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Game Boy, Modding, Screens, Fan Practices, Interpretive Communities, Expert Discourse, LCD, liquid crystal display

Liquid Crystal Discourse

Advancing a History of Handheld Screen Mods

Alex Custodio (Concordia University)


This article uses the recent release of an alternative backlighting solution for the Game Boy Advance to consider the social and aesthetic protocols that underpin the ongoing maintenance and repair of retro handhelds. Released in 2001, the Game Boy Advance remains a favorite among retrogaming enthusiasts for its appealing form factor, beloved software library, and backward compatibility with earlier devices in the Game Boy line; however, its lack of a backlit screen has been a major detraction since launch. For over two decades, hobbyists have been altering the handheld’s hardware to improve the display and guarantee its continued relevance at a time where backlights have become staples of screened technology. While the maintenance and repair of residual media gestures toward questions of sustainability and ostensibly resists the corporate logics of planned obsolescence, this paper argues that hobbyists ultimately participate in a smaller-scale version of the commodified gaming industry. Through the development and circulation of maintenance and repair protocols, hobbyists accrue status as knowledgeable experts within online modding communities, gaining both cultural and economic capital. Drawing from primary research conducted at a North American modding company, this article argues that techniques of maintenance and repair highlight the power dynamics that inform the active and often unintended use of technologies within hobbyist communities.

In May 2019, Chinese videogame component manufacturer FunnyPlaying released a new backlighting kit for Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance (AGB).1 Referred to by retrogaming enthusiasts as the IPS LCD (in-plane switching liquid-crystal display), this display challenged long-standing protocols for AGB screen modification (or modding), bifurcating the community in the process.2 For over a decade, hobbyists had been backlighting Nintendo’s 2001 handheld with a finite and increasingly expensive stock of screens that dated from around 2003 to 2006. Now, a new challenger approached, promising a sharper picture at a reasonable price point and launching a conversation about taste, hardware maintenance, and community belonging.

At the time of the FunnyPlaying kit’s release, many of the screen’s vocal advocates were affiliated with or customers of Retro Modding, an online manufacturer and distributor of repair tools, gaming accessories, and bespoke handhelds.3 When the IPS LCD arrived on the market, the company was also the exclusive North American reseller of FunnyPlaying’s products, and they consequently had a vested interest in the screen’s adoption as an effective and affordable alternative to well-established protocols. Conversely, those who argued against the new backlighting solution on platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Reddit rallied around and echoed the critiques around display quality and image tearing leveled at BennVenn, an influential community expert and the LCD’s most outspoken detractor.4

Although the debates about the new mod were ostensibly technical in nature—grounded in a discourse around display resolution, pixel density, and image tearing—they ultimately pointed to broader power relations within the hobbyist circle of Game Boy screen modding. When the IPS LCD launched, BennVenn leveled scathing critiques that drew from and elaborated upon the disclaimers Retro Modding published on their product pages, but it is significant that BennVenn had spent the years leading up to 2019 engineering his own alternative AGB backlighting solution—only to be beaten to market. In the weeks that followed the IPS LCD’s launch, BennVenn released a number of Facebook posts that discredited the Chinese market, condemning overseas manufacturers for previously cloning some of his earlier products. While some of his circuit boards had indeed been reverse engineered and resold by other companies, FunnyPlaying’s IPS LCD kit was not a knockoff. Yet the associations BennVenn wove together through this rhetorical positioning left many of his followers suspicious of FunnyPlaying and of Retro Modding by association. The technical debates thus became a façade for a clash of allegiances to prominent hobbyists, who made assertions about material objects in order to perform and retain expert status. Retro Modding was backing a product that threatened BennVenn’s ongoing engineering projects; in return, BennVenn attempted to discredit the LCD and its distributor to preserve his long-held status as the expert engineer behind many of the community’s extant modding protocols.

This conflict between expert stakeholders reveals the ways that standardized modding protocols become methods of self-legitimization within interpretive communities. Drawing on Brian Stock’s concept of a “textual community,” Carolyn Marvin gives us the term interpretive community to describe groups that “rally around authoritative texts and their designated interpreters.”5 When we look at the circulation of expert knowledge within these fan spaces, we see that the discourse around and practices of maintenance and repair become just as (if not more) important than the technologies themselves. By adhering to historically specific modding protocols or by adopting new material techniques, members of the interpretive community construct and perform their identities as legitimate, knowledgeable participants within the group.

This article therefore argues that attending to the histories of maintenance and repair protocols is important if we want to understand how videogame technologies have been sites for hobbyists, experts, and corporate actors to navigate power relations. Far from being processes that developers like Nintendo can anticipate or plan for, maintenance and repair emerge as everyday engagements in hardware users’ hands, a form of “participatory culture” in which users are not passive consumers but rather active producers alongside manufacturers.6 Daniela Rosner and Morgan Ames have theorized maintenance and repair as “material states that are defined collaboratively in use” and that are shaped by material, political, economic, and social factors.7 Maintenance and repair take place against the backdrop of planned obsolescence—the way that manufacturers create products for replacement rather than repair. Through proprietary hardware, plastic cases locked behind security screws, and a punitive legal environment intended to discourage users from attempting to alter the hardware they purchase, planned obsolescence operates “on a micropolitical level of design” and often constitutes an overreach of federal laws.8 When modders engage in practices of maintenance and repair, they do so in a way that extends the lifecycle of these hardware objects. Far from being an altruistic practice, however, modding operates as its own commercial practice, one that is both culturally and economically profitable. In participating in modding practices, hobbyists develop and, more importantly, openly display their own sense of taste as fans of particular hardware objects. By adopting and performing protocols of maintenance and repair, modders engage in acts of self-legitimization through which they identify themselves as people who belong to a particular community of Game Boy fans; in so doing, they accrue recognition within its economy.

By extending the life of hardware objects, modding complicates easy understandings of videogame platforms inherited from corporate marketing materials and product specifications. It does so by directing our attention not only to moments of breakdown but also to users’ actual responses to said breakdowns. Addressing the narrow focus of early videogame history, Raiford Guins has advocated for the study of what he calls videogame afterlife, the moment when technologies move beyond corporate distribution channels to instead find themselves in aftermarket conditions: circulated in pawn shops, preserved in cultural institutions, languishing in landfills, and so on.9 Writing on the display of coin-op arcade games in museum contexts, Guins proposes that, rather than hide old hardware under Out of Order signs, the curation of videogame history could benefit from demonstrations of the repair processes and the specialized skill sets required to restore them, a sentiment echoed more recently by other scholars in museum and fan studies.10 Underexamined practices of maintenance and repair are crucial afterlives that continue to be sustained by fans who have united around a common understanding of what is worth repairing and, more saliently, how these objects should be repaired. This paper addresses the ways the materiality of these screens has remained a site of negotiation for power relations among users, modders, and corporate actors. In other words, I am interested in the continued construction and circulation of expert discourse and the way that it makes material hardware—especially screens—visible once again.

