Exploring the Moral Dimensions of Used Games

Tycho responded to some of the ideas in my post yesterday (I'm sure he received the same ideas from many, many different writers) in his newspost today. It reads in part:

People who buy used games are not pirates, by definition. Used games (used everything, really) are and will continue to be a legal and protected form of commerce. Other industries have done what they can to co-opt, destroy, or harvest those markets, but their existence is settled law. What I have said is that the end result of that purchase from a developer perspective must be indistinguishable. Isn't it? That is the question I couldn't answer. I still can't answer it. And because I couldn't, I had to change the way I invested my leisure dollar.

So the first question is, should the end result of a used purchase be the same as a new purchase, from the perspective of a developer?

My answer, you might be surprised to hear, is yes-- but this is already true.

Think of sales figures. A game launches and shortly announces that it has sold one million copies. By next month, let's say a high percentage-- 50%-- of those copies have hit the secondary market.

What do you claim as a sales figure now? One million? Or a million and a half?

I think the clear answer is one million. Used DVDs don't count towards sales figures. Used cars don't count towards car sales. They are not additional sales. The same unit already sold has been sold forward. The original purchaser is no longer a client of the developer or the publisher. The developer and publisher have no obligation to discharge to him, and they are no longer entitled to count him among their clients. The current legal owner is the client-- and his copy has already been counted as a sale. The initial purchaser has, in reality, merely leased the game, paying only the difference between the new purchase price and his resale price as a fee for playing the game as long as he held onto it.

If a gamer buys a game on release day for $60, plays it for two weeks, sells it used for $20 to a GameStop, who turns around and charges $40 to another guy, who holds on to the game for years and plays it regularly-- who is the client? It is not sufficient to say that the used buyer is not a thief or a cheat, or merely to admit grudgingly that no laws have been broken. In this scenario, he is the true client. He is the developer's audience because he bought the game, whereas the initial purchaser only rented it.

People want to talk about used cars, or libraries, or any other thing really, but I'm not talking about the universe in general - I'm talking about the tiny part of it I have any control over. That bit up there is the part I can't resolve: the moral dimension contained within the purchase. Yes, I'm giving somebody money when I buy used. Is that sufficient? What is the end result, and what systems am I sustaining by doing so?

Is giving somebody money sufficient? Yes, it is. Not just for games, but for every single conceivable type of consumer good ever invented. Games are not unique in any respect. They are different in some ways from forms of durable goods like cars and computers, and different in still other ways from forms of entertainment like books, music, and films. They are not so different as to require a form of financial transaction different in kind from all others.

It is completely sufficient that there be a legitimate chain of custody that connects the current owner of a game with its legitimate source, the publisher. All else is navel-gazing. If developers or gamers feel there is a moral dimension to this purchase that is unfulfilled, then developers can put out a tip jar and see what they get, or use other legitimate methods, like Project Ten Dollar, to build a relationship with those consumers.

Perversely, though, when you look at it, Project Ten Dollar is literally subsidizing the very behavior the publishers are trying to eliminate. No one can buy a used game until someone is willing to sell it. The initial purchaser of the game at full price, who gets the benefit of PTD DLC for free, stands to lose nothing by selling his game into the used market. GameStop is not likely to pay him less because of the DLC-- it was never included in the original transaction. A $60 game will be worth $X to GameStop on the used market according to many factors, of which I don't think DLC is one of them.

What PTD tries to do is raise extra revenue from used game purchasers-- to continue to extract more income from a single unit sold. If they are trying to reduce demand for used games, I think they are barking up the wrong tree. People willing to wait and buy discounted used games are probably just as capable of eschewing DLC.