Today over at foul-mouthed but entertaining and insightful video-game related web-comic, Penny Arcade, there’s a comic and discussion about the ethical issues surrounding used games. Writer, Jerry Holkins (or Tycho), did an excellent job of boiling the issue down to its’ fundamentals:

In a literal way, when you purchase a game used, you are not a customer of theirs. If I am purchasing games in order to reward their creators, and to ensure that more of these ingenious contraptions are produced, I honestly can’t figure out how buying a used game was any better than piracy. From the the perspective of a developer, they are almost certainly synonymous.

…I traded in games for a long time, there’s probably comics somewhere in the archive about it – you can imagine how quickly my cohort and I consume these things. It was sort of like Free Money, and we should have understood from the outset that no such thing exists. You meet one person who creates games for a living, just one, and it becomes very difficult to maintain this virtuous fiction.

It is an argument that can be applied to pretty much any medium. Whether it’s a movie, album, or the Complete Lost Series DVD set, if you’re borrowing or buying used, you’re not really supporting that product in any tangible way. At first glance, it’s a pretty compelling argument for buying new whenever possible, but after thinking about it for a bit it seems a little bit like a double edged sword.

The truth is, there are some games, movies, etc. that we watch, engage with, but just aren’t crazy about. It’s not that we wish the developer evil. We don’t want them to be fired, but we also aren’t crazy about them getting rich off of it. I’m thinking about things like: Modern Warfare 2, Transformers the Movie, and even stuff like Sunday School Musical.

Generally, I want to reward aesthetic risk, thoughtful plot, genuine characters, and fair-minded critique in all of the media I take in. This is why I’ll never sell games like Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, or Bioshock 2 back to Gamestop, and why I’ll be buying the next thing their developers do on day one. Borderlands, Battlefield: Bad Company? Eventually, those games will find themselves on Amazon, ready to be snatched up for cheap by someone who will also be decidedly uninterested in rewarding games that are good and all, but probably a little overrated and over rewarded in the grand scheme of things.


  1. When I first saw THQ’s response to the purchase of used games and then Penny’s response to the understandable (see what I did there?) head-scratching that ensued, I was, I think, appropriately baffled. For a number of reasons. Here are some.

    Resale-option is part of the intrinsic value of every non-disposable good ever manufactured (save for underwear). To compare resale with piracy is more than just dumb. It actively flies in the face of established economic principle dating back to before there were dinosaurs—back when there were just monkeys and badgers trading back and forth sticks that they had grown tired of.

    Purchasing a good used does actually help the producer of that good. The purchase of used goods is free advertising. The more people play a game, the more that game enters the public consciousness. The more a game is present in the general awareness of what is available for purchase, the greater opportunity the producer has of making a sale.

    think for a moment how silly it sounds (even on the face of it) to describe The Friends of the Library as a den of thieves.

    Further, Penny’s argument mistakes exactly what is going on in property transfer. Let’s say that despite your protestations, I took COD:MW2 off your hands, Rich. By doing so, I am now the customer of Activision and you are no longer so. You have given up your customership and I have taken on that responsibility and privilege.

    We shouldn’t let philanthropy govern our understanding of the difference between the ethical purchase of a used good and theft (which is kind of THQ/Penny’s point here). Just because some people want to do more with their purchases than just come into ownership of a game (something that many developers are actively trying to thwart these days) and want the additional satisfaction of Supporting Developers, doesn’t mean they should lord their whimsy over those whose purpose is more singular.

    Those who are of this philanthropic mindset, I fully expect you to never take advantage of sales either. Because sales? Sales are theft, pillaging developers of their rightful booty.

  2. The central question is: does purchase include copy-ownership or just right of personal use (excluding resell)? The second would be silly.

    Game developers, authors, etc. ought to be paid but that burden falls at least as much on them as it does on the consumer.

    If we ceased all resell of used media and only bought new, well, I don’t think the results would be eco-friendly at all.

  3. Chase, personal use licenses are the most common licenses for most software, console-based games being the major exception. When you buy a copy of The Sims or Crysis for PC, you buy a license for personal use. That’s why you can’t trade PC games at Gamestop.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with user licensing, but it would be difficult to implement, and more costly to the developers than the imagined losses of the resale market. I think the better plan is adding incentives to buying new, like in-game upgrades and special items. That worked on me when I bought Mass Effect 2.

