Why games matter to free software and free culture

By Christopher Allan Webber on Tue 26 June 2012

(Note: this started out as a longer post about the history and rationale of the Liberated Pixel Cup under a subheading called "where games go, technology follows". But I found that this section got so long it merited its own post, so I decided to break it out.)

I've heard it stated before that "games aren't important" or aren't a priority by multiple people in free software (I'm not sure I've heard the same in free culture communities). Most notably, I've heard this said by Bradley Kuhn, for example in this blogpost:

You might be wondering, "Ok, so if it's pure entertainment software, is it acceptable for it to be proprietary?". I have often said: if all published and deployed software in the world were guaranteed Free Software except for video games, I wouldn't work on the cause of software freedom anymore. Ultimately, I am not particularly concerned about the control structures in our culture that exist for pure entertainment. […]

Bradley is someone I couldn't admire more for his devotion to free software, so don't misinterpret this statement; if anything the fact that I agree so much in general with Bradley is why this exception bothers me so greatly. But it does bother me: I think games are important for cultural and software freedom issues, and I feel that ignoring them is something we do in the movement at our own risk. (By the way, Bradley has asked me to further explain my position on why free software games matter, so that's partly why I'm writing this… I'm not just picking on him.)

There are several reasons for this, but the first and foremost of these are that where games go, the rest of technology follows. I mean this both in the sense that games are an indicator (of both the exciting opportunities and dangers of) where technology will go.

Here's an example: DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) is an issue of great concern for both free software and free culture people alike. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, if you bought a proprietary game for your MS-DOS running PC, Commodore 64 computer, or et cetera, you may remember the rise of copy protection software coming with games. Many of these early copy protection methods were even fairly silly: many games would have a screen which would ask you to ask you to enter a word from a page, paragraph, and word number within that paragraph from the instruction manual before it would start the game. The phenomenon of demoscene culture, including a large amount of beautiful artwork and music, came largely out of breaking early forms of DRM copy protection… for all sorts of software of course, but most especially games.

Even now, we see DRM is coming to GNU/Linux operating systems through Steam, a games distribution platform (and disturbingly enough for many free software operating system users who worry about DRM, much of the reaction is celebration). And the rise of the "app store" model came with the rise of mobile computing as game platforms. (I realize that in this post I don't have any hard evidence associating the rise of app stores or DRM with games, but observationally at least I've found this to be true, and it appears that games make up the largest category of "app store" downloads.) I think we will see these trends continue to get worse, and games will continue to lead the way.

Not all "indicators of the future" are necessarily foretelling of things that are bad. One of the smartest things I think Mozilla ever invested money and time into was Browser Quest (which was released shortly after Liberated Pixel Cup was announced with a very similar style… we didn't know about it, but welcomed its release). Browser Quest was a great example that hey, this HTML5 stuff is actually happening, and here's a tangible thing you can see to prove that (not to mention it put Mozilla at the forefront of many minds as an innovator in that space).

Aside from being an indicator of the future, people want games. I spent a good portion of the 2000s surviving off of a sparse diet of kobo-deluxe, tuxracer, supertux, and nethack. This managed to be enough for me (well, kind of… okay, not really), but it isn't enough for everyone. There's another bit to this: sure, you don't actually need games to have a working system. But "you also don't really need to live to live" either: you could go through life with the most minimal forms of food, clothing, shelter but absolutely no culture, and you'd still be living in a literal sense… but it would be a fairly miserable life. Likewise, people want entertainment, and video games are the most computer-centric of all forms of entertainment on a computer. If we don't provide them, people will move elsewhere. So I'd actually argue that an operating system that does not provide games is actually an incomplete system. (Actually, I'm not the only one who thinks this; RMS wrote in an essay that "a complete system needs games too".)

There's one more major reason why free software/culture games matter, and it's definitely a major point of thinking behind the Liberated Pixel Cup: games are a great motivation to get people to start hacking and authoring things. Almost every hacker my age that I know cites video games as a source of inspiration to get into programming. (Speaking personally, the first major programming I ever did was extending a [proprietary!] game. It's fair enough to say that I wouldn't be a programmer today if it weren't for an interest in game programming, and that is true of several of my friends as well.) But if that is true, why then do we have so few finished and polished free software games? Answering that question actually deserves of a post of its own (and indeed, solving that riddle is a good portion of the motive behind Liberated Pixel Cup), but it's enough to say for now that we are missing opportunities of encouraging future hackers by not making free software a welcoming playground for game development.

So, games are significant for a couple of reasons: they point to the general future direction of technology, good or bad, so we should pay attention to them. Furthermore we should make sure we are providing and building games, if for no other reason than to make the future we want viable (I still think that a system that doesn't address games, as I've outlined above, is an incomplete system, and one that most people ultimately will not use... or, you know, we could just sit aside and let the games continue to push the DRM'ed app store model along and watch our digital freedoms erode). But if none of the above reasons were insufficient, games are something people get excited about building. And helping people get excited about hacking and making things should be reason enough!

Still no comments working on my blog; but feel free to discuss on identi.ca (or ostatus federated equivalent).