Through a brief history of Game Boy screen modding protocols, this paper looks at key material and discursive formations around maintenance and repair with an eye to how these practices can better help game studies understand the actual and ongoing use of videogame hardware. Since the original Game Boy (DMG)’s release in 1989, unlit screens have occasioned a range of hobbyist responses that continue to inform social and aesthetic protocols in contemporary modding circles.11 As a salient case study, the IPS LCD debate emphasizes the importance of a scholarly approach to videogame hardware that takes seriously aftermarket practices. This work not only address a dearth of research into fans’ cultural productivity with respect to hardware mods but also reveals how ongoing engagements with residual videogame technologies allow fans to continue accruing social and economic capital decades after the hardware’s release.12

A Shot in the Dark: Lighting Protocols and the Formation of Taste

It is difficult to produce a linear account of screen-modding practices for technologies in the Game Boy line. Just like the AGB itself, which contains the computational guts of the Game Boy Color (CGB) within its chassis, AGB modding practices are indebted to earlier interventions into Nintendo’s handhelds. Since the 1990s, hobbyists have sought to illuminate the olive-tinted dot-matrix display of the DMG and then the unlit color LCD of the CGB.13 However, whereas the advent of the AGB signalled its predecessor’s commercial end (the CGB was discontinued shortly after the AGB’s release), screen-modding protocols have only grown in popularity in the intervening years. Emergent AGB hobbyist practices have given rise to new DMG and CGB modding practices, which in turn have catalyzed additional AGB modding practices in a cycle of recursive hobbyist development. To further complicate attempts at a contained chronology, it is also worth noting that the exchange of modding protocols has occurred not only within hobbyist communities but also between hobbyists and corporate manufacturers. What follows is a loose history of some of the major milestones in Game Boy screen modding.

From its initial release, the DMG touted the promise of portable play—a promise curtailed by the lack of a front- or backlit screen. Although its four-shade LCD boasted a dial that allowed players to minimally adjust the contrast in response to ambient light, the DMG always required some form of external illumination in order to be playable.

Consequently and with varying degrees of success, third-party developers and hobbyists began working on unofficial lighting peripherals designed to make good on the potential for portability. For instance, STD Entertainment’s Handy Boy touted itself as an all-in-one accessory that overlaid the handheld with a light and a magnifying glass to address the lackluster screen. Although it ostensibly succeeded in granting players the opportunity to play the DMG anywhere and in any lighting condition, its physically massive size called the device’s portability into question. A bevy of similar accessories emerged, each intended to light the screen from various angles. However, it was not until after the CGB’s debut that Nyko released the Worm Light—the flagship peripheral for handhelds in the Game Boy line. Inspired by clip-on book lights, the Worm Light was a flexible coil of wire that plugged into the Extension Port to draw power and illuminate the screen from above, exchanging battery life for visual accessibility. The device sold millions of units, put Nyko on the map for its gaming peripherals, and became a template for unofficial lighting solutions.14

These peripherals responded to a perceived breakdown in users’ experience with the handheld. Consequently, we can understand these interventions as belonging to practices of maintenance and repair. As many scholars have noted, screens tend to be invisible mediators of digital content.15 It is only when screens break or fail to operate in line with our embodied expectations that we tend to notice them.16 The lack of a backlight counts as one such break. Even in the 1990s, backlighting had already become an expectation; both the Atari Lynx (1989) and the Sega Game Gear (1990) featured internally illuminated screens and although their battery life suffered proportionally, players were more than willing to make the trade-off.17 Rather than seeing these interventions as rogue appropriations of videogame hardware, I follow Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski in viewing maintenance and repair as crucial components of technologies and “as opportunities for retooling social relations.”18 In other words, these unsanctioned peripherals and the discursive contexts that shaped and emerged from them are as much part of Game Boy history as the handhelds themselves.

The importance of hobbyist interventions into videogame history becomes increasingly clear when we consider that—by their own admission—mods had a material impact on Nintendo’s development process after the release of the AGB. The AGB itself, with its superior processing power and ergonomic form factor, had promised “console-quality gaming anywhere.”19 Consumers had then been disappointed to discover that the screen remained as unilluminated as its predecessors, and the promise of portability was once again thwarted.20 Just as with the DMG and the CGB, the lackluster screen elicited the reworking of earlier peripherals (including Nyko’s Worm Light) to adapt to the AGB’s technical specifications. Additionally, it occasioned novel forms of hardware modification that explicitly circumvented Nintendo’s technical protection measures and drove the company to rethink its own approach to screen technologies.

In 2002, Triton Labs released the Afterburner, a do-it-yourself (DIY) frontlighting kit that allowed hobbyists to illuminate the LCD from within the chassis. Nintendo knew about and explicitly acknowledged the significance of the Afterburner. In 2003, Nintendo hardware designer Kenichi Sugino said: “I thought they [Triton Labs] did something really impressive. … [W]hen I saw that light at first, I was happy to see it, but I also thought ‘Oh, I wish it didn't use up all my batteries.’ … In a way, though, it also reminded us of exactly how many users really wanted to see some kind of light in their Game Boy Advances. It was an impetus for us to devote the time to figuring out how to finally just do it. So, in that aspect, it helped us during SP development as well.”21 Sugino details a direct link between fan practices and Nintendo’s own development, not only acknowledging the mod but also articulating the ways in which it shaped the direction of subsequent projects. We can think about this phenomenon as what John Banks calls “co-creation,” instances where players not only consume but actively produce intellectual capital with “significant social and cultural outcomes.”22 Emerging out of hobbyist communities, maintenance and repair protocols have left their material traces in Nintendo’s own hardware design.

The Afterburner project itself began as a scathing public critique, a “crusade against Nintendo’s poor choices in product design and misleading advertisement.”23 Whether justified or not, consumers called Nintendo out for bad-faith design with respect to the AGB’s screen technology, quite literally petitioning the company to illuminate their display. Documenting their work on the website—an indictment of Nintendo’s dominance in the handheld gaming industry—the team that would become Triton Labs dedicated themselves to researching and reverse engineering the AGB hardware. In addition to contacting Nintendo Customer Support for information, they also reached out directly to employees at Sharp to learn more about the displays the company had manufactured for use in the handheld.24 The result of this research and tinkering was an internal lighting kit that illuminated the AGB’s screen from within, as well as the first formalized AGB modding protocol.

Unlike earlier plug-and-play peripherals, the Afterburner required that users open up their hardware and install the mod themselves, a considerable technological challenge for novices who had never tinkered with consumer electronics before. After opening the handheld, players needed to shave down the plastic shell, solder the lighting system and resistor to the board, and remove the protective film without touching the Afterburner’s exposed surface.25 Above all, the entire process required keeping the LCD, frontlight, and antiglare film completely free of dust, dirt, or fingerprints, since any blemish was almost impossible to remove and would distort the picture once the system was turned on.