  4. I’ve bought second hand DS games from various stores. These games were there because the first owners could trade the games for… more games. Given that, it’s disingenuous to that resale reduces the market, especially as the games I’ve bought generally are no longer around to purchase new. It is a treadmill though. If the games developers want people to keep buying their products, they need to keep producing them, or make products so great that they can be republished without losing their newness.

  5. THQ’a argument about customership is ridiculous, and totally misses the actual point of this whole used games debate. First, let’s destroy THQ’s stupidity…

    Think about what it would look like if we applied their “customership” logic to other areas… What would happen to eBay, Craigslist, For that matter, what would happen to used car sales? By THQ’s philosophy, we shouldn’t be able to buy used cars, because we are not then directly supporting the car’s manufacturer.

    The real issue with used game sales is quality control, particularly for online experiences. Even though I don’t relish the thought of having to pay this myself, I actually sort of agree with the position that EA Sports, Ubisoft, Activision, and a couple of other companies have taken. They have started (or will start soon) packaging a one-time use code in with their games sold at full retail price. The one-time use code gains the purchaser access to the game’s online experience. For people who buy the game used, they will have to pay a one-time fee to access the online features.

    The fact is, it takes resources to maintain servers, lobbies, player stats/rankings, level code, etc., and buying games used does cut into those available resources. For me at least, the choice between buying at full retail price/paying an extra $10 used and having a great experience, and paying $10 less for a glitchy online nightmare (I’m looking at you, Modern Warfare 2!) is an easy one…

    But, to get back to the issue of this article, it looks to me like THQ needs to stick with making games instead of trying to think logical thoughts. They’re obviously better at the first…

  6. I agree with most of the point above regarding resale, if I purchase anything, who are you to say what I do with it? resale, donate, throw away, etc… And what does being a Christian have to do with it?

  7. I sell more used games than I buy–I hardly ever keep anything any more–console-wise anyway, its hard to sell computer games the way they are set up now.

    I am not rolling in the dough–selling these games is not illegal, I am not doing anything wrong by selling them on eBay, so I do. Doing so allows me to buy a lot of new games that I otherwise probably would not have purchased–so I do that too.

    I think there is a moral issue with selling CDs if you have copied the tracks onto your computer. There are even sites were you can swap CDs with people which would be perfectly fine 15 years ago when hardly anyone knew what MP3s were.

    I suspect Joseph is right–we will probably see more and more console games having “one-time” online codes–this was annoying when I brought my PS3 to a friend’s house and tried to play online though.

  8. It’s funny to me that both here and on Facebook I’m getting a lot of push-back from both sides. My intention was merely to demonstrate some thoughts I had about the subject personally, and the ways I tend to make these decisions. I will defend our right to buy and sell used, but I also think it’s vital to consume thoughtfully, and that means thinking through an issue beyond what our rights are.

    I agree that used sales probably help keep the gaming industry afloat, especially at times like this. Nonetheless, I think you would be hard-pressed to demand a “thank you” from any game developer for buying their game used. They simply will not see that money. Only Gamestop will, which is kind of a shame. I mean, does anyone really like that place?

  9. Some people are frustrated that developers are providing a lesser experience for those who buy the games used. They demand proper treatment as “customers,” so, in essence, they do.

    Basically though my objective when I purchase a video game is often to reward the things I value: thoughtfulness, craftsmanship, nuance, originality, and risk. Particularly I want to explicitly reward those things that often go unrewarded by the marketplace. A lot of time this conflates with a general sense of good will toward a studio that I find is often shared by other gamers. Studios like Irrational come to mind.

    All I am saying is that the best way for me to support that company is by letting them end up with some of my money as a result of buying their game.

  10. I would be frustrated if a game I picked up used didn’t work right. Just like if a book I picked up used left out a chapter or a dvd I picked up was missing a few minutes of the movie. That has nothing to do with me believing the studio owes me. That has more to do with the studio not sabotaging the buyers of their game by making it impossible to resell in like condition to what they purchased.

    “My objective when I purchase a video game is often to reward the things I value.”

    See, that’s nice for you. Kind of weird, but nice all the same. Personally, I’d imagine simply purchasing a good wouldn’t be much of a reward for the developers. Donations are closer to the realm of actual reward. If you like Irrational and want to support what they’re doing, send them a check for fifty bucks. Or make them a wooden birdhouse that looks like a birdhouse helmet. Or send them a cheese. Or something.

