My daughter Esther has been really keen on watching me play the Witcher 3, which I’m really enjoying. After a while I can tell she’d really rather be playing herself. Finally she asks if she can play it on her computer. My first thought is that her computer probably isn’t up to it, but I’m not sure. So I tell her she needs to buy a copy of the gameShe might also need some upgrades. I need to check. This game is a monster..
Later Esther comes to me slightly perplexed and asks me point-blank, “Dad, how come I have to get my own copy of the game? Can’t I just install yours?”
I pause the game and let out a slow breath. She’s 15, and I can’t believe this has never come up before. Everyone in the family has Steam accounts and their own game collections, and nobody has ever taken a stab at this question before now. I guess the $60 price tag is giving her a reason to ponder this. “Well, if it was a book and we both wanted to read it at the same time, then we’d need two copies.”
She is nodding before I’m done saying the words. As soon as I stop talking she blurts out, “Yeah, but that’s a physical book. This is like a Kindle book, and you can have those on several devices at once.”
“Okay. So you think it’s reasonable that you and I could play the game on two different computers at the same time?”
“Well… yeah,” she says with a little uncertainty.
I try to lighten the tone. I don’t want her to think I’m accusing her of wanting anything wrong. I’m just trying to suss out how she thinks things should work. I present it as a thought experiment. “So what if everyone in the family downloaded the game and we all played it on our machines at the same time? Is that ok?”
“Yes?” she says even more uncertainly. It’s clear she hadn’t imagined this possibility.
“What if we shared it with your uncles?” She has a lot of uncles, but in this context she knows I’m talking about my brothers Pat and Dan.
“No, that wouldn’t be right.”
“They don’t live with us.”
“So it’s based on who you live with?”
“So what if you were in a dorm with like 50 people? Would it be okay to share the game with them?”
“No!” It’s clear this idea is preposterous to her. “They’re not related to us.”
“So it’s based on family relations, then?”
“No, I’m just talking about the people in this house.”
“So what if you move out and live in California? Would it be okay to share the game with you then?”
She’s getting annoyed at this point so I back off. This sounds kind of like I’m trying to trick her, or lead her to some conclusion of my own devising. But really I just want to know what the kid thinks. She’s never really followed stories about DRM and piracy, but she clearly has some kind of rudimentary model of how it ought to work. Entirely on her own, she’s built up a system that makes sense to her. She doesn’t want to pirate the game, she just doesn’t know the rules. And now she’s seeing the rules are kind of arbitrary.
I’m sure if I kept poking we could map out her ad-hoc system. It’s probably based on people who live with you, but only up to a certain arbitrary number. Dorms might have different rules from houses and roommates might have different rules than family members. The system might get more flexible as a game ages, so that if a game is old then we’re just “sharing”, but if the game is new then it’s piracy. Maybe playtime matters, so that it doesn’t count as piracy if share I game I’ve finished, even though I’ve still got it installed on my machine and could theoretically run it anytime I wanted.
This is one of the reasons the piracy debate is so touchy. We all have a mental model of what is right and wrong with regard to digital property. Older people like me often drag our old physical media expectations into this new world, talking about games like books or music discs. The younger generation doesn’t know what it’s like to point to a shelf containing hundreds of dollars of physical music media and say, “I own that.”
Some people take a legalistic approach: “The law says X is illegal, therefore X is piracy.” This is problematic, because it’s clear that many laws are stupid and unjust, or badly written, or plain nonsense.
Some people take a pragmatic approach, “X is the only definition that makes sense [to me], therefore X is piracy.” This is problematic, since it’s pretty clear that digital rights are either harsh and draconian, or they’re a big shades-of-grey mess.
Some people take an idealistic “do unto others” approach, “I don’t care what the law says. If I was selling a game, I’d want people to do X but not Y. So therefore that’s how I’ll treat games.” This is problematic because – as I outlined above – we all likely have our own idea of how it ought to work, which means everyone would be following different rules.
Some people take a “respect the artist” approach. “I’ll go by whatever system the seller wants to use, even if it doesn’t make sense to me and even if the law says I ought to have more freedom. If I find their rules too overbearing, I’ll just forgo getting the game.” This is problematic because it’s basically agreeing to put up with the ridiculous rules publishers want to push, even to the point where you might get locked out of a game you’ve paid for and should legally be able to access. It means giving up convenience and your right to make backups.
Note that all four people above consider themselves to be honest people – none of them would call themselves pirates. (Let’s not even begin to try and enumerate all the different classes of pirate. We’d be here all day.)
To answer the question in the headline: I have no idea. I’m very paladin when it comes to the rules, but I don’t condemn people who take other approaches. It’s a strange world we live in. Games are expensive to make, expensive to buy, super-cheap to distribute, and everyone has a different price in mind of what a given game or genre is worth to them. Sometimes bad DRM drives reasonable customers to piracy in pure self-defense. (I paid for this game and the DRM won’t let me play it. I’m going to turn to piracy from now on to protect myself.) Good DRM can turn pirates into customers. (Sure the version on the torrents is free, but I love the achievements, multiplayer, cloud saves, and auto-updating convenience of the Steam version.) You can distribute a game to an unlimited number of people for nearly free.
For the record, I’m letting my daughter install my copy of The Witcher on her machine. If it works, I’ll buy her a copy for herself. There’s no DRM on the game (I bought it through GoG.com) so I’m free to do this. Also, since there’s no DRM on the game I don’t mind doing this. CD Projekt has decided to treat me like a customer and not a criminal, so I’m going to treat them like artists and not adversaries.
 She might also need some upgrades. I need to check. This game is a monster.
A Telltale Autopsy
What lessons can we learn from the abrupt demise of this once-impressive games studio?
Mass Effect Retrospective
A novel-sized analysis of the Mass Effect series that explains where it all went wrong. Spoiler: It was long before the ending.
The Best of 2018
I called 2018 "The Year of Good News". Here is a list of the games I thought were interesting or worth talking about that year.
Here is a 13 part series where I talk about programming games, programming languages, and programming problems.
Trashing the Heap
What does it mean when a program crashes, and why does it happen?