I Learned How To Share My Toys, But Modern Gaming Makes It Really Hard To Do

There are a few dozen games in our home that I haven't really ever been able to play. The same goes for my spouse. It's not a lack of interest, time or ability that keeps each of us from experiencing these games; it's Steam. Although Steam is hardly the only culprit, of course. Origin now plays the same role, as do console user profile systems.

The issue we face, as a multi-gamer household, is this: our furniture, dishes, movies, books, consoles, and even cat are joint property -- but technically, our video games are not.

The era of digital distribution has thrown something of a wrench in the basic practice of sharing games, even within a family. We may have new PC games on disc, but their serial keys and online passes are just as tied to individual accounts as if we'd downloaded them. We can buy and share DRM-free games from sources like GOG, but the majority of newer titles are strictly tied to account-based verification. There are three ways we can both experience most modern games, then: we can trade computers, we can switch account logins, or we can buy two copies. None of those options is an ideal solution.

Digital distribution has both its benefits and its problems, and it's not just games facing the challenges. We can play any CD, DVD or Blu-ray on any player either of us purchased, but sharing an iTunes library of songs is, by design, greatly more challenging. Similarly, either of us can pick up any book off the shelf in the living room, but Kindle books belong to only one of us.

The problem of sorting out what digital property actually legally is came up recently in the Wall Street Journal's SmartMoney magazine with the rather morbid question, "Who inherits your iTunes library when you die?"

Digital music and books, like games, tend to be licensed, rather than purchased. The end effect is that when the owner expires, the licence does too: "Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn't have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a licence to use the digital files — but they don't actually own them. Apple and Amazon grant 'nontransferable' rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the White Album to your son and Abbey Road to your daughter."

Games operate similarly. The End User licence Agreement a player has to check off on, when installing nearly any PC game, specifies up front that it is, in fact, a license agreement. You have purchased the right to access the game, but you have not technically purchased the game itself. The licence is nontransferable. And yet even the SmartMoney article advises that for digital property, bending the rules, practically speaking, makes more sense than trying to work within them:

The simpler alternative is to just use your loved one's devices and accounts after they're gone - as long as you have the right passwords. Chester Jankowski, a New York-based technology consultant, says he'd look for a way to get around the licensing code written into his 15,000 digital files. "Anyone who was tech-savvy could probably find a way to transfer those files onto their computer — without ending up in Guantanamo," he says. But experts say there should be an easier solution, and a way such content can be transferred to another's account or divided between several people."We need to reform and update intellectual-property law," says Dazza Greenwood, lecturer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

In many ways, I love Steam. It's become a handy one-stop shop for most of my PC gaming needs. After having the entirety of my PC game collection (carefully built since 1993) stolen in 2006, it's been a delight for me to be able to tie games permanently to my account and access them at a whim. Through new computers and hard drive failures, it's made keeping my collection straight and carrying my games forward simple.

And yet, I remember when my friend across the street and her younger brother first got a PlayStation. There were a few games they both played, and they could take turns, each with their own save file. I can still pop a cartridge out of my DS and hand it over, but to share any other kind of game we have requires handing over not only the disc, but also the social identity I have, by necessity, tied to it.

The ability to resell retail discs remains surprisingly contentious as we continue to move into a more digital, networked future. GameStop is looking into a way to facilitate digital used game sales (and therefore, to take a cut).

I can live without reselling my collection of serial codes and Steam keys; something about a "used" digital property feels ridiculous. But if everything we're going to do must be tied to unique online accounts -- and it is -- then the time has long since come to be able to link them into family units. A family with two children should be able to buy one copy of a game for both of them to play; an adult couple of two gamers should be able to share their entertainment.

Amazon has arranged it such that I can loan a Kindle book to a friend's account. I should be able to loan my games to another Xbox Live, PSN, or Steam account as well. Gaming requires ties to social identities now, and offers the chance, through achievements, trophies, Twitter, and Facebook, to share every single accomplishment or iota of progress -- everything is to be shared, it seems, except the actual games themselves.

Photo: Shutterstock


    I've noticed this too, I had to buy Portal 2 twice so me and my brother could play it. But it's not necessarily a bad thing, it means that when family members move out or away then there isn't any arguments over who owns which game, and you couldn't really share these games before anyway.

    Think about it, you only have 1 PS3 (normally). If your brother wants to play a game, then he borrows the disc. Same goes for old PC games, you swap the discs around. What's the difference between swapping discs and swapping steam accounts? You still have to take turns with the platform (in this case a steam account instead of a PS3). I don't think it's that big of a difference to the past.

      True, although this is where the online pass system becomes an issue for some people. While it's designed to get publishers/developers a cut of used sales - which is something I'm not opposed to in principle - it becomes a problem when members of the same household just want to play games together. They either have to share a single online account (which isn't great since they probably want their own individual friends lists etc) or they have to purchase additional online passes for additional users.

      At the very least I think the system needs to be modified so users don't need additional passes / licenses or other additional purchases in order to play the same copy of a game on the same console / PC. That still leaves a problem for situations where a household might play on more than one console / PC, but would at least be an improvement on the current situation.

        But most houses do have more than one PC. It's the same as a console, you can still only have one person on it at a time. The only reason it's an issue is because they have more than one PC, but if they had two TV's then does that mean they should get a free second PS3? No, and it's the same with steam accounts.

          I have no idea what your saying in this comment. I thought it was more like having two PS3's and not being to use the game in both unless you willing to use the same sign in?

