Anarchism in Video Games

Putting aside legalese shenanigans to play a game I like to call “Not Being a Stupid Twat,” we have to ask ourselves a few very important questions: What is Intellectual Property? What does it do? What roles does it serve? Is it necessary?

The shortest answer would be that it is a ploy by buyers to maintain ownership of property after having sold it, it serves no role beyond that, and it is completely unnecessary. This is actually a point that I’m making in the upcoming work What Steam Greenlight Teaches Us About Anarchy, which my Quora profile mistakenly cites me as the author of–while I am the author, “it” doesn’t quite exist yet. I got pulled onto other projects and the anarchist book featuring Steam Greenlight got pushed to the backburner.

For those unaware, Steam is a video game distribution platform for PC. For the most part, it is phenomenal–it serves a role that has been needed for a very long time. It’s so ubiquitous that you’re not likely to find a game that wasn’t made by EA that doesn’t run in tandem with Steam’s service. It allows multiplayer, achievements, chat, friend systems, refunds, and it is a storefront for buying games–on top of that, there are weekly sales that, for a while, will have you very excited. Then you’ll realize that this storefront is primarily filled with games that are uninteresting and uninspired, so it hardly matters if Ton-Ton’s Great Adventure goes on sale at 90% off from $1 to ten cents.

steam-greenlight-thumbs-upAdditionally, Steam is a platform for first-time developers to get their games onto the Steam store–yes, this created the previous problem that I mentioned, the abundance of mediocre games. A development studio or individual pays a flat fee of $100 and then can upload their game’s screenshots and videos for people to vote on. If people like it, it will be “greenlit” and ultimately accepted onto the store. If people don’t, then… Well, Jim Sterling has a great series called “The Best of Steam Greenlight” that is worth watching. Please note that the title of the show is sarcastic. You want his newer series Greenlight Good Stuff if you want to see games that are actually good.

The system has almost no oversight from Valve, and a number of interesting things have resulted. Unless there is a blatant violation of Intellectual Property–like if someone uploads World of Warcraft as their game–then Valve is not going to bother with it. Even this is unnecessary, though, because masses of people who browse Steam Greenlight hate one thing more than they hate anything else…

People uploading someone else’s work.

Hardly a week goes by that some dumbass doesn’t upload Minecraft or some other notable indie game that isn’t on the Steam store. In some cases, they just completely misunderstand how the system works, but we have to marvel that someone would be willing to spend $100 to learn a lesson in how we handle property in the digital world. In other cases, they’re just stupid and genuinely think that they can get away with it, that they can slide Minecraft in under the radar and no one will notice, and then millions of people will buy it and they’ll laugh all the way to the bank.

However, it’s not really of significance why these people do it. Our focus lies in the reaction that people have to it, because it substantiates a long-held libertarian idea that intellectual property is not necessary for a number of reasons. First, if I have written a book and someone has bought a copy, and then made a bunch of photocopies of it and started selling them, then the overwhelming majority of people would reject the person’s photocopies, and would instead buy the book directly from me, even if that meant a substantial increase in price. Steam Greenlight is real world evidence that this is, indeed, the case.

Someone else really attempted to upload World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King–yes, really… Someone really, honestly did that–and a private server that they were attempting to build. They estimated that classes and abilities were “about 1% working.” Let’s keep in mind that this is not a thing like www.itch.io or Newgrounds, where startup developers post their games for people to check out for free. This was someone’s actual attempt to sell their product–a 1%-working Wrath of the Lich King.

Needless to say, the people who regularly frequent Greenlight were not amused and did not approve. Why would anyone pay for a shoddy, inferior experience where only 1% of abilities even worked–considering that none of the classes in the game even has that many abilities, we can infer that this means that 0% of the abilities actually worked, but a few kinda-sorta-did–when they could instead pay a reasonable fee to Blizzard?

