The Complex Moral Ambiguity of “Pirating” Video Games

By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief


Raise your hand if you’ve never downloaded a copy of something that you didn’t pay for and have no legal basis to own, whether it was a song, movie, video game, or something else. Chances are, nobody who is reading this has their hand up right now, and not just because they’d feel silly silently raising their hand in front of their laptop or while holding their phone with their non-raised limb. For the past few decades in particular, technology has made it far too easy not to occasionally help ourselves to a free digital copy of something that we have no right helping ourselves to. And often, systems are set up in such a way that it doesn’t even feel like we’re doing anything “wrong”–how many of us who were avid Napster users even considered that we were pirating music before Lars Ulrich got a drumstick stuck in his craw about it? Or maybe we really did put thought into it, and determined that it wasn’t actually pirating at all but was more akin to friends sharing copied cassette tapes and burnt CDs with each other–which we certainly never considered a law-breaking practice.

Indeed, there is an inherent murkiness to the waters of downloading free stuff that doesn’t exist when you’re talking about physical objects. Of course it’s stealing to walk into a store and pocket an NES game without paying for it. Only those with some misplaced sense of entitlement would argue that shoplifting isn’t a crime (although their personal feelings on the matter are irrelevant to a court of law). When it comes to downloading a ROM of an NES game and playing it on an emulator via a PC, smartphone, modded console, etc, the question of how illegal–and more importantly, how immoral–that is is much more complicated.

There used to be two main justifications for the use of emulators (beyond just the people who didn’t bother with trying to justify it at all): That it was okay to have a ROM of a game that you also owned a physical copy of, and that there was no harm in downloading a game that was no longer officially for sale anyway. As far as the first one, that’s a common misconception that it’s legal to download ROMs of games that you own. The only thing of that type that is “legal” is if you physically ripped the ROMs yourself, directly from your own legally purchased copy of the game. Just having a game on your shelf doesn’t give you legal license to download ROMs of that game from other places to your heart’s content. And even then, the legality of it is very complex. But there’s no use spending any more time on that as the majority of people who turn to ROMs and emulators are doing so to play games that they don’t already own.

It is certainly a fair point that downloading a game that has long-since been taken out of circulation isn’t taking money out of anyone’s pocket who was involved in the development and production of said game. Whether you buy a used game from a store or download it for free, nobody who made that game has earned an additional cent from either method you chose to procure that game. One could argue that it takes profits away from used game shops, and that’s definitely true. But what about the huge market of people who buy and sell directly to each other via eBay, Amazon, Facebook groups, or other methods of buying, selling, and trading games person-to-person? Certainly Joe Schmo has no grounds to be outraged that you downloaded a game for free rather than pay him money for it. The point is, if there is no way for a company to profit off of the sale of a game they made 20 years ago, then can we really feel all that guilty for just helping ourselves to a copy of it rather than picking some arbitrary person to give money to so that we can feel like we “bought it legally?”

So it went for emulator users for many years, until companies began to set up digital storefronts with which to officially sell copies of their old games. The argument of “Well there’s no way to buy these games anymore, anyway” soon went out the window as that stopped being the case. Suddenly, downloading a ROM of a game that its company was now selling again was no longer a “victim-less crime,” if you’ll pardon the hyperbole. Of course, virtually nobody who was already emulating games had stopped doing so because of that. Again, those that even bothered with justifications had come up with fresh ones: The digital games are too expensive. The emulation isn’t as good as the ones I use. I shouldn’t have to re-buy a copy of the game for each new platform a company comes up with. And on and on. The excuses changed, but the behavior remained. Even with the games now being available, people not only continued to emulate, but they did so more than ever before. Emulation was no longer something you could only do on your computer–people were modding consoles and handhelds, downloading emulators and ROMs to their smart devices, and even buying devices that were specifically designed and sold to run ROMs and emulators.

All that being said, there is still a lot to consider before the act of emulation can be outright condemned as an immoral act. Game companies have long complained that used game sales cut into their profits, with Gamestop specifically trying to steer its customers to the cheaper used versions of the games they come in to buy. This is a problem, of course, because publishers don’t see a dime off of a used game sale, with Gamestop getting to keep the entire profit off of the sale of used games. So if you’re going to come down on emulation as taking money away from the creators of the games, is Gamestop–or any other used game store–any better? If Gamer A decides to do the “right thing” by legally buying a game from a store but opts for the used version, and Gamer B decides to just pirate the same game, the makers of said game don’t see a dime in either instance. The only party losing money is the game store. Sure, one is “legal” and the other isn’t, but the illegality of emulation isn’t a major factor as it isn’t enough to keep most people away from doing it anyway.

Another “show of hands” exercise concerning how many people have never bought a used game, a game that was marked down to next to nothing in a clearance bin, or a game from another person would prove as futile as the one that began this article. So can people who have knowingly purchased games in such a way that the games’ creators aren’t going to see any profit really take a moral high ground over people who just go ahead and download games for free? Is the act of at least handing someone cash for a game enough to feel like the right thing is being done, no matter whom that someone is? Again, it’s far from black and white. There are facets of downloading games for free that most people with a decent moral compass can agree are far worse than simply emulating some random SNES game from 1993. Pirating newly released games for which sales numbers are still crucial, and pirating indie games for which each and every copy sold makes a difference and can literally mean someone being able to make rent next month are probably the two main examples of the “wrong” reasons to download free games and examples of how it can actually negatively affect the people who made the games.

Beyond that, there are just too many other moving parts to the whole emulation issue for anyone to be able to say it’s 100% okay or 100% wrong (except in a strictly legal sense). All anyone can do is search their own conscience and decide if they are helping themselves to games for the right reasons or the wrong ones, or whether or not they even care one way or another. One gamer’s noble reasoning is another gamer’s selfish entitlement, but at the end of the day, they’re both downloading games they didn’t pay for. The justification may be arbitrary, but somehow it seems to make all the difference.



