Ephemeral Games and Ambiguous Rights

I come from a generation of gamers who long associated ownership with the accumulation of hard plastic. My shelves are still chock-full of Super Nintendo games, remnants of an era that celebrated brick-and-mortar stores, cardboard display cases, and grey cartridges.

At the risk of sounding like a luddite or a grognard, those were simpler times. Games were tangible items that could be bought, sold, traded, lent out, destroyed, or even buried in New Mexico, if you so desired. A video game library was measured not by an ordered list in a web browser, but rather through the physical space it took up in your home.

Photo by Alberto Garrido / https://www.flickr.com/photos/k40s/

Since the advent of digital marketplaces, however, the idea of ownership has become somewhat enigmatic. Although new technologies offer us unprecedented access to game assets and algorithms – something that was nearly unheard of in the hard plastic days – sprawling End User License Agreements (EULA) and stringent Digital Rights Management (DRM) software are contesting and restricting our ownership. Browsing through a games library on Blizzard or Steam feels more like surfing the web than sifting through a collection. Every title has gained an amorphous quality, changing constantly through iterative patches and updates. In many ways we’ve relinquished control over the games we have purchased, as developers can add or subtract content on a whim. This raises a troubling question: do we even own the games that we play?

Ownership in the World of Warcraft

 

On April 10, 2016, World of Warcraft’s largest private game server was shut down after receiving a cease and desist order from the game’s developer, Blizzard (Frank 2016). Operating without official oversight or authorization, the “Nostalrius” server featured 150,000 active users (compared to 8-10 million users that play on official servers) and ran a version of the game that was over a decade old. In a digital game marketplace where digital updates are mandatory, running an unsanctioned legacy server can be understood as both an exercise in nostalgia and a serious violation of the End User License Agreement.

However, members of the Nostalrius team had strong motivations for their seemingly subversive behaviour. They wanted to provide a space where players could engage with an older version of World of Warcraft, one that was no longer available through the game’s subscription or supported by the developer. They had also hoped that the popularity of Nostalrius could persuade Blizzard into creating an officially licensed legacy server (We Are Nostralius). Their campaign raises an interesting question: what right do players have to engage with previous versions of the games they have paid for? Blizzard’s stance on the issue has been made abundantly clear – precisely none – but many players would argue that their ongoing subscription fees entitle them to past builds of the game. After all, World of Warcraft has been patched so many times that the current version bears little resemblance to the one they originally purchased ten years earlier.

The battle brings up one of the more contentious issues with digital copyright: instances where publisher mandated terms-of-use and security measures (such as EULAs and DRM) complicate or supplant copyright law entirely (Darroch 153), shifting power away from the user and toward the developer. Critics argue this prevents meaningful ownership. How absurd would it be if Nintendo came into your home, threw away your old GameBoy cartridges, and replaced them with different versions? The scenario may seem far-fetched, but is not entirely unlike the processes playing out online. This dilemma is exacerbated by the lopsidedness in which many of these rules are enforced. Individual players are put at a disadvantage when facing the enormous resources of corporations like Blizzard, and attempts to hold onto to “out of date” game content may result in a cease and desist order or other legal action.

Although this story has a bittersweet ending – Blizzard announced its very own World of Warcraft legacy server the following year (Frank 2017) – the core issue of ownership and iterative game development remains. When EULAs, DRM, and copyright become hard to navigate, it’s the players, users, and fans that generally pay the price. And as a greater selection of games become available exclusively through online marketplaces, the idea of ownership becomes even more elusive. Games are becoming less an object that players can own and more a service that they can subscribe to.

Although there’s no going back to the days of plastic cartridges and boxed CD-ROMs, game ownership isn’t a lost cause, either. In World of Warcraft’s Nostalrius, we see some ways in which players are attempting to navigate a realm where their legal rights are ambiguous and the games they purchase ephemeral. Though daunting, users need to keep pushing back against restrictive intellectual property regimes by exploring the limits of copyright, fair dealing, and user rights. It’s important not to lose sight of how these sorts of policies affect how we engage with our video games. Otherwise, our entire collections may one day evaporate into thin air.

 

References

Darroch, Calum. “Problems and Progress in the Protection of Videogames: A Legal and Sociological Perspective.” Manchester Review of Law, Crime, and Ethics, Vol.1, pp 136-172, 2012.

Frank, Allegra. World of Warcraft fans bid farewell to largest legacy server before shutdown. Polygon, 11 Apr. 2016. https://www.polygon.com/2016/4/11/11409436/world-of-warcraft-nostalrius-shutdown-legacy-servers-final-hours. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

Frank, Allegra. World of Warcraft Classic is an official vanilla server. Polygon, 3 Nov. 2017, https://www.polygon.com/2017/11/3/16603922/world-of-warcraft-classic-announced-trailer-wo-blizzcon-2017. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

We are Nostalrius, a World of Warcraft fan-made game server, reproducing the very first version of the game published in 2004, AMA. Reddit, 7 Apr. 2016, https://www.reddit.com/r/wow/comments/4droz4/we_are_nostalrius_a_world_of_warcraft_fanmade/. Accessed 7 Mar. 2018.

 

Michael Iantorno is a Media Studies master’s candidate at Concordia University whose research-creation work focuses on video game hacking, fan cultures, media policy, and digital scholarship. An accomplished writer, radio producer, and game designer, Michael has over a decade of experience in the Canadian media industry. www.michaeliantorno.com