Thursday, October 5, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

The Final Fantasy Leak: Situational Ethics with Video Game Piracy?

In a previous essay I asked:

"why is it that so few people talk about the role of strong intellectual property rights in the electronic gaming sector? After all, this sector is quite vocal about enforcing their copyrights. And they're even big supporters of the DMCA. But they never get ridiculed as much as the movie or music guys. Could it be because many IP skeptics love their video games and are willing to give them a free pass while going after Hollywood on copyright issues?"

I find myself wondering the same thing this week in the wake of reports that the eagerly anticipated role-playing game "Final Fantasy XII" has been leaked and is now being distributed across the Internet illegally.

What I find so interesting about this incident is the extent to which many people on news boards like this, this, and this are almost unanimously denouncing those who would distribute or download the game illegally.

Comments like these are typical:

* "Ever since I started working in game development, I've become much better about paying for my games. I can see where costs come from, and how much work really goes into games. I'm not really preachy about it, and its nice being able to get my friends deals on games."

* "Forgetting that pirating is a criminal activity, Final Fantasy XII is supposed to be an absolutely incredible RPG -- we strongly encourage gamers to wait a few more weeks for the real game to properly reward Square Enix for their labored work. We don't mean to be publisher apologists here, but it's only common decency." [from editors].

* "It's a shame that Square Enix' hard work on one of the (with all probability) best PS2 games ever was so close to being spoiled by pirates."

* "Distributing software in this manner is wrong. This has been said time and time again, but people put in years of blood, sweat and tears to get a game completed. Folks who swipe game info just to be first to have the game are not taking into consideration the people hours involved in its creation. We may not like the giant companies that are involved in the backing of these games, but just think of the lowly art designer that is working tirelessly to meet deadlines. Then think about what you are doing to screw this person out of income he or she earned."

(and my two personal favorites, despite their vulgar tones…)

* Pirates suck ass. Leave it to a bunch of computer crooks to try to steal and sell something as cool as FFXII. Bitches."

* (in response to a guy who says he pirates games because he doesn't like spending money on games and then finding he might not like them…) "So you buy a game and don't like it? Tough shit! It's called being a consumer. It's part of the deal. You buy something, and there is risk involved. If you don't like it and can't take it back then too bad. You took a small risk and it didn't pay off; welcome to the world of modern business exchanges. You want it different, then move to a country where capitalism hasn't provided so much (including the ability for your dumb ass to steal such nice stuff). . . Stealing makes you a jackass, and trying to justify it with your whiny "oh poor me, the helpless consumer, i am entitled to pirate shit" act is tired and childish. Grow up. If you want to know what the game is like, take some responsibility and YOU put up the damn money. Either that or you can be a whiny chickenshit and just steal it. Your call. . . but we know what you've chosen."

This is pretty powerfully worded stuff and I find it refreshing that so many people are taking a stand against video game piracy. But, again, I find myself wondering why we so rarely hear responses like this when music and movie piracy is the topic of discussion. When I visit news board and discussion groups where music and movie piracy is being debated, the balance of comments is usually far more in the opposite direction, with people concocting every possible excuse in the book for why it's just fine to take someone else's creation without giving them one penny in compensation.

And what's doubly ironic about this is that movie and music content is actually much more affordable than video games. Many movie and music pirates gripe about $18 CDs or $22 DVDs and use that as an excuse for their thievery, but I rarely hear someone using the $40-$60 price of video games as an excuse for pirating them. What gives?

Is industry concentration the rationale? People complain about a handful of music labels or movie studios having too much power or making too much money (as if that's a good excuse for theft). But if you follow the gaming industry you know that it has grown increasingly concentrated over time and has a handful of big dogs at the top of heap (Electronic Arts, Activision, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo) holding a big chunk of market share.

So, I think that leaves just two explanations for the apparent situational ethics at work here: Many consumers (particularly the young consumers who do most of the pirating) have a deeper connection with, or appreciation for, the artistic creativity they see and hear in video games than they do the art of movies and music. Second, the video game studios have not been demonized to the extent music labels and movie studios have and, therefore, piracy of movies or music is viewed as an acceptable way to "get back" at them, yet video games piracy is viewed by some as being more harmful to the interests of artists and creators.

In the end, piracy is piracy, regardless of who does it and what type of art they are ripping off. But I just find the situational ethics at work here to be fascinating.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 12:38 PM | Innovation , Mass Media