9 thoughts on “The Complex Moral Ambiguity of “Pirating” Video Games

  1. Like the article – however wanted to mention that while buying used games doesn’t directly benefit the developer, it does put cash in hand, either to Gamestop the corporation, another used store chain or Mom&Pop, or an individual seller. The person or company can then use that money to buy further games or products that might (and likely often) benefit the Gaming economy – be that from purchasing new games direct for developers, or opening new Gamestops – consider that Gamestop might sell used a lot, but they also push the shit out of pre-order bonuses.

    Emulating a game leads to direct payment for nobody – nobody suffers from it directly – as it’s not the theft of a direct product, but no one also gains anything from it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well , i wanted to say something , pirating is a disaster for developer, but i will explain something, first and it is know in the world culture, if something is illegal people will want it badly. Example : Drugs it’s illegal people love to smoke weeds and take drugs … if you legalese it , it will be just like cigarettes , there is smokers and non smokers, it’s depends on mentality and personal choices, in Our case video games , pirating is illegal, people will do it, but instead of insisting on how illegal it is , let’s just change the perspective, and show people how bad it is and make it a values issue, because people still doesn’t know yet it is as bad as stealing food from a poor hungry person, they don’t value the product as a physical product they just think they copied a virtual product, no one is harmed , we need to show people how bad it is , for them and for hundreds of families , it’s not a matter of ” just a game “, a game company employ hundreds of people whom feeding and paying bills for their families and kids, if he don’t pay for a game and a lot of people like him also will not , the game profits will be a disaster and the company won’t make a squeal for the game you liked because it was a fail in their business, and the company may fire a lot of employee when facing budget struggles, leaving jobless people and unpaid bills and people suffering their life , just because you didn’t want to pay for a game for stealing it. that’s what most people must think about when they try to get a pirated copy of game or a software or any digital product.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely read, I very much enjoyed that! I emulated a few NES games when I was a kid, mostly ones I wasn’t able to get hold of being in the UK. I understood that it wasn’t entirely right, but being a child meant it didn’t worry me a huge amount.

    Regarding the publishers and used game sales, do you remember them trying to take a bite out of that with the online pass system some of them used? An interesting idea that eventually backfired.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am a avid game collector and have collected games old and new for a very long time. I always wanted emulators as far as I remember, the thought of having an entire game library at your finger tips is a dream come true.The prices on retro games now a days have gotten ridiculously out of control I mean paying upwards of 30 to 40 dollars for Super Mario/Duck Hunt is just insane.I can see why emulators are very popular I know if I went the emulator route I would be happy to have all the libraries of games but it would be hollow victory cause I would always want the physical copy so I guess I see both sides of the coin.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Software engineers do not see a dime of royalties on the products they make for the companies which own the IP so I have NO sympathy for All these publishers… The market have to evolve to the times… A mobile game now a days cost you 1$ whereas a game of similar quality would have sold for $35-$55 for a cartidge console… BUT you have HECK of a lot more people playing your games… Ads and In App purchases have to be thought of as part of modern game development IF you expect to profit from the games

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Awesome article! I used to emulate SNES games as a kid, my excuse was this: I do not have the money or the means to get any of these games. I will never play them if I don’t emulate them. I swore to support the developers and buy their games once I was able to earn money of my own and I have owned up to that promise. I have been buying my games 100% legit ever since. I do not regret having emulated them and if I went back in time I would do it again. These games made me who I am. I am very thankful for the privilege of having played them, even if I had to do something illegal (emulation). In the end these companies only benefited from me emulating the games because they made me love games and love their work enough to support them with all my will, to the point of even becoming one of them (a game developer). Additionally, emulators gave me extra tools to study how these games are made so I could one day achieve my dream of making my own. Things like enabling and disabling layers helped me understand layering, parallax scrolling, and many other game development concepts at a young age. I will continue working to empower and support these great game developers until the day I die.
    Forever thankful – Fidel

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This was an extremely well-written and thought-provoking article! I personally don’t emulate games. I don’t consider myself “better” by merely avoiding emulation. I just consider doing it to be against my own values because of how it is illegal. I see your points about GameStop’s used games, and don’t necessarily think that what GameStop does is right. I still buy used games, but I don’t believe that makes me a hypocrite either.

    I don’t judge others who play on emulators, though I’d question their validity if they write about it as if they were playing it on the original system. I also buy Virtual Console games to support developers and am generally fine with that official emulation. Otherwise, I would prefer to be playing Nintendo games on an actual Nintendo console, as opposed to a PC or PSP, etc.. This is definitely a hard topic to justify myself in, but it just wouldn’t sit right with me if I chose to emulate illegally. I loved reading this though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d agree with what’s said above… the article got me thinking. Since I got back into retro game collecting a couple of years, I’ve spent over €4,200 on second hand goods, console repairs, and related expenditure. Up until I got a Mega Everdrive, everything was ‘official’ software played on real hardware and I convinced myself that playing games how they were originally envisaged was the only way to go. Even then, I had about 20 Mega Drive/Genesis games which I had purchased on Steam which were being emulated on my laptop but because it was Steam and an official sales portal (and I presume Sega are getting a cut), I made no connection.

      Since getting the Everdrive, I have a ROM set of 700-odd games and I only own 66 MD games. Furthermore, after modding and adding Coinops to my old XBox, I’ve now moved to a place where, except for MD games, I spend half my time playing emulated games, so I don’t know where I stand on the issue any more!

      Liked by 2 people

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