Hard game criticism
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