Game Over? Why Digital Ownership Feels More Like Borrowing

July 1, 2024
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We all know the allure of digital game libraries. Convenience, instant access, and the ability to amass a vast collection without the clutter of physical discs. But lately, a nagging feeling has been growing – are we truly owning these digital treasures, or simply renting them at the pleasure of corporations? The recent news surrounding The Crew, a game which is online only, being rendered unplayable due to server shutdowns, exemplifies the precarious nature of digital ownership in the gaming world.

Unlike physical copies, where the burden of online functionality lies with the publisher (and eventually fades with dedicated servers), digital purchases leave the player at the mercy of ever-changing online landscapes. Servers can be shut down at any point, essentially turning a beloved game into a glorified paperweight. This isn't some dystopian future – it's happening now.

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This transience extends beyond online play. Games vanish from storefronts with alarming regularity. Gone are the days of dusting off a classic from the shelf years later. With digital purchases, once a game disappears, it's potentially gone forever. This flies in the face of the thriving retro gaming scene, where players actively seek out and preserve experiences from bygone eras. Digital libraries, on the other hand, feel more like rented lockers, subject to the whims of unseen forces.

The argument for digital convenience often overlooks the long-term implications. While the initial purchase might be cheaper (no physical media!), the ability to resell or trade games is lost. This not only impacts the second-hand market, but also removes a sense of personal investment in our digital libraries. When a game is simply a line of code on a server, the emotional connection feels diminished.

Here's where Nintendo deserves a shoutout. Their approach to backwards compatibility, with the Virtual Console and Nintendo Switch Online, allows players access to a vast library of classics. While not perfect, it acknowledges the importance of preserving gaming history. It's a testament to the enduring value of these experiences, something digital storefronts, with their ever-shifting sands, often fail to grasp.

So, what's the solution? A complete overhaul of digital ownership is unlikely. But there's room for improvement. Here are some ideas:

  • Offline Functionality: Games marketed as having online components should always have a core offline experience. This ensures players get their money's worth even after servers inevitably shut down.
  • Download Ownership: Purchasing a digital game should grant the right to download and store the game files locally, independent of storefront availability. This allows players to redownload the game in the future, even if it's delisted.
  • Preservation Efforts: The industry needs to take a more proactive stance in preserving games. Initiatives like online archives or partnerships with organizations like, which specialises in DRM-free games, can go a long way.

Ultimately, the digital landscape shouldn't be a graveyard for past experiences. We, the players, deserve a system that fosters a sense of true ownership, not just temporary access. We deserve the ability to revisit past favourites, share them with future generations, and build lasting digital libraries that aren't subject to the whims of server switches and store delistings. After all, isn't that what gaming is all about – creating memories that transcend the limitations of technology? The time to act is now, before the "game over" screen flashes on our treasured digital collections.

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Luciano Howard

I've been gaming for 35+ years on the Commodore VIC-20 to the PlayStation 5 and pretty much everything in-between. I enjoy all kinds of games but if I had to pick a couple in particular, I'd say I adore Mario and love Dark Souls. I can talk about either an awful lot should you want to!