Indeed, we can look back to Blizzard and the Nostalrius Server incident for yet more examples of our favorite two things overlapping: video games and free market concepts. For a very long time, Blizzard–the makers of World of Warcraft–have abjectly refused to run “classic” servers from previous expansions, saying that after the nostalgic thrill wore off, players would lose interest and it would prove to be nothing more than a waste of money. All evidence is to the contrary, though, and I confess that I would gladly return to WoW to play WOTLK once more. I didn’t buy Warlords of Draenor until it was on its last patch, leveled to 100, got a few pieces of arena PvP gear, and promptly lost interest; I haven’t bought Legions and am not going to. I am as finished with World of Warcraft as I have ever been finished with anything.

So some people got together and released a free server of classic, original World of Warcraft. I’m not going to go into the full story–because you probably have heard it–but when Blizzard dropped the hammer on the server, the reaction of players was enough that I have chills on my arms just thinking about it. Thousands upon thousands of players logged in and went on a slow, quiet death march, touring the server one last time in a gigantic group–an actual community, not the instanced bullshit the game has since become–and saying “Goodbye.” Blizzard still has not implemented any servers dedicated to previous expansions, but they will use the full might of the law to prevent anyone else from doing it.

The problem here is the same one that plagues Steam Greenlight: intellectual property laws. A distaste for stealing is not the problem. We should react vehemently when some jerkwad tries to claim Minecraft as his game and sell it. There is everything wrong with that, and we should tell that person to fuck off. We should not however, go get the Big Bad Policeman to put a gun to the guy’s head and make him fuck off. Of their own accord, people reject plagiarism–it is of no surprise that being caught plagiarizing will sink a person’s academic career.

However, all of this is not the only thing Steam teaches us about anarchy. In addition to showing us exactly how anarchy functions without a supreme overlord making all the ultimate decisions, Steam also shows us that the masses of people simply are not ready for that.

One of the most common threads among Jim Sterling’s videos–and his fans–is that Valve, the people who own Steam, needs to step in and implement some kind of quality control, to stop the sludge and trash from getting through. Let’s return to a previous trait of Greenlight, though–a game can only get through if people vote for it.

Thankfully, Valve has thus far refused to step in. To my mind, they have implemented quality control, by allowing consumers to choose what is and isn’t worthy of going through. However, this has not stopped countless people demanding that Valve step in to keep games like Little Girl Simulator from being greenlit. It’s a literal example of “I don’t approve of this, so I want an authority figure to step in and make it go away, even though other people clearly approve of it.” It’s worth pointing out that Little Girl Simulator is just a stupid game where you play as a little girl running around a boring environment–there’s nothing sexual about it.

When you point out to these people what they are saying, they reject it. “I’m not saying it should be removed because I don’t like it! I’m saying it could be removed because it’s low quality crap!”

This is obviously circular.

circle1Pointing out to them that clearly, someone likes it and approves of it–by definition–has no effect, either, and just makes them bring up another argument. “But now it’s going to appear on the store page, where unsuspecting consumers will see it and think it’s a good quality game!”

Perhaps, but this is why we have user reviews on the Steam page itself. I suspect most people would not buy a $5 game they’ve never heard of, if it has Mixed reviews–or Negative reviews. Anything short of “Mostly Positive” will likely cause them to reject it. And if we’re talking about a $60 game, then any idiot who drops $60 on a game they know nothing about, have never heard of, and that just randomly appeared on the store page is probably consciously aware that they’re rolling the dice and may lose. It’s no one’s job to protect the gambler from losing.

“But you can’t expect an ordinary consumer to be that diligent! They shouldn’t have to be that diligent about what they buy!”

Well, they don’t have to be that diligent, do they? Because people like you will gladly police the Greenlight page and keep truly inferior products like Kill the Fag from making it through to the store. So they don’t really have to worry about that, do they? Because there are plenty of people out there who gladly take up the role of watchdog.

Would anyone buy a brand new car without doing any research into it? Would anyone drop $27,000 on a brand new car without even looking on Google to see if the car had any reported problems? Of course not. No one in their right mind would drop that kind of money on a product without looking into it at all, except someone who had some sort of agreement/warranty with the dealer that left them on solid ground anyway. But if someone is spending just $27, suddenly their innate desire to not piss away their money evaporates?

