The Complex Moral Ambiguity of “Pirating” Video Games


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.