Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game designer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

What might In­ter­net reg­u­la­tion mean for games, asks Ian Bo­gost

On the first of the month, the flood­gates to my home broad­band re­open af­ter a week of self-im­posed ra­tioning. All of the pent-up PSN free­bies, Steam up­dates and Ap­ple Fam­ily Shar­ing re­sumes af­ter be­ing paused lest we over­run our broad­band cap.

Me­tered data is more or less a stan­dard prac­tice on mo­bile de­vices, but home broad­band prac­tices vary around the world. In the US, gen­er­ally speak­ing, home broad­band is avail­able for a monthly fee rather than a me­tered rate, whereas in the UK and Canada, me­ter­ing and caps are more com­mon, even if un­lim­ited plans are in­creas­ingly popular. And even when ac­cess is ‘un­lim­ited’, in prac­tice throt­tling and caps – es­pe­cially dur­ing peak hours – lead to stalled down­loads and buffered streams.

I have the mis­for­tune of living in a me­tered data ‘test mar­ket’ for the Amer­i­can mass me­dia and ca­ble jug­ger­naut Com­cast. In prac­ti­cal terms, that means I get 300GB of data al­lowance per month, af­ter which I have to pay a pre­mium for each ad­di­tional 50GB al­lo­ca­tion.

As the me­dia in­dus­try has con­sol­i­dated and con­sumer choice has waned, we have all be­come less able to con­trol our ac­cess to the sin­gle, com­mon tube through which we do just about ev­ery­thing. Gam­ing has al­ways been at the fore­front of com­pu­ta­tional adop­tion, and data us­age is no dif­fer­ent. In­creas­ingly, we ac­quire, up­date and use our games thanks to the good graces of a re­li­able In­ter­net con­nec­tion.

You prob­a­bly down­load many of your games from Steam, PSN, Xbox Live or the Ap­ple or Google App Stores. They are gi­ant, multi­gi­ga­byte down­loads. But store-bought games also need In­ter­net ac­cess. Even on launch day, games sold as phys­i­cal me­dia re­quire up­dates, some­times huge ones. Not to men­tion the oblig­a­tory con­sole or plat­form up­dates that you must im­ple­ment be­fore you can ac­cess the dig­i­tal stores from which you might down­load more soft­ware.

And once you’ve down­loaded and up­dated your games, their re­liance on data doesn’t end. On­line mul­ti­player matches de­mand it. DLC or con­nec­tions to out­side ser­vices; live chat, whether via the game, Skype or your favourite tele­phony al­ter­na­tive; out­bound streams to your Twitch chan­nel: all need that data to flow. Games are more re­liant on the In­ter­net than we re­alise.

Per­haps we shouldn’t take broad­band for granted. For one thing, is­sues of reg­u­la­tion and open­ness – the so-called net­work neu­tral­ity de­bate – should be of greater in­ter­est to play­ers than they seem to be (stream­ing video is a far more com­mon touch­stone for net neu­tral­ity ad­vo­cates). But let’s be hon­est, up­load­ing your Let’s Play or down­load­ing the lat­est Steam client might not be the mat­ter of great­est con­cern for on­line rights, even if such a fact might also of­fer an im­plicit in­dict­ment of videogames’ ac­tual, rather than the­o­ret­i­cal, ca­pac­ity for chal­leng­ing, im­por­tant speech.

A more im­me­di­ate con­cern is an eco­nomic, though no less po­lit­i­cal, one. There’s no ques­tion that all me­dia has be­come in­ter­twined with the In­ter­net. But videogames are a com­pu­ta­tion­ally na­tive medium, one that de­mands ac­quir­ing the bits that com­prise their byte­code. And, more­over, games carry some of the heav­i­est me­dia pay­loads. Even seem­ingly sim­ple smart­phone games some­times com­prise a gi­ga­byte or more of data trans­fer – and more for ev­ery up­date, which Ap­ple help­fully en­cour­ages you to con­fig­ure for au­to­matic ap­pli­ca­tion.

As broad­band and data providers fur­ther con­sol­i­date, play­ers might be the first to feel the squeeze. On one hand, ca­ble and satel­lite oli­gop­ol­ies seem to be able to avoid an­titrust ac­tion, and heavy data users are likely to fea­ture among their most de­sir­able (and most squeezed) cus­tomers. But on the other hand, there are com­pa­nies such as Google, with its in­vest­ments in mu­nic­i­pal fi­bre, a hy­po­thet­i­cal cel­lu­lar ser­vice, and even more fan­tas­ti­cal ideas, such as pro­vid­ing In­ter­net ac­cess via high-altitude bal­loons.

Keep­ing to its long­stand­ing busi­ness model, Google will likely deeply dis­count such ser­vices in ex­change for ac­cess to the data you pro­duce through them. No­body wants to pay for some­thing they can get for free, but we might end up feel­ing the pinch sooner, set­ting the stage for th­ese fu­ture ser­vices for In­ter­net denizens of all types. So be vig­i­lant. With­out know­ing it, you might be set­ting the terms of ev­ery­one’s In­ter­net ac­cess well be­yond games.

Is­sues of net­work reg­u­la­tion and open­ness should be of greater in­ter­est to play­ers than they seem to be

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