The Morality of Used Games

The first notable issue of 2012 was all about piracy, freedom, and censorship. While this is one of the most discussed and controversial topics for the general public, it is interesting to note the effects that piracy and “free sharing” has on the video game industry. On January 25th, Kotaku reported that the Xbox 360’s successor may not be able to play used games. Naturally, there was a huge backlash from the dedicated community. While PC gamers are much more likely to pirate a game, due to convenience and lack of consequence, console gamers are more likely to obtain the game legally. If Kotaku’s reports ring true, it can easily be viewed that publishers are punishing innocent gamers. On the other hand, it can also be said that used games have the same effects on the industry that piracy has. It is a morally grey area for gamers. The truth is, used game sales help the industry as much as they hurt it.

Before getting into the details, it is important that one knows why piracy hurts the industry. In 2011, there was almost four million estimated (illegal) downloads for Crysis 2 alone. While the game did hit impressive numbers, only 14% of Crysis 2 purchasers bought the game on PC when the game launched. It is predictable that the Xbox sales are dominant over the PC, but the numbers could have been much more balanced if so many gamers did not pirate the game throughout the year. This is primarily the reason why so many game publishers and developers are against piracy. Recently, CD Projekt RED, developers of the well-known PC exclusive series The Witcher, started placing legal threats towards fans who pirated the game. Their public statement claims that it negatively affects them as well as the industry itself. Is it unfair for developers and publishers to expect compensation for the countless number of hours and money they put into the production of a game? Unfortunately, fans of the developer didn’t view the situation the same way. CD Projekt RED was pressured to end their hunt on software pirates.

This brings us to the issue of used games. Its no secret that GameStop, the popular US-based game retailer, profits from their used game sales. Publishers and developers make no earnings from these sales, leaving all of the income from that sale to the retailer. The battle between retailers and publishers intensified throughout 2011, getting to the point of “online passes” and “new-copy exclusive content”. Publishers have been issuing an online pass, a one-time-use code that allows the player to connect to the multiplayer servers, to discourage used sales. If one buys a game used, they would need to spend an additional $10 to purchase this pass. The latter, being the “new-copy exclusive content”, is a more recent trend of awarding gamers for buying the game new by giving a one-time-use code to unlock additional content. GameStop, hell-bent on making more money, countered these codes by giving them to used-game purchasers anyway.

What the publishers don’t understand is that buying a used game is not a crime. The online pass is flawed in the sense that it punishes gamers who don’t buy the game new. These are gamers who resist the cost-effective route of piracy, yet are being punished anyway. This is why so many gamers protest the idea of an online pass, or a new-game-only Xbox 720. In fact, not only is it a legal alternative to piracy, it always pushes new game sales. The reality is that if players are buying used games, they are also selling them for in-store credit. This means that 100% of the costumer’s earnings will go towards more games. Recently, I traded in a stack of games to put the money towards my pre-order of the Playstation Vita. My previous article explains why this would be beneficial to the portable gaming market as a whole. This is a cycle that most gamers participate in. Without this extra source of money, a handful of gamers will not be able to consistently support the industry.

Regardless, the comparison between piracy and used games has to be made. Both options don’t award the makers of the game in any way. If this marks our standards for morality, then buying a used game is not moral. The problem is that this doesn’t mark the standards for morality. A gamer is fulfilling his/her moral duty by purchasing the game. The ones who deserve questioning are the retailers, who refuse to give the publishers any profits. No one said that this wasn’t an option. In fact, emerging game retailer “Parcel Gamer” has taken the moral route and plans to give compensation to publishers for each used game sale.

Of course, one must question the true impact of piracy all together. On January 12th, Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft, publicly announced over twitter that he considers piracy a “minor offence”. This was to clarify a recent tweet that encouraged a financially unstable fan to pirate the game. Considering that Notch is both a developer and a publisher, it may feel natural to classify CD Projekt RED’s opposition as greed rather than concern. Despite a company’s motives, they still deserve money for their efforts. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up. As aforementioned, Crytek lost millions in sales due to the piracy of Crysis 2. Ultimately, the subject becomes subjective. Buying used games will inevidably result in a loss of income for the developers, but it is important to remember that the gamer has done their legal duty by purchasing the copy.

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