept transforms the social “goods” generated through interpersonal exchanges into “user-generated content” which can be monetized and commodified. (Jenkins 83)This commodification of content coincides with the fans’ perspective the act of creating skins has changed, from making skins as free labor and sharing them with the community to treating it as a job. Instead of being creative, users compete with other users by following Counter Strike’s guidelines on creating appropriate weapon models, using soft power and by showcasing professional-made content and overshadowing the fun creative contents that has the principals of recreational, collective and sometimes anti-capitalist pursuit (Moody 1). From the previous version of Counter-Strike, the community has been given freedom. However the freedom given has caused many problems to the game, such as abusing the spray feature to post pornographic imagery, as previously mentioned which created a “Toxic community” which ruins the game experience (Boria 7). Another problem is users making skins that are incoherent to the game’s values (see figure 5,6 ) and makes the game look more random and inconsistent. It creates a community of players which the company seems to not want to associate with, and they are deemed as not professional, since it tarnishes the game as a brand by association with immature player behaviour. It is understandable why the company takes more creative control in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, but it comes with a price of limiting player creativity and originality.This update has created better user experience for players who wants to play the game as the game is intended and for players that wants to get to E-sports. With the competition of other huge game titles, it is hard to stay relevant and to keep the players wanting to play the game. Developers have to find ways on how to keep a game relevant due to competition, hence the ingame updates and virtual items to keep players playing the game. And there has to be sacrifices and drawbacks to the game because cultural production systems are characterized by the tension of innovation and control (Moody 6). ConclusionThe community has given their time and effort to contribute to the progression of the game, and they deserve the credit for making the game Half-life evolve into a fully professional E-sports game by being rewarded with shared revenue. If 25% profit maybe too small and Steam have complete monopoly over the content and it is questionable for valve to capitalize user generated content however, Steam is free. Players have the freedom of choice to make their user generated content. Mods are intended for free labour, players have the choice of making it as a job or for leisure. Either way it is freedom of choice, to make user generated content. In order to provide a usable system, Valve needs revenue to keep the system running by an indirect way of obtaining funds.Valve deserve the credit for creating the Steam Workshop system they built (for free) to encourage developers to improve the game with creativity and for hosting the system. Valve has given their best effort to give and improve to the community even if it has its drawbacks. The first generation of user generated content creations in Counter-Strike 1.6 and Counter-Strike: Source were more loose and random. A testing ground for for fun and unimaginable creative ideas that has never been done before. It gave the developers better direction for the game development and more opportunities for creativity around Counter-Strike in a systematic way. Even if it was more directed, polished and controlled with less innovation, players have the freedom to choose to play the older version of Counter-strike titles ,where there are still people playing the early versions of the game. Hopefully there will be a better system that can be implemented, but currently this is the best system they have to support both developers and modders. In the future, it might be possible for a utopian society to use this system of blurring the distinction of producers and consumers transforming into a more entrepreneurial organization and less hierarchical (Moody 6). Giving up the idea of financial gain into pleasurable productivity (Moody 7).