I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that sometimes when Chris and I debate something our positions aren’t quite as set-in-stone as we make them out to be. Sometimes the opposite is true. This is definitely one of those times. This week we’ll be debating the merits of owning our games (and other things) physically vs. digitally and it should be an absolute street fight, as I know Chris and I have some extremely different views on this.
Let me start by saying that I hate physical products. When I say I hate them, the word hate doesn’t even fully convey the feelings of loathing I have for physical products. I’m aware that there are certain things that, by nature, must exist physically, but other than food, clothing, transportation, and a place to live, I’d just assume own absolutely everything digitally.
One of the most obvious reasons for loving digital stuff is that it really can’t break. Every single PC game I own is through Steam. If my PC breaks, I can fix it or buy a new one and my entire library is still intact. In the case of games owned physically, the media itself still needs to be protected. I’ve never been great about keeping discs in their cases and keeping things organized, but even for people who are really anal about that stuff, accidents still happen. Even more, with certain types of media — NES carts for example – there is aging that can happen to the components that may cause them to break even if you’ve treated them perfectly. Cassette tapes were always a great example of a technology that just seemed to break randomly even if you took great care of it. I can’t tell you how many times a tape player just “ate” one of my tapes, permanently destroying it.
Stuff gets lost.
Again, while I realize that it’s completely possible to take care of the stuff I own, sometimes things just happen. Even when they don’t though, even in scenarios where I’ve lost things and it was 100% my fault, it still seems silly to me. Games can be enjoyed completely digitally, in fact that’s how their made, so why not just organize and manage them digitally? By default my Steam catalog is in alphabetical order, but I can organize it in any number of ways. I can tag games, change the way my library is displayed, and a lot more. It’s a great way to manage a huge unruly collection without having to keep track of every little thing.
Stuff gets stolen.
You can’t really steal digital goods. I suppose you could hack someone’s Steam, PSN, or Xbox Live account, but I don’t know that you could actually “steal” anything that way. The digital goods I buy are mine and no one can walk into my house and take them. They can’t be destroyed in a fire, or a flood, they can’t get lost while moving to a new house, they can’t be swiped by people over for a party.
One big concern with digital goods has always been the reliability that the product you purchase will be available forever. While I understand that concern, I feel that in many ways, it’s unwarranted. On the outside, it seems somewhat scary to imagine that Steam might one day just disappear taking my entire gaming library (and all the money I’ve poured into it) with it. The truth is that services like Steam, Xbox Live, even the Apple App Store aren’t going away anytime soon, and even if they did, you would almost certainly have some pretty advanced notice that they were, giving you a last chance to download what you wanted. What seems far more likely is for a service like Steam to simply start phasing out games that are either really old, or almost never downloaded or played. Assuming that there was a game in my library that had been phased out and no longer available for download, I’d feel completely justified in finding some other way of getting it. Anyone can go to a website and download the entirety of the NES catalog in about ten minutes. If a game is so outdated and so obscure that no store wants to carry it there is very little chance of anyone caring that you downloaded it illegally. Oh and technically, if you purchased the game, downloading it from some other site isn’t actually illegal.
Another concern is that digital purchases can become outdated in ways that may be unexpected. For example, if you own a box copy of Doom then you have all the floppy discs to go with it, but what are the chances that you have a DOS computer that has a floppy drive; probably very little. In the same way, there is always a concern that owning things digitally doesn’t mean you have a device on which to use them. I may own a thousand games on Steam, but if the games require an outdated OS to run, then what’s the point? The problem with this concern is that it applies equally to physical purchases. If you bought all of your PS3 games physically, then you have to make sure that you always keep your PS3 and that it always works, otherwise the entire catalog of games you bought physically mean nothing. And the thing is, you can’t predict when the next OS is going to come out and make some of your old games outdated, and you can’t predict whether or not your PS3 might die. It may never happen, or it might happen sooner than you think. Also, there are other considerations with physical products too, like whether or not there is any way to plug them in. The original NES system comes with an RF adapter. I believe most TVs still have those, but more and more everything is HDMI, so how long will it be before you can’t even plug in that old NES without an adapter, and then how long after that until the adapters are impossible to find. The point here is that there is virtually no guarantee that digital or physical products will work forever. Some will work for a good long time, others, maybe not.
There are a few things I still miss about buying things physically. I miss the fun of unwrapping that cellophane on a game or CD package, I miss reading the physical book that typically came with the product. To some degree I miss browsing stores. But all the things I miss about physical products are absolutely dwarfed by what I love about owning things digitally, The digital world is upon us, and it’s a glorious thing.