Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Restricting Second-Hand Sales is a Good Thing

For years I bought CD albums rather than MP3 downloads, DVDs rather than streaming, and boxed games rather than Steam keys, because I thought that there was value in having a physical item that I could safely store, lend to friends, and maybe even sell. Now, in this post-iTunes, post-Steam world, I think that these shelves of discs are a pain in the arse.

It used to bother me that MP3s, for example, weren't "mine" in the same sense that a toy was "mine". But that was foolish, because a CD - which I thought was better - was never mine in the same way that a toy is, either. No-one ever bought an album or movie or video game for the physical plastic. In the history of video games, no-one ever attributed value to the physical media: they paid an arbitrary amount of money for the privilege of playing something that someone else had invested a lot of time and money into intellectually developing, and almost no time and money into physically producing. The fact that you could sell it to someone else has never been more than a quirk of the technology.

When you buy a game, you're agreeing that the amount you pay for a (hopefully) awesome experience is fair recompense for the effort that went into producing it. It's as simple as that. You're paying for an experience. And it's not clear to me why it makes economic sense to be able resell an experience. Neither I (the reseller) nor the physical media that I definitively own, embody the value of the experience being sold.
Reselling an object makes sense, because there is value inherent in the object. But video games aren't, and never were, objects.

We should avoid economic models that send money where there is no value. That's just wasteful and distorting, ultimately hurting the consumer because the consumer's resources are not being allocated to what the consumer values.
So, where does the value of a video game derive from, and how does a second-hand market support that value? This is the bizarre thing. The second-hand market doesn't support what gamers value, so why should gamers want to participate in the second-hand market so badly? Why should they be so enraged at the prospect of the second-hand market being taken away?

Restricting the second-hand sale of physical discs is no more arbitrary than restricting digital downloads to a single account, and is even no more arbitrary than the sale of physical discs in the first place, because it was never the physical discs that we valued. They're all equally arbitrary models, but some are better at assigning value than others - and people seem awfully upset about losing the one that's arguably the worst.

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