The Afterburner frustrated users not well versed in electronics, and early reviews were consequently skeptical of the kit’s viability.26 Fans of the AGB’s software library grumbled that they were “confined to the purchase of an unlicensed product to … play [their] games properly” (by which they meant with a backlight), and they lambasted the difficulty of the Afterburner mod even as they flocked to it as the so-called only option.27 But the technical proficiency required to complete the mod soon catalyzed the emergence of several hobbyist enterprises wherein experts offered to perform the installation for a fee, exchanging their technical proficiencies for cultural and economic capital.28 These experts bridged the gap between fans who wanted to maintain their hardware and the technicians who had the knowledge required to do so. Due in part to this community exchange, Triton Labs sold over 100,000 Afterburner kits before moving on to new projects in 2005.29 The Afterburner kit reveals that the history of videogame platforms cannot be fully understood without accounting for their actual uses in fan communities and how hobbyists and licensed developers negotiated these uses.

Following the Afterburner’s release, Nintendo launched the clamshell AGS-001 and AGS-101 in quick succession, pacifying users with front- and backlit hardware respectively. It was the AGS-101—itself already indebted to a longer history of modding and tinkering—that came to shape AGB backlighting praxis by the end of the first decade of the 2000s. This was the advent of the AGB-101 mod, a portmanteau of the 2001 device’s internal codename and the 101 suffix of the 2005 hardware revision. Put plainly, Nintendo meant for the AGB-101 mod to lift the backlit screen from the AGS-101 and install it in an AGB (see fig. 1). However, given that the LCDs do not connect to their respective handhelds’ printed circuit boards (PCBs) by way of a universal port, early experts had to develop custom ribbon cables to work around these technical complexities and convert the signals.

Figure 1

Figure 1 A Game Boy Advance modded with a backlit AGS-101 screen. (Image courtesy of author)

Navigating such technical complexities is one of the ways that hobbyists distinguish themselves as knowledgeable experts. Long before the soldering irons come out, novices face a hurdle when they need to determine which ribbon cable to purchase in order to perform this mod (see fig. 2). Due in large part to the black-boxing of technology—manufacturers’ deliberate obfuscation of the machine’s inner workings—the average user tends to believe that consumer electronics that share a name also share identical technical properties.30 The reality tends to be far more complex. What we think of as the same hardware object can have several versions and while their differences are invisible when the hardware is used in the way Nintendo intended, these distinctions become barriers to unsanctioned interventions like hardware hacking.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Examples of Retro Modding's 40-pin and 32-pin ribbon cables with and without wires. (Image courtesy of author)

Modding protocols reveal variations that might otherwise go unnoticed in studies that focus solely on an archive of official materials and paratexts. In order to successfully perform an AGB-101 mod, hobbyists first need to determine whether their screen connects to the PCB with a 40-pin or 32-pin connector. This begins, of course, with initiation into the knowledge that these distinctions exist in the first place. Knowledgeable hobbyists can determine which version they have by removing the battery door, peering through the cut-out in the plastic shell, and interpreting the revision number on the mainboard (see fig. 3). Early board revisions beginning with 0 (e.g., 03 4-1) have a 40-pin connector, while boards beginning with 1 (e.g., 10 1-2) have the 32-pin connector similar to the AGS models.31 Learning which model corresponds to which ribbon cable is one of the ways that members develop early technical literacy. Without understanding these ostensibly minor and largely invisible hardware variants, modding novices can purchase incompatible products; when this occurs, the participant might then blame the retailer for selling them a nonfunctional product rather than admit to their own lack of familiarity with established knowledge protocols.

Figure 3

Figure 3 The board revision number on the author’s Game Boy Advance. This is a 32-pin device. (Image courtesy of author)

While choosing a ribbon cable is a technical decision, the choice of screen is based on aesthetic, social, and economic factors. Under the AGS-101 umbrella are several types of screens, each carrying various connotations within the community. The first is the so-called genuine screen gutted from Nintendo’s 2005 Game Boy Advance SP. Although originally a sign of authenticity and prestige, gutting a perfectly functional AGS-101 is now viewed with a measure of suspicion if not downright outrage.32 As a result of modders cutting up these handhelds, the price of an AGS-101 has become prohibitively expensive, retailing for upward of US$150 for a used handheld. In response, a bevy of more affordable aftermarket alternatives emerged for as low as US$25 on the online retail service AliExpress. Existing somewhere between these two is a third option, which modders refer to as “new old stock” (NOS).33 These are screens manufactured by Sharp—the same company that produced the screens that went into the AGS models—but that were not themselves ever used in a handheld.

The rhetorical positioning of this category of screens is a discursive strategy on the part of community resellers to set themselves apart as a higher-end aftermarket than what is available on AliExpress. Referring to the screen as new introduces the value system of contemporary consumer advertising where “‘newness’ is itself an index of sociocultural significance and transformative power.”34 That these screens are not extracted from a culturally significant object also means that the mod will not remove an increasingly rare handheld from the market via a practice that, by its own admission, concerns itself with the ongoing use and preservation of retro hardware.35 On the other hand, the term old connotes authenticity: these screens are legitimately retro in that they were designed in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s by the same company that produced the screens in Nintendo’s hardware; thus, they share aesthetic features that are absent in more contemporary screens, such as the lower pixel density that results in a softer image than screens today. Through the label of new old stock, community experts mobilize the language of newness and genuineness to talk about an object that is neither new nor genuine.36 Due to the greater availability of the NOS screen and its constructed legitimacy as a cousin of the AGS-101, community experts were able to discursively position these screens as the definitive technologies for AGB-101 modding protocols for nearly two decades.

The IPS LCD Debates: Discourse, Taste, and Knowledge Transfer

When I refer to handheld hobbyists as participants within a community, I gesture to the ways in which knowledge has been developed and transmitted through the public circulation of material practices. The modding and craft communities overlap here, and knowledge emerges through practice, participation, and tradition.37 In the case of modding, information circulates in informal settings, such as YouTube videos and online forums. Self-teaching based upon this information through hands-on practice is an important part of one’s initiation into the craft community; as Julian Sefton-Green observes, “the craft-learner is as likely to pay attention to imitation and copying in order to achieve entry into whatever sphere they are working in.”38 Participants learn the nuances of hardware modding not through formal instruction but rather by imitating well-known community members who have achieved expert status. Political economist Harrold Innis calls this a knowledge monopoly. For Innis, monopolies of knowledge converge around media, granting power to the entities that control and understand them.39 But monopolies are never secure; they exist in a state of perpetual precarity whereby challenges from new media protocols can destabilize power relations.