    When you start to think of simple commerce in terms of reward, you are breaking the system. When I buy gas from Chevron instead of Shell, am I rewarding them? Not really. I’m only making a purchase of a good that is what I want from a place that is more convenient for me (the Chevron on Los Alisos has pumps that work better with my particular gas tank than the Shell on Bake).

    I mean, you might feel like a philanthropist for simply taking part in everyday commerce and I don’t want to take that way from you. But really, charitably speaking, it’s a… novel idea.

  11. I just want to go on record saying that I agree with Seth on this one. Even the suggestion that buying something “used” is akin to piracy is enough to make me laugh and then go, “What…are you serious?” Can you imagine what would happen if people thought this way about their automobiles?

  12. Sorry to bring this up again, but this discussion is still pretty relevant, especially in light of recent news. I’m actually struggling with my opinion on it at this very moment.

    Whenever this issue comes up, everyone wants to talk about our rights. I have a right to sell my property. I have a right to choose who I give my money to. Etc. Constitutionally speaking, those things are very true.

    The reason I dug up this article is because I want to have an honest discussion with other Christians about what the Christian thing to do is. Jesus didn’t tell us that we should be defensive about our rights. When people thought they were being ripped off by Caesar, Jesus pointed them to the bigger issue at hand: “Give to God what is God’s.” Simply put, our rights belong to God. Jesus demonstrated this to the most extreme degree.

    The other thing we tend to get defensive about is our money. When the idea of spending a little more money for a novelty item causes me to lash out, isn’t that a sign that something is terribly wrong with my heart? If our rights belong to God, how much more then does our money belong to Him also?

    So what is the Christian thing to do here? I have a feeling it doesn’t involve hoarding more money or more games.

    As Christians, we are called to be peace makers. Here’s what I propose would bring the most peace: Buy new games. This way, you get to support retailers and developers. You will have to spend a little more money, which means you will probably have to buy less games. At the same time, nobody gets screwed, and we can stop having this argument.

  13. David, you’re advocating an enabling shift that will unnecessarily strip consumers of sensible liberties to no net gain. Always buying new doesn’t show any studied evidence that it supports retailers and developers and it certainly doesn’t support consumers. And it diminishes money that could happily go toward non-novelty items.

    I think you’re proposing an extreme solution to a problem that doesn’t actually exist in any pursuable form. Resale is not a bad thing. It is a normal thing. It is a historically verifiable thing. It’s a common functionality of economic systems going back to forever.

    So what is the problem then? A developer thinks that if resale didn’t exist, it would be getting more money. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that this is the case. Certainly the developer might see some short term gains, but will absolutely lose out on the free marketing that used gaming generates because, really, who besides the idle rich have money to blow on all the new games they want. I suspect gains would diminish in the system you suggest (after all, if less people get to play The LEGEND OF GAME, then less people will be interested when LEGEND OF GAME 2 comes out, meaning less people to buy the game brand new and on release (when the price is highest).

    I’m also not comfortable with your invocation of the, quote-unquote, Christian Thing To Do here. Wanting to spend money wisely and in a manner both consistent with our liberties and with our need to love our neighbours as ourselves, is not a biblically repellent notion. It just seems a bit high-handed to make it sound like Not Buying Used Things is the Christian way.

  14. Seth, even if there is no “studied” evidence, isn’t it common knowledge that if I buy a new game from GameStop, GameStop gets a cut of the sale as does the publisher? GameStop might not profit as much as it would from a used sale, but each gets its share.

    As for the person who buys Legend of Game used, I’m willing to bet they will also buy Legend of Game 2 used as well unless the publisher gives them some incentive to buy new.

    What I’d really like to do though is diffuse this argument. We’re still talking about our rights. Let’s expose the sin in our hearts by admitting that we simply don’t want to give up any more of our money than we absolutely have to. We also want to gorge ourselves with all the media that we possibly can. That’s straight up greed.

    We like to stay on this side of “legal” because then we can tell ourselves we are basically good people. That’s self-righteousness.

    I’m not saying that “If you don’t buy new, you can’t be a Christian,” because that’s legalistic. I just want to challenge others to look at their hearts instead of at the Constitution.

  15. “What I’d really like to do though is diffuse this argument. We’re still talking about our rights. Let’s expose the sin in our hearts by admitting that we simply don’t want to give up any more of our money than we absolutely have to.”

