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

7 min read
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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.

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.

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.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: January 4, 2017

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. May or may not report you to the relevant authorities. I'm also a big fan of English Cricket. Ask me about the ICC.

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