Over the last few years, the modding community has experienced increasing anxiety about the finitude of the screens required to perform the AGB-101 mod. Manufactured at the end of the AGB’s lifecycle when the Nintendo DS was set to eclipse the Game Boy line, the AGS-101 sold far fewer units than the handhelds that preceded it, and, as the modding scene continues to grow, the supply of so-called NOS screens has only continued to dwindle.40 The discourse around FunnyPlaying’s IPS LCD with which this paper opened therefore emerged as a product of multiple expert parties—each with their own social and financial stakes—exploring sustainable alternatives to widely accepted hobbyist protocols. Just as with the NOS approach to AGB-101 mods, the IPS LCD kits have repurposed a vast store of salvaged screens—in this case, 3.2-inch Blackberry Curve 9380 cell-phone displays manufactured by LG in 2012. With so many of these inexpensive screens in circulation, FunnyPlaying’s kit addresses key concerns about supply.

Nevertheless, upon its initial release in May 2019, the IPS LCD met with mixed reviews due to its failure to adequately represent the picture that hobbyists had come to expect from their backlit handhelds. Just as the AGS-101 screen requires a custom ribbon cable to interface with the AGB mainboard, so too does the IPS LCD. A clock embedded in the ribbon cable’s circuitry aids in this interfacing work, but a failure to properly synchronize the first version’s clock resulted in a visible diagonal frame refresh at certain transitional moments between scenes in games. This was particularly apparent when scenes switched between light and dark backgrounds. Users would see a white flash cut across the screen, immediately drawing their attention away from the software content and back to the erstwhile invisible materiality of the screen itself.41

When Retro Modding opened preorders for the FunnyPlaying kit, they acknowledged this phenomenon on their product page, writing: “it’s subtle and we consider the benefits of the display to outweigh this minimal tearing, but please keep this in mind before you purchase this product.”42 Hours later, noted community expert BennVenn released a post on his Facebook page saying, “People have commented about the awful screen tearing playing games with this kit. Seems it was too good to be true? I’ll make a post when they arrive but suggest to hold off till we get some.”43 BennVenn had not yet received a screen to test; his statement had less to do with actual, proven material engagements with technology than it did with discursive framing. As a prominent engineer within the community, BennVenn’s expertise relies on the creation of new technologies, and his ability to continue producing effective modding kits sustains it. FunnyPlaying’s IPS LCD kit explicitly threatened BennVenn’s ongoing development projects for alternative AGB mods, and his response was consequently to dismiss the product before its popular adoption.

Four months after the initial release, FunnyPlaying issued the IPS LCD V2, an upgraded ribbon cable that included a scaling circuit and synchronized the clock to eliminate the screen tearing. Without this primary flaw to divert the conversation, the debate shifted to questions of aesthetic taste that centered around the devices’ technical properties. Boasting a higher display resolution, the IPS LCD uses 2x integer scaling, which means that for each pixel the AGB outputs, the LCD uses four pixels (2x2), producing a much sharper image that approximates the square pixels more commonly seen in retro emulation. Moreover, compared to AGS-101 screens, the IPS LCD has warmer color reproduction, which amplifies the way that AGB games—especially those developed prior to 2003—already used bright, saturated color palettes to compensate for the unlit screen. To the uninitiated, a higher resolution, more robust color reproduction, and a wider viewing angle sound like desirable features; they produce the kind of crisp and vibrant image we expect of our devices today. However, these very qualities render the display suspicious to some hobbyists. That is, the qualities we seek out in contemporary consumer electronics exist in tension with a much longer history of embodied interactions with the community standards around Game Boy screens. Given that the AGS-101 has been the de facto screen for AGB backlighting for nearly two decades, these technical properties have become part of the handheld’s aesthetic character.

Through conversations about what counts as the authentic image, modding protocols draw our attention to how Nintendo’s own software design is inextricably linked to its hardware objects. This goes beyond the use of high-saturation colors. When programming games for the Game Boy line, developers found ways to simulate transparency through the controlled flickering of sprites. The pixel response on the original, nonbacklit screens was poor enough that programmers could turn sprites on and off every sixtieth of a second and the flickering would blur together, resulting in a visual facsimile of transparency even though the AGB’s graphics processing did not itself support transparency effects.44 The handheld’s hardware allowed developers to find creative uses for software limitations. However, with their fast refresh rates, the IPS LCDs are subject to nonpermanent retention and do not uphold the illusion that programmers intended the hardware to display. Thus, a fundamental difference arises in the experiences of playing a game on a different screen, even though nothing in the software code has changed at all.

With both the AGS-101 and IPS LCD mods in circulation, debates about which mod is better abound. This seems, on the surface, to be a technological question, one grounded in the material properties of screen technologies. In reality, it is a matter of taste and the way that aesthetic preferences have historically been formed and circulated. Writing on fan cultures, John Fiske adopts Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “cultural economy” to articulate how cultural tastes are produced by social differences wherein textual discrimination and social distinction are key cultural processes among fans.45 Fans, he writes, exemplify Bourdieu’s autodidacts, “the self-taught who often use their self-acquired knowledge and taste to compensate for the perceived gap between their actual (or official) cultural capital, as expressed in educational qualifications and the socio-economic rewards they bring, and what they feel are their true desserts.”46 In contrast to official culture (what we can think of as Nintendo’s intended audience of users who do not modify their proprietary hardware), modders, as a type of dedicated fan, formulate connections with hardware texts and participate in their own textual production not only through maintaining and repairing said hardware but also through the discourse they use to justify their choice of protocols.

When we look at modding communities, we can see how skills and techniques are transferred from experts to novices through materials like video- and text-based tutorials, product descriptions, and resources on online forums. Less easily transferred is “the specific cultural setting and worldview that gives [sic] significance to these practices from the point of view of the bequeathers.”47 Whether to gut an AGS-101, install a NOS screen, or use an IPS LCD is socially and culturally specific, and preferences vary from expert to expert. In this way, we can see technologies as “a crystalized set of social and material relations” that sustain and are sustained by ideologies, materials, practices, and other technologies.48 Techniques of modding, maintenance, and repair have the potential to make these relations visible and malleable by operating outside policy- and hardware-based black-boxing techniques. Existing on the margins of legality, modding and repair reveal the social and aesthetic protocols that inform the active and often unintended use of technologies within interpretive communities. It is with this in mind that I now turn to an analysis of the discourse surrounding the IPS LCD debates.