            Nope. Just use two accounts, same thing as having two PS3's.

              How is 2 accounts the same has having 2 PS3's? You can have 2 accounts using the same PS3, or you can have one account using multiple PS3's.

              I'm pretty sure that online passes and the like tend to be tied to the account, regardless of which box you're logged in on.

    Absolutely great article, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of being able to share between at least family and friends. Sharing within a family should be unlimited, but there would probably need to be some sort of limit applied to sharing with friends or that could become a problem.

    This problem crops up again and again in my household. I am the main gamer in the relationship but I do want to play with her when she feels like it, but having 2 copies of every multiplayer game is not really a good way to do. Especially when she doesn't play all the time.

    It would be nice to have the ability to "link" accounts so that all content is shared between them.

    Perhaps having additional copies of downloadable games provided to linked accounts for a nominal fee - say $5 or something. That way you can distribute the game amongst your family for far less than the cost of buying a second copy, but would limit the extra copies to only linked accounts. The problem with that, of course, is people would link accounts just to get cheap copies of games. It's a tough nut to crack.

    This is something that game publishers, EA in particular, have been trying to enforce for years, basically to cut down on the second hand game market.
    They will not shift licenses from one account to another, which is why no one will buy your second hand copy of BF2 on eBay.
    With services like Steam and Origin, they have finally nailed it, but to be honest, I'm OK with it, because I don't have to pay $100 for a brand new game anymore - Steam sales often mean I'll buy multiple copies of a game and then gift them out to my friends. Most times, it'll cost me around $40 -$60, which easily equates to hours of fun for all involved.
    For those Steam games that are *still* burdened with the Aussie tax (yes, EA again), I simply hop over to Amazon, and buy them at the US price. Most of the games I want are Steam enabled, so it mean I am simply adding a license code into Steam and downloading it.
    When I die, I personally won't give a hoot what happens to my games, and to be honest, if the main thing my family will miss about me, is my game collection, then I have issues greater than transferable software licenses.

    At risk of sounding like a fan boy, I have to applaud Valve for taking a strong direction with Steam, and making it a global, affordable service, without making it suck.
    A quick glance at Origin shows what we could have easily been lumbered with.

      Great comment, and you made me laugh. +1 internets to you sir.

    I just wish games would come with at least free LAN support. I really shouldn't have to buy say, Borderlands 2, four times just to LAN with family/friends once in a while.

    A limited LAN only installation can't be that hard to produce.

      I seem to remember that some games (late 90's) used to come with a 'guest' disk, allowing a buddy to join your game in progress. Whilst it wouldn't be hard to implement, you have to consider the motivation - why spend time on a feature that may not increase sales, will increase the time to market, and most likely get cracked within the first day.
      Given there are numerous bugs that crop up, the overall thought would be to make the game more polished for those people who are actually buying the game.

    The PSN has a handy system where, when you buy a game, you've got the ability to download it five times. So, when I buy a game off the PSN, my brother signs into the PSN from his console - where he has my profile saved - and downloads it. He can play it from his profile, and therefore rack up trophies, and we can play multiplayer together without any hassles.
    It's an excellent system. Although I'm sure Sony aren't too happy about multiple people playing the same "copy" of one of their games, it's the perfect way to distribute games within a family and household without having to buy them twice. It's a loophole, yes, but it works, and that's what matters.

      I think that got changed to 2 systems now but this is how I think it should be done.
      They limit the no. of systems your account can be active on but if its on that PS3 any other account on the PS3 can play the games also.

        It's at least 3, because I also have a friend in on the action and it works fine. I'm not sure of the exact number, but I guess that's because I haven't hit it yet : )

          And as soon as the game is on the hard drive it can be played from any account on that PS3.

    Sometimes one game card between two is nice. My ex and I spent ages both playing the same Pokemon Black game, back in the day. (Without deliberately perpetuating gender roles,) I would hunt, catch and train Pokemon up for battle, while she preferred to cultivate berries and enter competitions. I had no interest in that stuff, but I'd often come home to find my DS on the charger, with a bunch of new berries in my inventory.
    It was an individual experience, in that we obviously had to take turns, but it felt like a shared one. It's one of my fondest memories of the relationship, now that it's over.

    What's rustling my jimmies at the moment is the idea that I have to buy multiple copies of a game to be able to play multiplayer. The reduction in local multiplayer, (3)DS games that require multi-cart play, all that stuff. And don't tell me the systems can't handle it, the N64 managed it with 4MB of RAM.

    I've been harping on about this myself, in fact one of the things I always used to say was:

    If movie makers could have gotten away inserting a device in your dvd player that could detect if more than one person was watching the movie and refuse to play until everyone confirms that they bought the rights to watch it then that's what we'd have today.

    So now we've almost got that and accept with our video game, movie, music, book accounts now...

    I really enjoyed playing Excite Truck with my friends, we'd have a couple of races then back out to the title screen and load their save game. Having individual profiles makes this kind of turn based play pretty frustrating, theres no way to give someone else a go without quitting the game all together, changing profile, etc. For all the awesome advances in the way we play, theres something overly complex about just sharing a game with friends :(

    It should be like Microsoft Office, you buy one copy and can install it on up to four computers.

    The corporate answer will be to just allow us to buy games/media with an 3 User/5 User licence - that is probably the only thing they would do...

    On another note, this all reminds me of the 'ol saying, "soon we'll need an licence to walk up the street."

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