Hard game criticism
Shut up and give me back my money, says Ian Bogost
Games are still more like niche goods than they are like general retail products. And a little thing like the way we exchange money for them – and vice versa – helps to show us why.
When the idea was first introduced, much ink was spilled over Steam refunds and its impact on developers. Comparatively little was said about the policy’s impact on players, beyond a general nod to the pro-consumer effects of return policies. But reactions over time show that players’ expectations for commerce are unusual at best, naïve at worst.
First, returns are segregated from the context of purchase, creating an invisible hurdle for the customer. Titles can be purchased, managed and played in the Steam app, but returning one requires a different process on the service’s website. Not a huge burden – until you realise you’ve forgotten your password or engage the onerous Steam Guard verification system. Small obstacles create opportunities for abandoning a return, which always benefits the seller.
Second, ordinary retail channels explicitly distinguish exchanges from refunds. Steam selects Steam Wallet funds as the default reimbursement option. You can get a refund to your original method of payment, but you’ll have to notice and then make the change deliberately to get your money back.
The difference is substantial: taking store credit ensures that your capital stays on a retailer’s books, while returning it to your account gives it far less limited potential. Defaults may seem innocuous, but they have a strong effect on how consumers behave, even if we don’t realise it. Just think of all the Facebook features that activate unless you deliberately opt out of them.
Third, even if you choose a Wallet refund, your credit will still be delayed by up to a week. No electronic payment systems or bank gateways are involved, so Valve could make the funds available immediately if it wanted – just as a cashier would hand you a gift card after a retail exchange.
You’d think Valve would want you to have immediate access to these funds so you could buy another game, but the company knows it has locked them in anyway. Delaying their use makes them feel fresh when they’re available. It also gives you reason to check on your account to see if the funds have cleared, thereby increasing opportunities to buy something else in the meantime.
As it turns out, players don’t see anything startling or weird in the practice of offering a store credit as an unspoken default. “Doesn’t retail do the same thing?” one justified. “Usually you can only get credit, not cash.” Another sentiment I heard: “Just because it’s given to you as store credit doesn’t mean it hasn’t been refunded.” Except, yes, it does! A refund returns the purchase’s value to liquid in order that the buyer can use those funds elsewhere – not just on games.
Players may have lost sight of this distinction entirely. Perhaps the fragmented world of online commerce has replaced retail refund practice with the assumption that money spent is money sunk, and that any accommodation whatsoever represents lavish magnanimity on the part of the seller.
The attitude isn’t entirely surprising. For years, games have been unreturnable at retail, save defectives. It’s easier to return a £2,000 handbag than a £50 game. Preowned sales helped dampen the risk of these purchases. At the very least, you knew you could get trade credit for a game. Game retailers created the expectation that your gaming budget would be essentially non-liquid: tied up in new games or trade credits, all sitting pretty on Game’s (or Valve’s) balance sheets while you allocated new funds for groceries.
Or – don’t laugh – to buy movies or books or museum passes or tacos or anything that doesn’t have to do with games. That’s no detail. The more we allow the commerce of games to become its own weird, self-contained world with its own logic, the more the whole medium of games recedes into the dark alleys of grey markets.
Robust and equitable refund policies are good for games because they promote a more diverse commercial ecosystem, one in which players’ limited discretionary income is allowed to circulate among a variety of media. But even more than that, the more that game retailers partake of ordinary retail practices, rather than holing up inside of shadow markets, the more they facilitate the diversification of games, players and creators that we’ve all been celebrating – perhaps prematurely.
For years, games have been unreturnable at retail. It’s easier to return a £2,000 handbag than a £50 game