Shadow Economies and the Commodification of Repair

In the wake of the August release of FunnyPlaying’s ribbon cable revision came a deluge of blogs and videos in which hobbyists and experts negotiated the distinctions between the two protocols, flaunting their expertise through their analysis of the affordances and limitations of the mods. In 2020, as part of a Game Boy Wiki, YouTuber makho (/u/Admiral_Butter_Crust on Reddit) posted a repository of notes on nearly every backlighting kit on the market for every handheld in Nintendo’s Game Boy line, documenting each kit’s technical specifications and offering recommendations to new hobbyists.49 Within this digital document, makho boasts: “I … own nearly every backlight kit on the market right now for pretty much every console. I feel like that gives me a rather unique perspective on these things.” This perspective results in the assertion that “the best backlight kit is the one you already have,” suggesting that, if hobbyists are really interested in backlighting their device in order to play games (rather than to publicly perform expertise), then neither the AGB-101 nor the IPS LCD protocol will serve them wrong.50 Through such an assertion, mahko identifies a distinction between fan hobbyists and expert collectors.

Other modders, however, have been much more skeptical of the challenge to the AGB-101’s ongoing popularity. In a side-by-side comparison of both screens, YouTuber RetroRGB said: “In my opinion, it looks really good, but definitely not the same as the original … Some people will love the look of the new screen and others will prefer the look of the original … I think they look absolutely awesome, but, if you’ve clocked a ton of hours playing these games on an AGS-101 screen you might not prefer it over the original.”51 What is most salient about this assessment is that what RetroRGB refers to as the original is not, in fact, what platform studies might see as an original object: the nonbacklit LCD included in the AGB handheld released in 2001. The “original” that RetroRGB describes here is, in fact, the AGB-101 modded screen. The hardware that scholars typically view as original has entirely fallen away, replaced by the way the hobbyists have actually used their AGB handhelds over the last two decades. Thus, we see how community tastes effectively form a new understanding of what the object is, one centered around their own aesthetic sense of how users should engage with AGB software.

Retro Modding also presents a useful case for considering the social construction of expertise, given that the company accrues cultural capital in several ways: manufacturing in-house components that respond to and shape demand; being major resellers of components engineered by independent hobbyists; offering build-to-order custom Game Boy services through which they display the material results of the knowledge protocols they have helped shape; and disseminating knowledge through tutorials.52 These tutorials are particularly compelling for the way they offer amateur hobbyists entry into the modding community through step-by-step descriptions of material practices and promote Retro Modding’s own specialized knowledge. A significant element of performativity exists here: by documenting AGB modding processes using their products, Retro Modding standardizes its components as part of the process; the hobbyists who use these products and follow these tutorials then become participants within this craft community via their engagement.

In order to appeal to the widest audience, Retro Modding has equivocated about these screens, mediating between what they call the “definitive” AGB-101 mod and the IPS LCD kit’s “sharpest Game Boy Advance display yet,”53 tactically framing the two protocols as being equally legitimate but offering different results. Again, we see how discourse emerges from and shapes the debate: that AGB hardware has a backlight already precludes it from being definitive and given that the IPS LCD involves putting screens from the early 2010s into a chassis from 2001, the mod is not as cutting edge as the product description appears to suggest. Within the interpretive community of screen modders, what is and is not considered genuine and what is and is not considered new is not only relative but also socially constructed. These terms come to be markers of belonging, whereby adopting the community-sanctioned terminology for computational components, hardware functionality, and abstract aesthetic concepts is arguably “the most important performative indicator of technological literacy.”54 The community circumscribes and reinforces notions of authenticity and originality. Regardless of whether we’re talking about the AGB-101 or the IPS LCD protocols, the mod is presented as an opportunity to make the AGB like new again, inviting users to reimagine their experiences with residual technologies.

The rhetorical positioning of screen-modding practices involves significant cultural and economic stakes, particularly with regard to larger conversations around maintenance and repair. Corporate overreach with respect to consumers’ rights to tinker with their digital devices has frustrated the Open Hardware and Right to Repair movements.55 The disposability of electronics and the increasing issue of the e-waste have prompted initiatives like the London-based Restart Project.56 Projects like this one and the kinds of open tutorials found on iFixit purport to offer people a “hands-on way of making a difference,” seeking to launch a conversation about what kinds of products consumers actually want.57 Steven Jackson, who advocates for an approach to technology that he calls “broken world thinking” argues that repair allows us to direct our gaze away from production and toward sustainability.58 For Jackson, breakdown and repair are starting points for thinking about media and information technology, not afterthoughts. Participation in this timely history of repair has thus served as rhetorical justification for altering handheld hardware, rendering Game Boys useable once more by addressing the flaws of their unlit screens.

However, in practice, modding is seldom as utopian as it sounds, and modders often use the language of sustainable practices to distinguish themselves from mainstream commodity culture even as they themselves are co-opted into it. In an interview I conducted with Retro Modding, the company’s founder nobly critiqued Nintendo’s reliance on the trappings of planned obsolescence, arguing that “it’s like they [Nintendo] lose responsibility as soon as they release it and it gets to the consumer’s house. They shouldn’t be restrictive about how that stuff is handled afterwards because it will end up in a landfill somewhere. We’re talking about millions of Game Boys, all that plastic and all those PCBs with strange chemicals.”59 Naturally, Nintendo has a vested interest in preventing the repair of their residual handhelds; their business model is one that remains contingent upon players purchasing new hardware to play new (or remastered and rereleased) software objects. In order to sustain their profits, they employ technical, legal, and discursive measures to stymie users’ abilities to maintain their own hardware and to encourage them to replace rather than repair their devices.60 We see this occur on both the level of hardware through closed, proprietary design and on the level of legislation wherein Nintendo, under the guise of antipiracy laws, has launched punitive suits against individuals and companies who dare contravene their technical protection measures.61 Consequently, a long-standing tension exists between hardware manufacturers’ attempts to keep their technologies carefully black-boxed and the Right to Repair movement. Sustainability becomes an easy fulcrum through which modders can laud their interventions into proprietary hardware, a gallant endeavor to be sure, but one that falls apart in practice.

While modding and repair have been justifiably pitted against the ouroboric logics of planned obsolescence, an attentive study of the discourse and demographics of the modding community reveals that it is facile to suggest that modding is an altruistic practice undertaken on behalf of the planet. Screen-modding practices do indeed give PCBs a second life, but they still rely on the purchase of aftermarket screens and ribbon cables sourced from overseas, where they’re transported right to the modder’s door in heavily packaged kits. More significantly, maintenance competes with sustainability in that many hobbyists—as we have seen mahko pointedly acknowledge—will order a new backlighting kit for a brighter, sharper picture even when their initial mod remains effective. Changes in taste come to represent a new form of breakdown—one that lies within community aesthetics rather than within technological failure. The result is the continued overconsumption of new (old) screens. Yes, Retro Modding validly critiques hardware that is designed to be replaced when Nintendo is ready to release a new handheld. But in reality these mods tend to replace themselves more than defunct electronics.

