The Case for Videogame Piracy

A game stall in Egypt. Source: http://blog.hardcoregaming101.net/2010/03/videogames-of-egypt.html

Somewhere, somehow, someone is mad that you’re having fun for free. From big name influencers to randos in the comments, do anything but vehemently deny that you support piracy and there’s bound to be someone chastising you for offering a non-official way to enjoy a game.

But what even counts as piracy?

Buying a piece of media today doesn’t mean getting a copy of it. Music, movies, games, even books — most of the time if you’re buying a copy from a major distributor you’re buying a license. You’re buying a ticket that says when you play it, and how. If you lose your ticket, or if it gets ripped, wet or otherwise unreadable, well you’re out of luck. Time to get a new one.

And plenty of things violate your right to the ticket. Depending on who you buy it from, making a copy, lending it to someone else, or playing it on something other than the very specific hardware you bought it on is grounds for destroying that ticket — and is therefore piracy. Hell, if they decide they don’t want to keep copies of the game you paid for in case you want to redownload it, and you somehow find a method to get a copy — that’s piracy.

The only difference between what’s legitimate and what’s piracy is if it’s sanctioned by the people who own the copyright — which should be noted, is different than the people who created it.

Moralizing about piracy can only be done from a privileged position. The people who pirate games are often the ones who can’t access or afford legitimate options to start with. In many parts of the world you might not even have the option to buy games legitimately, and if you do they cost multiple times what they do in other regions.

a locadora, one of the makeshift arcades in Brazil

In The Locadora Tales: Gaming in Brazil’s Hidden Arcades, Ives Aguiar details Brazil’s history with games, focusing on the locadoras, pirate game shops where you could rent, play or buy all kinds of pirated games.

Because of Brazil’s international status and harsh trade restrictions, videogames became impractical to import, necessitating the creation of bootleg consoles and software piracy. In turn, these locadoras became social hubs to experience the latest releases and find out what was good from other patrons.

And while the circumstances might not be exactly the same, I’ve heard plenty of similar stories from friends who lived in other countries like Equador or Russia. It was the same during my time living in Egypt, where cyber cafes were the de facto place to experience videogames, and even the big game stores didn’t have a single legit copy in sight.

And that might ultimately be a positive.

A side effect of having such a wide, uncurated ecosystem is that you end up playing a stranger and more diverse set of games, which arguably gives you a wider survey of games history. You don’t end up talking about the same set of games everyone’s already agreed are good. When it costs you nothing but your time to check something out, you become a lot more willing to give something you’ve never heard of a try.

That was certainly true for me, who, thanks to piracy and emulation, ended up playing the Master Quest of Ocarina of Time before the original, and remembered games like Terranigma and Seiken Densetsu 3 with the same reverence as Chrono Trigger, despite the fact that neither was released in the States at the time. I didn’t know what games were “important” at the time — I just played whatever could capture my interest in the five minutes I gave them. I’d like to think having such an unorthodox perspective on what games mattered helped me gain a unique entry point into games writing, and break out of the usual modes of thinking.

That’s definitely true for designers like Jamie Cheng, the founder of Klei Entertainment. In an interview with the podcast Designer Notes, Cheng details his history with games growing up in Hong Kong, where disk copying utilities allowed him to sample all kinds of games. Games like Aerobiz, an airport business simulator for the SNES. Or SD Gundam X, a strategy game that simulated battles across both the galaxy and each planet’s surface, complete with real time combat sequences when armies clashed. Games that are unlikely to get mentioned in a retrospective of the SNES’ history, but were fun and ambitious in different ways.

Cheng credits piracy with bringing him experiences like this, and putting him on the path to becoming a game designer. In his own words:

(Piracy) is a big reason why I’m a game developer today, because I played so many damn games — and it’s because I pirated them all. If I didn’t pirate them I wouldn’t be playing them.

And given Klei’s continued successes, across so many different genres, there just might be some merit to having that kind of near unlimited access.

None of this contradicts the idea that you should support creators that make games you like, or that the labor they put in deserves fair compensation.

But on the massive scale major game companies operate on — which is always the scale where this moralizing shows up —creators might not be seeing any cut of the sales, and companies may be losing little, if anything, to piracy.

In 2013 the EU ordered a study on the effects of piracy, and then promptly buried it when the results suggested that for everything barring big blockbuster films, there was no evidence that piracy affected sales. Other studies have found that while it can have a negative effect, it can often encourage sales as well, with the pirates and legal users not exactly being exclusive categories. We’ll probably never have a definitive answer on the topic.

What remains true is that games are ultimately an expensive and often hard to access hobby. The devices for playing them are expensive on their own, and that’s before you get to the games themselves, which can get exorbitantly expensive, even for games that might have come out 30 or 40 years ago. Piracy not only makes games, and their history, accessible to a wider range of people, but it’s become one of the only options for preserving games in lieu of companies that are indifferent, or outright hostile, to the idea of keeping that history around.

And sure, you can make the argument that videogames are ultimately a luxury, and something you should only bother with if you can afford it. But like all other media, games are a part of culture — a way for us to find common ground with others, and make new connections. So saying only those who can afford legitimate copies deserve to participate, that’s like saying poor people, and any others outside the system, shouldn’t be allowed to be part of our culture.

And to me, well, that’s more morally reprehensible than someone copying some data for free.

Amr is the Editor-in-Chief of clickbliss.net (@clickbliss), and previously ran Deorbital (deorbital.media). They’re also the host of Hand to Hand, Heart to Heart, a fighting game podcast for everyone.

Editor-in-Chief of @deorbital and @clickbliss. artist. writer. Egyptian-Filipino American.