The digital ownership dystopia: Are we okay with not owning our games?

8 min read
19

Steam

When EA Games banned Myanmar, a tiny country in Southeast Asia, from Origin there was no preceding announcement. When a Myanmar user queried it with EA, they effectively shrugged their shoulders. One viral Reddit post later and the global community was outraged.

As is often the case when a negative story goes viral, it was all quickly resolved but the whole affair left a bitter taste in the mouth and brings back to the surface the debate around digital ownership in gaming.

Ownership in this day and age

As technology continues to evolve and embed itself in our everyday lives at a rapid pace, the law flounders far behind. In 2012, The Guardian took a look at ownership of digital content based on what the law allows for.

The conclusion is essentially that you don’t own digital music you purchase on platforms such as iTunes nor do you own the digital books you buy for your kindle. When you die, you won’t legally be able to pass them along to your kids nor anyone else.

Kindle

That narrative is very much the same in gaming. Ben Kuchera wrote at length for Polygon, on the digital future that we’ve built for ourselves. He goes on to say that our kids will very much be okay with not owning the games that they buy. He concludes that whilst we may be questioning this owner-less future we’re in, we built it ourselves so it’s here to stay.

That was written in 2014. 2 years prior to that Rock Paper Shotgun was discussing a case where Valve banned a user for what they deemed was a violation of their terms and conditions. In the article, they posed a question.

Can Valve legally ban you from accessing thousands of pounds worth of games you’ve purchased? We don’t know. Can EA really stop you from playing online games because you said a swear on their forum?

After the way that the Myanmar debacle with EA Games played it, we now know the answer to that question. Yes, yes they can. With that being said, it seems no one is really batting an eyelid.

The danger of the future we’ve built for ourselves

I know, I know. The convenience of it all. The beauty of having the majority of all the games you’ve bought in one place. All the wonder of social integration that makes linking up with friends in any gaming universe so easy. The constant sales and discounts, it’s all just overwhelmingly great.

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But the perils of this digital landscape we’ve built for ourselves are so real. Not real in the sense that we’ll regret it all 10 years down the line, the dangers are far more short term and ever present.

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The digital gatekeepers in the forms of Steam, EA Games and Ubisoft, to name but a few, are not infallible saints with our best interests at heart. If you’re unfairly treated by these giants, you are left with little recourse.

Valve support is legendary in their lack of any actual support. EA Games showed exactly zero concern with its Myanmar customer until the global community was bashing at their door, pitchforks in hand.

If having thousands, or tens of thousands, of Rands worth of games at ransom to companies that do not care about you is bad enough, you have to contend with the fact that your gaming wealth is also at risk to the whims of global politics, which is infested with grandstanding and bickering. Sanctions, much like those faced by Myanmar, could affect whether you have access to your digital collection or not.

While South Africa is not currently at risk of facing such global repercussions, we have a country intent on removing its president, and a party equally intent on not relinquishing. Britain voted to leave the EU and Donald Trump has a strong chance of winning the US elections despite not being endorsed by a single publication. Nothing is certain in 2016.

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The global trend for a while has always been to put the power in the hands of the consumer. It is a trend that has changed advertising forever as companies sought to find a new way to talk TO consumers rather than AT them. It seems that the digital wave is seeking to reverse this trend and we’re seemingly okay with throwing that power right back into the hands of companies once again.

Much like the battle around privacy rights, we’re seeing people happy to sacrifice a lot for convenience and other short-term benefits. That, coupled with apathy is creating a rather sombre outlook.

Is it too late to take back the power? 

If you look at the track record of the gaming community, you’d probably say that it is agree with the sentiment that it is too late to change anything. The intense rage that follows a broken day 1 game has made no dent in pre-order habits nor has it dimmed the huge hype that precedes any major game announcement.

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Is digital purchasing just too ingrained in our culture to create a change? Even as I write this article, I’m weighing up whether I should fork out money to buy the much praised Titanfall 2. Does anyone even care that we don’t own our games anymore?

I do think it’s too late to change purchase behaviour amongst gamers. I think the benefits are just too appealing to the majority to ever realistically get people to stop and grab back the power. I also think trying to reverse the improvements that digital purchasing and platforms like Steam and Origin have had on the gaming world would be more harmful than good.

However, I do think that the dangers need to be taken more seriously and not looked at as this hypothetical digital dystopia. One first step that can be done to address the risks and protect ourselves better is to force the law to catch up and preferably be on the side of the consumer.

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South Africa has notoriously consumer-supportive legislation in the form of our Consumer Protection Act. In short, the act, along with the Bill of Rights, states that consumers have the following rights:

  • Right to privacy.
  • Right to choose your product.
  • Right to fair and honest dealing.
  • Right to disclosure of information.
  • Right to fair and responsible marketing.
  • Right to accountability by suppliers.
  • Right to fair value, good quality and safety.
  • Right to fair, just and reasonable terms and conditions.
  • Right to Equality in the consumer market and protection against discriminatory marketing

The CPA has been a powerful shield for consumers against corporate greed and wrongdoing but this is primarily in the tangible world. However, it is not a stretch to see the CPA catch up to the digital marketplace and protect our digital rights as well as it does our tangible ones.

To get to that place, we need to care about the current conditions and not be content with it. We should be pushing for better rights and reject the status quo, no matter how convenient and easy it is. In South Africa, we are privileged to have such a consumer-centric legislation, let’s not waste it.