Although modders often publicly perform a frustration with planned obsolescence, it is unclear how much they are actually interested in challenging the corporate logic that sustains it on a more fundamental level than merely demanding legal rights to alter their hardware. It is seldom the practice that hobbyists repair their Game Boy screens and then cease to purchase new videogame platforms, content to enjoy a retro software library in perpetuity. Quite the opposite, in fact. One needs only to view the YouTube videos and Instagram pages of prominent Game Boy modders to see the evidence of conspicuous consumption—the practice of buying goods in a greater quantity than necessary to flaunt them for social status.62 As fans first and foremost, many modding hobbyists are the most flagrant consumers of Nintendo products. Modded Game Boys therefore do not so much supplant new hardware as exist alongside it.

Why, then, is the language of sustainability so attractive to modders? Henry Jenkins’s notion of a moral economy illuminates the norms that justify the appropriation of proprietary content and that crystalize into a consensus among community members about what constitutes legitimate appropriation. Writing on fandom, Jenkins defines the moral economy as a “sense of mutual obligations and shared expectations about what constitutes good citizenship within a knowledge community.”63 This language provides modders with a universal foundation on which to build and circulate their protocols. The great irony is that most of the boards and ribbon cables used for these mods remain equally proprietary to the expert engineers within the modding community, such as BennVenn, Retro Modding, and FunnyPlaying. The rhetoric around sustainability therefore often comes across as little more than a convenient excuse for modders to justify their own aftermarket economy—all while positioning themselves as Robin Hood–esque antiheroes.64

This discourse reveals how modding typically represents itself as a grassroots subculture operating outside the logics of obsolescence, yet many of the most outspoken and cited modders have not only a cultural but also an economic stake in the ongoing use of residual hardware. Gamechanger_Mods, author of Game Boy Modding, a 256-page illustrated, autobiographical book that serves as both a community retrospective and a practical instruction manual, also runs a five-star Etsy shop that, as of 2022, boasts over five thousand sales.65 BennVenn, Retro Modding, and Handheld Legends all have online stores that, over the last five years, have become increasingly sophisticated. Retro Modding and Handheld Legends have even adopted some of the trappings of brand-sponsored corporatism by launching various affiliate and partner programs that target repeat customers and offer collaborations with modders who already possess a cache of cultural capital on platforms like YouTube, Twitch, and Instagram.

Despite historical portrayals of hackers operating at the margins of and against corporate capital, modding experts arguably participate in a smaller-scale version of the gaming industry, what Fiske calls a shadow economy.66 The shadow economy is one that forms outside and against official (in other words, dominant) culture but that adopts and reworks the values of the culture it ostensibly opposes.67 While the modding economy operates on a much smaller scale than the videogame industry, it nevertheless reproduces many of the same features of official culture. This shadow economy, it is worth noting, is large enough that hobbyists have made financially stable careers out of modding Game Boys. While it can be heartening to think that modding one’s hardware allows one to participate in sustainable alternatives to consumer capitalism, the fact of the matter is that the practice of replacing functional but unlit screens often occurs in conjunction with rather than in contrast to one another. Maintenance and repair may have begun as a grassroots protest against proprietary content, but it has since cemented itself as a business.

This is not to say that all modding experts are motivated by financial gain. We can turn here to Warstware, whose 2004 Game Boy mod, though unsophisticated, participated in conversation with AGB protocols and helped paved the way for pioneers like ASM Retro to develop more elegant solutions for DMG backlighting. Preserved on a webpage with a grainy background, scrawled in a custom, chicken-scratch font, and documented with blurry, blown-out images, Warstware’s tutorial stands as a part of modding history outside commodification. Warstware writes:

Some people have made proper businesses elaborating on the techniques shown here, selling modded DMGs, Kits, all sorts of stuff that’ll make the whole process a lot easier.

I’m perfectly fine with this because I never had the patience to do so myself. I tried to build a few Backlight mods for money and got soooooooo bored with it …

Anyways, I keep this tutorial up mainly for historical reasons. It has been the first one world wide [sic] and I am a little bit proud of it. My tiny little space of fame … .68

For Warstware, then, participation is about the accrual of cultural capital, the fame of being known for the first Game Boy backlight tutorial. Warstware is not opposed to the commodification of the mod because the goal is cultural not economic capital.

Ultimately, tensions between the AGB-101 and IPS LCD mods point to several ways in which standardized community practices become more important to members than the technologies themselves. The question of authenticity becomes less about what constitutes authentic hardware than about what protocols the community has adopted and how these protocols participate in practices of self-legitimization. Power relations shape how these practices shift over time, determining who and what matters within the material community. Techniques of AGB backlighting (and Game Boy handheld backlighting more generally) reveal that these practices largely come down to questions of taste, influenced by the expert discourse that emerges from, and at the same time constructs, the interpretive community. As a result, these practices direct our attention away from a focus on screened content and encourage us instead to consider how the material realities of screens themselves have been sites for negotiations among hobbyists, experts, and corporations. Maintenance and repair guide hobbyists in carrying out specific operations that pre-exist their creative intentions, but it is important to note that these operations are not fixed. As Jonathan Sterne notes, technologies “cannot come into existence simply to fill a pre-existing role, since the role itself is co-created with the technology by its makers and users.”69 In other words, modding and repair protocols continue to be under constant negotiation.

Looking Beyond: Toward a Historiography of Screen Modding

Throughout this paper, I have advanced an initial argument for how a history of handheld screen-modding practices and the discourse that surrounds them can redirect our attention to videogame platforms’ actual and ongoing use, revealing how platforms are under constant negotiation by users, modders, and manufacturers.

The history of Game Boy screen-modding practices exists both against and in parallel to broader videogame history. By repairing and repurposing residual hardware platforms, Game Boy modding insists on the continued relevance of decades-old hardware. In this way, modding practices purport to resist the ouroboric logics of planned obsolescence that have long sustained the consumer electronics industry. At the same time, however, modding practices have themselves been commodified by community experts who leverage their cultural capital and technical knowledge to accrue financial capital in a shadow economy that lies adjacent to the dominant videogame industry. The conflicts I describe between early backlighting protocols and more emergent practices reveal how users’ conceptions of videogame technologies are subject to changes in taste and are mediated by the discourse of community experts. Adopting and, more importantly, publicly performing specific modding protocols allows members to identify themselves as people who belong rather than people who do not. In other words, the performance of maintenance and repair allows them to position themselves as experts rather than amateurs.

