Owning Games Isn't What it Used to be, and That Needs to Change

Much of our lives are moving online.

Last night, I ordered Chinese takeout through Grubhub in-between talking with friends over Gchat and Twitter, and then later played a few (fruitless) hours of Modern Warfare 3‘s multiplayer, before returning to my computer to write a blog post, while listening to Pandora, while an episode of Breaking Bad flickered silently on the TV screen as I streamed it on Netflix via my Xbox.

That’s my new reality. And I’m not alone.

But although a large part of my social interaction and media enjoyment has made the digital jump, almost none of my political existence has. My rights and responsibilities as a citizen are still in the brick and mortar phase, ill-suited to the non-analog world they must now negotiate.

For instance, when I buy something in the physical world, it’s mine. I can sell it to someone else if I want, and, for the most part, do with it pretty much as I please.

When I buy the bits and bytes that constitute a digital album, game, or movie though, my rights with regard to that product are far from clear. Not just because the legal terrain here is uneven and overgrown, but because many of these issues are being worked out in real-time as new situations arise. Theory is making its way into practice, and what were once idle thought experiments now require real world solutions.

“What happens to your digital content when that provider goes defunct?”

This is why asking “Do we own our Steam games?” is becoming more common and lacks any simple answer. The proliferation of licensing agreements have substituted for the usual understanding that comes with over the counter sales, but even those remain murky at best, and the war over the extent of their validity still wages. Several questions, like what happens to your digital content when that provider goes defunct, or what exactly the company who developed and monitors the game you purchased owes you, remain unresolved.

In many ways this is because of the unique way the Internet has developed. It was and remains a Wild West of digital
commerce where the only thing that matters is what terms have been agreed to and who has the legal firepower to enforce them.

What happens then is that this cyberpunk state of nature reduces citizens in the real world to “users” in the digital one. We don’t have inalienable rights, or even the chance to get what we pay for, because what we paid for is now in constant flux. Patches, updates, and a continually changing base of players means gaming experiences don’t remain fixed from one moment to the next.

“The Super Mario Bros. I play today is the same one I played two decades ago.”

The Super Mario Bros. I play today is the same one I played two decades ago. That’s not the case with the modern video game though. Online multiplayer is now a necessary part of any AAA experience. Diablo III can only be played online, single player or not. And even most of our beloved indie titles rely on distribution platforms (Steam/iOS/XBLA/PSN) that situate every user between a rock and a hard place. Play by our rules or we’re taking the ball and going home.

So what about a Gamer’s Bill of Rights? The idea sounds like a naive rallying cry and little else, except that it’s really not that alien of an idea. There’s a Patient’s Bill of Rights in the new healthcare law, and people have proposed a Bill of Rights for consumers and workers as well. This could be one way to try and introduce some equality and transparency to the virtual marketplace. But even more than that, it might help us to re-evaluate the relationship between the people who make and sell games, and those who buy and play them.

“Entire universes and alternate dimensions could be shut down with no recourse.”

The “my way or the highway” attitude that pervades user agreements, and the fact that we think of those who participate in games as fungible consumers, rather than active members of a community, is at the heart of the imbalance and abuse that has begun infecting nearly every aspect of the gaming space. Whether or not an actual Gamer’s Bill of Rights was made into law, the spirit of it might help put people in the right frame of mind to start pushing for more rights when it comes to the content that they invest their time, money, and creative energy in.

“Video games are in a fragile place right now.”

Because as things stand, I can’t play Diablo III if my Internet goes out. The economy in an MMO could be arbitrarily influenced by the powers that be leading to a devaluation of the equipment that countless hours or hard earned cash were spent on collecting. Entire universes and alternate dimensions could be shut down with no recourse. And accounts can be hacked, characters compromised, and information stolen without an input from those who suffer as a result.

Video games are in a fragile place right now. Revenue models are changing, expectations are shifting (and in most cases maturing), and how the community, medium, and industry develop going forward is anything but certain. It’s time we started demanding more say when it comes to the games we buy. Not only is it the right thing to do, but the games we play and the communities that form around them will be better for it.