    You’ll have a hard sell convincing me that responsible stewardship is sin.

    “We also want to gorge ourselves with all the media that we possibly can. That’s straight up greed.”

    Please speak for yourself.

    I am curious, though, do you also advocate against garage sales and Friends of the Library? Used cars? Should Christians avoid Craigslist? What about Freecycle? The developer is definitely not getting a cut there, but neither does it seem to be about greed. I’m just curious how far your rules extend.

  16. It’s not that buying new isn’t responsible stewardship. You can still be responsible. It simply means you might have to cut back on the amount of games you buy.

    Seth, maybe you don’t have an issue with greed or gluttony or any of those things. What I should have said is I struggle with those things. I want to justify buying used because:

    1) I want every game that looks interesting
    2) I want more money so I can buy more games
    3) I am never satisfied with the amount of stuff I acquire

    I suppose the same thing could apply to Craigslist or whatever, but I’m not trying to make up a new set of rules. There aren’t rules for being a Christian, other than love Jesus. I simply find myself loving my wallet more sometimes. I’m experiencing conviction here, and I think the wrong thing to do would be to hide behind the facade of stewardship or conservatism.

    Also, I meant to say “defuse.”

    Sound similar to anyone else’s experience? Anyone? Am I alone here?

  17. Interesting that rumours of the new Xbox claim that it will “lock” games with the Xbox that first plays them, thereby removing all options to resell or purchase second hand.

    It seems that the key players may decide for us…

  18. I think understanding your conviction and reacting in helpful ways to it is fine and good and healthy. I think if the unique idea you propose will help you to not want so much, then you should go with it. I’m not sure it will solve your problem and to me it sounds more like behaviour-modification than a real solution, but we’re all built differently and different things can trigger real change in each of us.

    Personally, I have never needed to justify buying things used until people concocted the idea that there was something wrong with it. I haven’t needed to because resale is a neutral abstract entity. It can be used well or used poorly (as in the situation you express about your own habits). In either case, its not resale that is the problem or beneficence, but the interaction with resale. It seems wiser to look for a solution within the heart than without. Just my thought.

  19. Seth, you’re right that I can’t change my heart with behavior modification. Only Jesus can do that. I just wanted to point out that, at least for me, sin is a big factor in making these kinds of decisions. For a lot of people, this is an issue of rights. I think that we need to look more deeply at our hearts than that and allow for some conviction to take place.

    Maybe you’ve never felt that resale was wrong, but other people do. What if someone close to you was offended by the clothes you wear? Would you tell them they are wrong? I think the proper response in that situation would be to adjust your own behavior to accommodate for theirs because we are called to love others, even if it is humiliating for us.

    My question is still the same: As Christians, what is the right way for us to respond? Let’s not just dismiss others’ feelings on the matter because we think they’re stupid.

  20. I would explain to them why they are wrong (if indeed they are wrong) and do what I could to lead them toward a better-informed conscience.

    No one ever suggested dismissing others’ feelings. The problem is when you try to couch what amounts to a personal decision for yourself in terms of universal Christian mandate.

  21. Seth, the Bible doesn’t give us any indication that there is a definite right or wrong thing to do here, which is why we have to think very carefully about it. My strongest conviction on the matter comes from two commandments the Bible does give us: love others as yourself and make peace with everyone. To me, resolving this issue is as simple as buying new. It costs me more, but both the developer and the retailer profit from it.

    At what point is it okay for us to correct others on matters of personal decision, like in this case? I don’t think it is right for me to correct anyone on anything that isn’t blatantly sinful, and even then I must correct my own thinking first by submitting my rights to Jesus, who submitted his rights to the Father.

    I don’t disagree with you wholeheartedly. You might be right. I’m just speaking openly about my conviction.

  22. I hope I’m not outright annoying anybody, but this is still pretty heavy on my heart.

    As for the legal argument, I’m not sure that selling games is legal at all.

    And about the used games vs. used cars vs. every other used thing comparison, I found this article by Nate Anderson of Ars Technica cleared things up well:

    When I ask how this differs from every other sale of used goods, Bengloff makes the point that, in other industries, there is often some money still to be made on used goods. Car dealers continue to earn revenue through service and maintenance, while carpenters may need to repair the table or restain it. With music, there’s no maintenance or service or even degradation of the product, no chance at all to earn anything in the future from it.

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