Unfortunately, history has shown that humanity only tends to care when the damage is already done. I fear that when that Reddit post eventually blows up on the front page to announce what we’ve all feared about digital ownership, it’ll be far too late.

Last Updated: January 4, 2017

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Glenn Kisela

I've always loved video games as well as writing, so mixing the two together was inevitable. When I'm not doing that, I do photography and design.

  • konfab

    You are making the faulty assumption that you actually own the game. Even if you have a disk, you don’t own that game.

    What you get when you buy a game is a licence to use it under certain conditions. Those licences have always been there since the start. What has changed is that the licence conditions have actually become enforceable.

    • Deceased

      This is true for all software

      • konfab

        Not software you write yourself :^)

    • But you do own the disc & you could pass that disc along to family or friends, sell it, whatever you want.

      That power has gone away from consumers & agreed, a large reason for that is that license conditions are more enforceable than in the past.

  • Alien Emperor Trevor

    I don’t see why digital items are regarded any differently to physical items when it comes to ownership. You bought it, it’s yours, you can do whatever you want with it – obviously within the confines of the law. All the guff around “services” and “licenses” is sophistry to bypass consumer rights.

    P.S. Praise GOG & no-DRM installers.
    P.P.S. It’s quite easy to strip the DRM from your Kindle e-books & back them up yourself.

    • Vulcha

      GOG. Enough said.

    • Agreed. Just another way of fucking us over.

    • Exactly. I do feel like it’s taking away consumer rights & that’s a problem that really needs to be solved.

      I’ve seen the argument around non-DRM purchases but the problem is since multiplayers are such a large component of so many popular games, it doesn’t really help in the long run.

  • Lu

    Honestly I don’t care about wheteher a game is “mine” or not. My steam library cost me at most 6 grand to this day. It’s valued at 30000 according to steaminfo.db (woot for humble and sales), BUT the amount of hours I have spent playing those games and the convenience of purchase is far preferable to the security of “owning” them. If I lost all 257 of my games I would still have gotten my money’s worth if calculated to a Rand/Hour rate.

  • Andre Fourie

    This is way too complicated reading for a Friday afternoon so I say…. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5cf6fcc7ce635f3328188320ef6eeffd4b868ec6a8a7b38dd99f93cf899c7504.jpg

  • Milesh Bhana

    I recently experienced a similar (though far less severe) issue.

    I owned an XBOX360 and like many here, we had UK accounts because XBL had not launched in SA yet.

    Now i have an Xbox One and i see that some of the games I purchased prior to SA’s XBL Launch were backward compatible.

    I cannot actually have those, because they’re not on the store. Their excuse is that the product was never released here, but that’s not true. Those were available here on disc. But i’ll never be able to get them.

    (it’s a few arb XBLA titles, but those are great to have around)

  • Simple enough to solve. They ban your country and your account you become a pirate. This is most likely the only acceptable time to condone piracy.

    • Except that hurts online capabilities of your games for the most part. Denuvo is highly sophisticated & piracy is definitely not as easy as it used to be.

      Regardless, many gamers WANT to support game devs & the games. So piracy really ends up hurting devs as opposed to the digital publishers like Steam. And you still suffer as all the social integration & convenience of buying games legally goes out the window.

      So piracy really isn’t the best option or a viable one in the long run.

  • This is part of a bigger discussion about what constitutes “ownership” and we can spend many essays on the licensing model employed by publishers. Is it fair to consumers? Absolutely not. Can we fight it? Possibly, but right now we’re misrepresenting and ultimately fighting the wrong kinds of battles about it. Do people care? Evidently, no. To them the games will always be around (until they aren’t) so why bother.

    Speaking personally, I would like to claim ownership of a product I purchase. But in the digital world, where “copies” can be made that are physically different to the original, that’s a tough sell. 🙁 It’s for this reason that I feel digital should, in theory, be cheaper by a degree (50%? 75%?) than digital, because you are paying for the same game but the “good faith” that it will be available at any point in time, which it absolutely will not over the long term, therefore incurring a risk. That risk should be compensated for.

    • That’s an interesting angle, taking risk into account when pricing a digital good. That’s actually not a bad compromise.

      And agreed, there are a ton of essays that can be written on the topic, but ultimately I think we should care more about it because when people are finally forced by circumstance or a bad situation, to actually have a view on it & take a stance, it could all be too late.

  • Great piece. I still want hard copies because of many reasons listed.

  • 40 Insane Frogs

    It’s an interesting problem, but I like physical things, and therefore prefer to “own” disks. At least I can sell the disks, or trade them, or set them alight, or use them as frisbees, or glue them to the wall, or lick them… or use them to scoop kitten litter.

    Can you do the same with digital? LOL No!

  • Guava_Eater

    Back when I read the EULA for Monkey Island I was surprised to find out that you may own the disks but you don’t own the game. All you purchase is the “right to use” and not ownership. Yes you own the disks but not the software on those disks. Digital is no different.

    I suppose if any of these platforms (and I include XBL and PSN) unjustifiably ban people or cut them off from their purchases, then they will break trust with the consumers. Once that trust is gone people will stop buying digital. In fact, they will probably stop buying period. The Pirate era will come back 10 times harder than before. The Myanmar thing was a technical glitch (maybe a PEBKAC) but it wasn’t malicious.

    People always like to think the best and “it won’t happen to me” till it happens to you. By then it’ll be too late. Like I said above though, any person who is cut off from their digital purchases will resort to Piracy. Most prefer to play legitimately but if the legitimate provider screws them over, all bets are off….

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