Throughout this article, I have followed Marvin and Stock in referring to modders—both novice hobbyists and established experts—as members of an interpretive community, which is not without its issues. In an exemplary account of software modding centered around EA’s The Sims series, Tanja Sihvonen has argued that calling an accrual of “online conversations and random encounters a ‘community’” has not only been done too often in the past but also problematically risks misrepresenting videogame players whose engagements are more diverse and eclectic than the term makes space for.70 Rather than discard the idea of an interpretive community altogether, I contend that future investigations into modding could stand to look at the practices that exist beyond the (relatively) dominant protocols I have studied here. Just as with the electrical engineers that Marvin studied—men who were largely conservative (in that they imagined for themselves a comfortable world where social and class structures remained stable but for their own positions)—Game Boy modding remains inherently exclusionary.71 The screen modding community that I have looked at is overwhelmingly comprised of white men in their late twenties and thirties, who amplify each other’s voices and treat other identities with suspicion or outright hostility. For instance, when Retro Modding introduced the popular videogame enthusiast Retro Pickle of Pickled Mods as their first brand ambassador on May 15, 2019, their social-media platforms were flooded with accusations that Retro Pickle had only been chosen “because she’s a girl.” This public outcry clearly conveyed that many hobbyists saw themselves as holding more legitimate claims to the ambassadorship, regardless of Retro Pickle’s immense Instagram following (and therefore more cultural capital in the retrogaming scene) and greater practical modding knowledge than other hobbyists.72 Rather than refuse the label of community altogether, we can instead consider how studies of feminist and queer modding practices—such as Jaime Lee Kirtz’s study of feminist ROM hacks—might allow us to adopt a more nuanced approach to the different but overlapping modding communities that reveal historically underdocumented engagements with videogame hardware.73

While this paper has provided a preliminary argument in favor of considering the history of modding and repair practices as inextricably linked to the history of handheld hardware, I have only just scratched the surface of what can be written about Game Boy screen modding. Thus far, the work of documenting modding’s history has largely been the domain of modders themselves, even though, by and large, those with the historical knowledge and technological expertise are more concerned with doing mods than with documenting their history. Much therefore still stands to be written about screen maintenance and repair, and these practices are themselves only a narrow subset of modding protocols. Studying how hobbyists talk about media objects and how they choose to engage with them cannot be separated from how we understand the hardware. Future scholarship can therefore benefit from the study of ongoing and actual engagements with videogame technologies.


This work was supported by Mitacs through the Mitacs Accelerate program. Thanks to Dr. Darren Wershler for feedback on early drafts of this work.


1. ^ Attentive readers will note that my abbreviations for Nintendo’s handhelds differ from those used in most academic works. This is because I follow the nomenclature modders use to distinguish among variations in the Game Boy line, all bearing that name: 1989 Game Boy: DMG 1996 Game Boy Pocket: MGB 1998 Game Boy Color: CGB 2001 Game Boy Advance: AGB 2003 Game Boy Advance SP (frontlit): AGS-001 2005 Game Boy Advance SP (backlit): AGS-101

2. ^ IPS LCD refers to the type of screen. In-plane switching is a screen technology for liquid crystal displays. Unlike the FunnyPlaying kit, the original AGB screen was a thin-film transistor (TFT) LDC.

3. ^ Much of the work that I present in this article draws from ethnographic observation and community participation conducted in the summer of 2019 at the height of the IPS LCD debates. This research was completed as part of a research internship at Retro Modding supported by the Canadian Mitacs Accelerate program. All claims put forth in this paper are my own and do not reflect Retro Modding’s position.

4. ^ Comments left in discussions about the screen would often reference these critiques. For example, one commenter on Reddit posted, “They say it screen tears on Pokémon games,” referring to BennVenn’s FaceBook post on the subject. SethVermin, “They say it screen tears on Pokémon games,” 2019,, comment on ImFruit_Loops, “Funnyplaying IPS screen. Colours are much better,” May 8, 2019,,

5. ^ Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 12.

6. ^ Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 3.

7. ^ Daniela K. Rosner and Morgan Ames, “Designing for Repair? Infrastructures and Materialities of Breakdown,” in Proceedings of the 17th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2014), 2.

8. ^ Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka, “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method,” Leonardo 45, no. 5 (2012): 424, See also Jason Koebler, “The Xbox One S Still Uses Microsoft’s Illegal Warranty-Void-if-Removed Sticker,” Vice, August 5, 2016,

9. ^ Raiford Guins, Game After: A Cultural Study of Videogame Afterlife (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).

10. ^ Guins, Game After, 141. See also Benjamin Nicoll, “Sega Saturn Fan Sites and the Vernacular Curation of Videogame History,” in Fans and Videogames: Histories, Fandom, Archives, ed. Melanie Swalwell, Helen Stuckey, and Angela Ndalianis (New York: Routledge, 2017), 189–90.

11. ^ Note that I use Game Boy to refer to the entire Game Boy line (Game Boy, Game Boy Pocket, Game Boy Color, etc.) and DMG to refer to the 1989 handheld.

12. ^ This is not to say that videogame histories or platform studies have entirely neglected what I have called videogame afterlives. In Codename Revolution, Steven Jones and George Thiruvathukal acknowledge the hacks and mods that shape users’ understandings of some of the Wii’s more social aspects. Nathan Altice challenges the stability of videogame platforms by placing the Nintendo Entertainment System in conversation with hobbyist emulation in I AM ERROR. My own platform study of the Game Boy Advance placed the handheld in conversation with homebrew, hacking, and modding to study the systems’ continued cultural and social relevance twenty years later. See Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal, Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012); Nathan Altice, I AM ERROR: The Nintendo Family Computer / Entertainment System Platform (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015); and Alex Custodio, Who Are You? Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance Platform (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020).

13. ^ In addition its own 32-bit processor, the AGB has an 8-bit, 8-MHz coprocessor to enable backward compatibility with the handhelds that preceded it.

14. ^ Nyko corporate website,

15. ^ Erkki Huhtamo, “Screen Tests: Why Do We Need an Archaeology of the Screen?,” Cinema Journal 51, no. 2 (2012): 145.

16. ^ On the invisibility of media infrastructures, see Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015).

17. ^ In 1998, Nintendo released the Japan-exclusive Game Boy Light, which included an electroluminescent backlit screen, but it was not until 2005 that Nintendo introduced a backlit screen to their global audience.

18. ^ Parks and Starosielski, Signal Traffic, 13.

19. ^ Nintendo marketed the Game Boy Advance with multiple slogans, one of which was “Console-quality Gaming—Anywhere,” Nintendo, “Game Boy Advance,” n.d.,

20. ^ Users often bemoaned the fact that the Atari Lynx (1989) and Sega Game Gear (1990) proved the technology existed well before the turn of the millennium. Documenting their initial impressions in response to a call sent out by the BBC News, multiple everyday users complained about the state of the AGB’s screen. “Game Boy Advance: Your Views,” BBC News, June 22, 2001,

21. ^ Kenichi Sugino, “Interview: The Man behind the GBA SP,” interview by Fennec Fox, GamePro, June 4, 2003,

22. ^ John Banks, Co-Creating Videogames (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 102.

