I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but gaming today isn’t the same as gaming 10 (or even five) years ago. Prior to the adoption of downloadable games and the wholesale attack on the part of the game publishers against the second-hand market, gaming was something we did together as a community. Now, however, the gaming community faces some major challenges in the form of Digital Rights Management (DRM), violations of the right of first sale, the over-commercialization of console gaming, the assumption that graphics and guns make the game, and censorship from “moral crusaders” against video games which offend them (despite the fact that they themselves have never played those games). In a vain attempt not to be a downer, I will share some ideas on how I think we can improve our situation.
If you go to Sam’s Club or Costco, they have a guy standing at the door who checks your membership card when you enter the door and then checks your receipt as you leave. This is their form of loss prevention: everybody is a thief until proven not to be a thief. The same is true of DRM, too, as DRM is the loss prevention of digital media. The difference is that DRM results in an intentional lack of sharing of media between friends, thus rendering media which should be culturally beneficial much less so. Additionally, DRM also has the fun side-effect of bricking (rendering useless) consoles which are modified to play home-brew games, iPhones which have been jail-broken, or making scratches on video game discs much more detrimental than they normally would. Since everything on the disc is involved in copy-protection, any small amount of data which cannot be read can cause the game not to load rather than just causing the game to skip on the sound-track or video.
The right of first sale, specifically, refers to the constitutional and statutory right (held up by the Supreme Court and is codified within U.S. law) within the United States of America to sell an item which you have purchased, but not a copy of it. This is the right that makes the second hand game market in the United States legal. Game publishers do not care much for the used game market. If you sell a used game, the publisher doesn’t make any more money, and they see that as a lost sale of a new game. They erroneously assume that someone would have purchased a new copy of a game at $59 rather than purchasing a used copy around $30. For these reasons, some publishers have implemented their own “loss prevention” in the form of consumable key-codes (such as Red Faction: Armageddon).
Gaming – like many things in the United States these days – is becoming over-commercialized. It’s tough, but not impossible, for an indie game shop to come out with a hot new game. Sure, there are exceptions such as Minecraft, but most of the games that folks are excited about are only coming from big shops. Additionally, the big publishers keep buying the small shops once they have a successful title, and then they close it down to reduce costs, moving the game to another development shop which is usually overseas or in an area where developers are paid less. This means that we end up with fewer people making games, fewer developer shops making games, and more control in the hands of large corporations.
Gamers, to an extent, have also participated in the self-mutilation of their own gaming culture. It used to be that video games were about having fun, about the thrill of solving the puzzle, beating the game, improving one’s gaming abilities and engaging in friendly competition. Now, video games have become about competing in large numbers and in a very aggressive manner. We demand better graphics, even if they don’t add to the story or the gameplay. The gaming community wants production quality at a level that only major corporations can sustain, so only major corporations get to play.
Finally we come to censorship. Hillary Clinton is likely one of the more recent politicians to demagogue video games and blame them for violence. Study after study shows that video game violence does not cause violent behavior, and politician after politician exploits video games as a cause of violence in the course of some emotional argument of their campaign to get stupid people who believe that stuff to vote for them. We even see folks lifting up the Entertainment Softeware Rating Board (ESRB) as some infallible ratings board, and wanting to legislate them into a place of prominence as many states have with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) ratings. This, of course, is a crock of lies. Objectivity in the ESRB is about as easy to find as a unicorn with rainbow lasers coming out of his ass. There is no objective measure for games because video games are an art form, and are therefore entirely subjective in content. Sure, there are some points that can seem objective, but in context they simply are not.
Take the History Channel’s Civil War game for instance. Compare it to, say, Call of Juarez. The History Channel’s game was rated “Teen” while Call of Juarez was rated “Mature.” Why? The ESRB would say that due to the educational nature of the History Channel’s game, it is less objectionable. They’d also say that the violence is toned down. This begs the question of how does one determines the scale of violence in a game? I guarantee that I kill fewer (FICTIONAL) people in the course of playing Call of Juarez than in the Civil War game.
With all of that said, I have some ideas on solutions, too. As far as censorship goes, the solution there is simple. If you have a young (14 or under, for those of you who want me to define “young”) child who wants to play video games, don’t let them have a computer or a console in their room. In addition to preventing them from engaging in some atrocious behavior, it gives you an opportunity to supervise your child’s gaming, maybe even participate in gaming with your child. Even if your kid is playing Super Mario Brothers it is possible that they are somehow engaging in behavior or picking up lessons which you don’t want them picking up (poor sportsmanship, cursing in frustration, etc).
For DRM and violations of the right of first sale, reject download-only titles. Complain to the publisher about consumable key-codes. Trade in games at community shops first, and share games with your friends. Game publishers have no business trying to teach us and our children not to share.
Accept lesser graphics in exchange for better gameplay! Minecraft is a perfect example of a game which can be more fun than you’ve had in a while, where the graphics aren’t all that super. PC Gamers have learned over time that games with higher-end graphics cost more money in hardware and performance, and they’re not always worth it. Console gamers could do well to pick up this lesson.
My final though on this matter: participate in gaming culture! You – yes you – are the perfect catalyst to right what could be considered a sinking ship. You live in a community, right? You have neighbors? Friends? Community centers? Rent out your community center, or a room in your local library. Tell people to bring their consoles and TVs, and their games. Get together and play video games with one another. Video games are an art form, and they are consumed by an appreciative art community – the gamers. We need to think of ourselves first as game culture participants, and not as video game media consumers.
You are not a media consumer, you are a gamer. And for that we thank you.