On the 25th of this month, Ross Scott of Freeman’s Mind and Ross’s Game Dungeon fame (both of which, by the way, warrant coverage of their own in the future) dropped a video essay, “Games as a service” is fraud. In the description, he writes:
WARNING: This is more boring than my usual videos.
Well, all right, it’s a dry topic touching on the technical, the philosophical, and the legal; but it’s important and warrants a conversation. I highly suggest giving the video a watch, even if it feels like preaching to the choir. That said, this article doesn’t require it. The springboard I’ll use for now is the following quote from 42:53:
Every once in a while, you’ll hear people ask if games are art. I don’t have an answer on that, but I think it’s pretty clear games are creative experiences often worthy of preservation, so I’ll say art just to keep it simple.
First, regarding the “are games art” question – just for the sake of having something to work with, my (likely unoriginal) answer is that there is a delineation of artistic merit to be made, just as in any other medium. There are video game analogues of arthouse films, pulp mag serialisations, concept albums, Beatport Top 10 CLUB BANGERS, and just about anything else under the sun. That is to say, we’re assuming that there is the possibility of significant artistic merit, which, pardon me as I moralise, demands at least the opportunity for preservation.
With that out of the way, let’s briefly discuss the thrust of Ross’s video.
The general premise of Games as a Service is akin to its linguistic ancestor, Software as a Service. That is, anywhere from some core portion of the “product” to its entirety runs on someone else’s computer, and you are charged for the right to access it.
The issues are numerous; suffice to say, they all stem from the fundamental lack of user control. We must be careful here. To paraphrase Ross, we are making an additional qualification: the truly problematic thing here is a game being available exclusively via this model. Those newfangled cloud gaming services that turn your computer into a graphical terminal for a game running entirely on some server, or the upcoming subscription models that the tech press loves to call the “Netflix of Gaming” (seriously, look up that phrase), are not in and of themselves the issue. As long as it’s still possible to acquire your very own copy of the game, and play it to your heart’s content anywhere into the future, all is well.
What happens, though, when that’s not the case? What happens when the servers go down? Ay, there’s the rub. As Ross points out, more often than not, that seals it off forever. This is unfortunate for the consumer, certainly, but I promised I’d jump off at the quote above. Many thanks to Ross; now begins our rabbit hole. The ultimate problem, concerning our society at large, is that of the human informational legacy.
Hello, Future. Please, remember me.
As a species, we are unique in our ability to process complex information. Through this lens, it’s no surprise that the Information Age, as it’s called, is the most transformative period yet in human history. “Knowledge is power”. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. There is a reason these were written and said, as there was a reason that we have, since ancient times, concerned ourselves so deeply with epistemology: having a good enough answer to “how do we know that we know?” is crucial to, well, knowing.
The construction of a record, of a body of knowledge, is that by which we progress. We build something greater than ourselves, and the shoulders of giants grow taller and taller. Every loss to history has within it the chance of a tragedy, of some opportunity cost, and the currency may be as petty as gold or as dear as blood. When something is condemned to be lost, there’s no point in even asking. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but at their feet lie countless grim uncertainties.
Now, clearly, in the case of a game, the approximate extent of “tragedy” is game development at large retreading unnecessary steps, and us forever living with a gap in our culture. I’m not here to equivocate that with a cure for a disease. I’m not here to make the case for games; given the site this article lives on, that would just be pushing at an open door. Still, it’s important to remember that these things have parallels across the human experience. Games are another medium, another community, another culture of their own. They will continue to thrive only by an affection that manifests as curation and conservation.
Don’t feel bad for being a data hoarder, that’s for sure. Your external hard drive full of video games, anime, random PDFs, and old programs is one step closer to ensuring that any given thing on it is not yet lost. Arcade cabinets, cartridges, discs, and the like are all nice; just remember that physical media degrade over time, and it may well be worth dumping the data. Feel how you like about intellectual property. Remember, though, that on the other side of the scales, lies the health of a legacy.
Here’s to a vibrant future.
Yestin Harrison is a dilettante fascinated by anything from games to graphic design to planetary-scale distributed systems. When not performing his duties as webmaster at Rebind or kicking the site an occasional article, he's found anywhere there's a lark to chase. Reach him on the Web at ylh.io, and on twitter @yestinharrison.