23. ^ See both and, accessible on the WayBack Machine,

24. ^ Triton Labs, Afterburner Instruction Kit Manual, 2002.

25. ^ Craig Harris, “Afterburner Light Kit,” IGN, May 16, 2002, updated June 17, 2012,

26. ^ See especially user James’s post “E-mail to Nintendo and their Response” on, accessed March 2, 2022,

27. ^ emerged as one such platform while also ironically critiquing’s monopoly on the mod.

28. ^ Triton Labs, archived at

29. ^ On the black box, see Hertz and Parikka, “Zombie Media,” 424–30.

30. ^ “AGS-101 to GBA Ribbons Guide,” Retro Modding (blog), August 8, 2016,, is an example of how experts circulate this knowledge to nonexperts.

31. ^ makho, “makho’s Backlight Mod Notes,”

32. ^ makho, “makho’s Backlight Mod Notes.”

33. ^ Jonathan Sterne, “Bourdieu, Technique and Technology,” Cultural Studies 17, no. 3/4 (2003): 368.

34. ^ Alex Custodio, “The Game Boy’s Second Life: A Conversation with Retro Modding’s Olivier,”, February 27, 2019,

35. ^ Retro Modding’s product page describes this screen as the “definitive LCD for backlighting your Game Boy Advance,” and explicitly notes that, although these screens are sourced from the original manufacturer, they have never been used in a device. Retro Modding, “AGS-101 LCD,”

36. ^ See Richard Sennet, The Culture of the New Capitalism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007); and Richard Sennet, The Craftsman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

37. ^ Julian Sefton-Green, “Towards a Cultural History of Digital Autodidacticism: Changing Cultural Narratives of Education,” Perspectiva 37, no. 1 (2019),

38. ^ Harold Adams Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

39. ^ Nintendo, “Consolidated Sales Transition by Region (as of March 31, 2018),”

40. ^ “Petition,”, archived at

41. ^ The screen tearing can be seen on makho’s installation video in the transition from the white Game Boy Advance logo to the black background of the Pokémon trademark screen. See makho, “Finishing the Install of the FunnyPlaying IPS GBA Screen with the RetroModding Bracket (Part 2),” June 21, 2019, video, 20:40,

42. ^ Funny Playing [sic], “IPS LCD for Game Boy Advance,” Retro Modding, last modified February 13, 2020,

43. ^ BennVenn, “Update: People have commented about the awful screen tearing playing games with this kit,” Facebook, June 10, 2019, This post has been archived via screenshot.

44. ^ mahkho, “makho’s Backlight Mod Notes.”

45. ^ John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis (London: Routledge, 1992), 30–49; and Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).

46. ^ Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” 34.

47. ^ Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New, 14.

48. ^ Jonathan Sterne, “The Mp3 as Cultural Artifact,” New Media & Society 8, no. 5 (2006): 826.

49. ^ makho, “makho’s Backlight Mod Notes.”

50. ^ makho.

51. ^ RetroRGB, “GBA IPS Screen Testing,” October 17, 2019, video, 5:18,

52. ^ As part of my research internship with Retro Modding, I collaborated with their modders to retool several of their tutorials with the goal of making them more accessible. This work acknowledged that their earlier tutorials only served a narrow subset of the community—those who had already been initiated into the expert discourse and were fluent in both the technology and the writings around it. Expanding these tutorials to be more descriptive was part of a concerted effort to make modding—particularly screen modding—more accessible to novice hobbyists and individuals who have typically faced greater barriers to entry on the basis of gender, race, and class.

53. ^ Retro Modding, “AGS-101 LCD,” and FunnyPlaying,“IPS LCD Kit for Game Boy Advance,” Retro Modding, n.d.,

54. ^ Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New, 15.

55. ^ See Right to Repair, See also Right to Repair,

56. ^ The Restart Project, On electronic waste, see Lisa Parks, “Falling Apart: Electronics Salvaging and the Global Media Economy,” in Residual Media, ed. Charles R. Acland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 32–47.

57. ^ “About,” The Restart Project,

58. ^ Steven L. Jackson, “Rethinking Repair,” in Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, ed. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 221.

59. ^ Custodio, “The Game Boy’s Second Life.”

60. ^ Custodio, Who Are You?.

61. ^ Federal Court of Canada, Nintendo of America Inc. v. King, 2017 FC 246.

62. ^ Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Dover Publications, 1994).

63. ^ Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 256.

64. ^ We see a similar phenomenon in software modding circles where hobbyists often justify or flout intellectual property laws by arguing that their work benefits the company by driving or sustaining attention to the game. The critique of copyright law is mobilized to defend their unsanctioned use of intellectual property in their videogame hacks. See Hector Postigo, “Videogame Appropriation through Modifications: Attitudes Concerning Intellectual Property among Modders and Fans,” Convergence 14, no. 1 (2008): 66–67.

65. ^ Greg Farrell (Gamechanger_Mods), Game Boy Modding: A Beginner’s Guide to Game Boy Mods, Collecting, History, and More! (San Francisco, CA: No Starch Press, 2020); and Gamechanger_mods: Custom Modded Gameboys and Unique Gaming Collectibles, accessed November 2022,

66. ^ For a critique on the way that literature about hackers tends to oversimplify hacker practices, see Gabriella E. Coleman and Alex Golub, “Hacker Practice: Moral Genres and the Cultural Articulation of Liberalism,” Anthropological Theory 8, no. 3 (2008): 255–77,

67. ^ Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” 30–49.

68. ^ “Gameboy backlight” [sic], March 29, 2014, Warstware,

69. ^ Sterne, “Bourdieu, Technique and Technology,” 373.

70. ^ Tanja Sihvonen, Players Unleashed! Modding the Sims and the Culture of Gaming, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011).

71. ^ Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New, 63.

72. ^ Retro Pickle is no longer active on social media, but was, at the time, a recognizable figure in online spaces dedicated to retro gaming.

73. ^ Elsewhere, I have drawn on the work of Bart Simon, Judy Wajcman, and Jaime Lee Kirtz to argue that the language we use to talk about technology in general and modding specifically reproduces masculinist and heteropatriarchal discourse. The language that community members use when talking about their mods not only allows them to amplify and legitimize their own positions within the community but also serves to keep other people—people who are not men, not white, not straight, etc.—out of the conversation. A full account of the gender dynamics in Game Boy screen modding is, regrettably, beyond the scope of this paper. See Custodio, Who Are You?; Judy Wajcman, TechnoFeminism (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2004); Jaime Lee Kirtz, “Beyond the Blackbox: Repurposing ROM Hacking for Feminist Hacking/Making Practices,” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media & Technology, no. 13 (2018); and Bart Simon, “Geek Chic: Machine Aesthetics, Digital Gaming, and the Cultural Politics of the Case Mod,” Games and Culture 2, no. 3 (2007): 175–93.