So what we’re really discussing here is at what threshold, according to some people, a person should be able to pay out a certain amount of money with there being no risk involved. This is, obviously, a stupid point and a red herring; risk is always involved, whether you pay $1 or $100. I’ve bought plenty of Hershey’s chocolate bars that turned out to be white, old, and inedible, basically throwing away 75 cents. Should I run screaming to an authority figure to protect me from the evil store that sold me a bad candy bar?

This is a serious question.

At least, it’s as serious as the question, “Should a gamer run screaming to Valve to be protected from wasting $3 on a shitty game?”

Furthermore, Valve has a refund process built right into Steam. You can get a refund for any damned reason you want, as long as you have had the game for less than 2 weeks and have played it for less than 2 hours. If a person buys a $3 game on Steam that turns out to be total shit, then they’re likely to figure that out with plenty of time to get it refunded.

Consumers on Steam are protected, double-protected, and triple-protected. There are the watchdogs who downvote inferior quality games. There are Steam user reviews. There is a refund process that could be more lenient with the “time played” but is otherwise fairly reasonable. Even then, if you have good enough reasons, Valve has given people refunds after playing for more than fifty hours.

18 months-ish ago, I bought Tomb Raider 2013 for $20 on Steam. I enjoyed the game. Three days later, I had 7 hours played, and Square-Enix released the Tomb Raider bundle on Steam. You could get Tomb Raider 2013, all its DLC, and literally every other Tomb Raider game ever made, plus all the DLC for the ones that had it, for $20. You read that correctly. The game that I paid $20 for–which included none of the DLC–was included in the bundle with all of the DLC, and with ten other games, for exactly the same price.

I was livid.

Because there’s no warning when a publisher is about to release a bundle or a huge sale. Games go on sale for 50% off, 75% off, 90% off all the time, and there’s no way to know when it will and won’t happen. I bought Batman: Arkham City for $20, and a week later it was on sale for 75% off, at $5. It happens with new releases, too–it’s not just older games. The Final Fantasy X/X-2 Remasters released on Steam at $30 and immediately came with 20% off, knocking the price down to $24.

Though I’ve lost a lot of money already with games going on sale or being included in bundles randomly without any warning, this Tomb Raider one was too much. If I’d simply waited three days, I could have gotten eleven games and 24 pieces of DLC for the same price that I paid for one of those games, but I had no idea that it was a good idea to wait a few days. I contacted Valve and filled them in. I contacted Square-Enix, pointing out, “Just FYI–I am a reviewer of an aggregated site, and I do, in fact, review lots of Square-Enix games.”

Valve refunded the purchase, even though I’d played for 7 hours and wasn’t eligible for a refund. The money was added to my account, and I purchased the bundle instead. I am not the only person with a story like this, and Valve is always extremely reasonable. In fact, there probably isn’t a company in the world as anarchistic and pro-consumer as Valve. Square-Enix told me to fuck off, for all intents and purposes. Nordic Games, when I contacted them about Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition not even working when I was seriously trying to review it, never even replied to me. That is what I expect from corporations.

What’s the difference with Valve? Why is Valve so pro-gamer, when so many other companies are antagonistic of their consumers?

Well… gamers constantly hold Valve’s feet to the flames.

Those irritating watchdogs who want to overstep their bounds and have the state step in to force their standards onto everyone else–even though people clearly disagree with them in numbers great enough to be consequential–are also the reason that Valve doesn’t “pull an EA.” It’s fine, of course–as I’ve written before, watchdogs are good. We need them. There’s nothing “not very libertarian” about being a watchdog of an industry, a corporation, or a product. So watch on, watchdogs.

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that choosing to be a watchdog gives your preferences any more weight than anyone else’s.

One of the more insidious aspects of Steam is that it is wholesale guilty of the initial problem. It does not sell games to players. It leases them, per license agreements, EULAs, and TOUs. You do not own any of the games in your Steam Library. You are leased them by Valve, dependent on whether or not you abide the rules they lay out. You have been turned into a glorified renter, and Valve maintains ownership of the games in your library “because Intellectual Property.” This, too, is something being discussed in the anarchist work, because we’re going to wake up in a few more decades to find that we don’t own anything, that everything is leased to us, dependent upon whether we obey the sellers’ rules.

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