Posted by: bracehare | September 11, 2011

Emulators and piracy: a brief apology

At present, piracy is easy, rampant, and essentially unstoppable.  This is especially true for older games.  Even if there weren’t websites you could go to specifically to download ROMs and emulators (*cough* *cough*), there are still torrents and their associated, often private tracking sites.  Even many modern games can be found, offered from free on such disreputable places, with whatever security features they had originally been protected by removed or “cracked”.  However, with modern games this is often partial; for instance, a crack of Portal 2 for the PC is able to run the single player game, but not the multiplayer, and a player can’t use it to earn the “achievements” which are available for most games that run through the Steam PC platform.  In that sense, it might be argued that, depending on the strength of the unplayable content in relation to the playable content, these pirated copies of games represent a de-facto “demo”; a way of whetting the appetites of players which ultimately encourages them to buy the full game later down the line.  The view that piracy is free advertising has been a fairly common one for a while now as it regards music, but in the case of games, the disparity between pirated versions and purchased copies seems to give the argument an intriguing and novel piece of ammunition.

As far as old games are concerned, it is worth noting that there is already a huge used game market which offsets the profitability of video game properties.  In some cases, hardware fails.  The original Nintendo Entertainment Console is known to develop issues (although not so much the Famicom).  Cartridges which rely on batteries for a save feature are also less effected by the used market (think of the re-release of Pokemon Silver and Gold on the DS).  However, for the most part, re-releasing games on new platforms plays to a niche demographic of nostalgic gamers who prefer the convenience of a new platform to the quaintness of the old one.  In a certain sense, this means that emulators and roms of old games are in direct competition for the one demographic which re-releases can claim.  However, they can also stimulate interest in a franchise, encouraging players to purchase new games on new platforms.  Furthermore, they bring gaming to people who wouldn’t have been able to afford it if their only option had been to purchase copies of the games.  In this case, what is happening can hardly be considered theft; the producer is being deprived of no tangible artifact, and neither are they being deprived of money they would have received had piracy not been an available option.  After all, the pirate in this case had no money to spare.  Hence the elimination of piracy would not result in more money for the producer.  On balance, piracy most likely increases the pareto efficiency of the video gaming market.

At any rate, piracy is here to stay.  Perhaps we should make the best of it, instead of trying vainly to eliminate it.

– Jessica Evans



  1. Have you listened to the latest select button podcast on ROM hacking yet? Perhaps a discussion can be had as to whether the artistry which springs from this scene somehow justifies the existence of emulation- or at least make it all the more regrettable if it were to disappear. It’s a pretty neat way for aspiring game makers to break into the craft.

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