Emulation is Piracy. . . Except It’s Okay. . . But Sometimes Not. . .

Earlier this year I finally built a PC capable of running games with those hip, new 3D graphics, and after joining the elite PC gaming club, I was inevitably confronted with the dilemma of piracy.  My brother and some PC gamer friends of mine had been pirating games long before I got my computer.  They pirated pretty much every major release that came out.  They recognized that pirating games could mean a loss in sales for a company and, conscious of wanting support the games and developers they liked, they justified their piracy with some ground rules.  They considered piracy a test run.  If they liked a game, they would stop playing the pirated version, and buy the game.  If they didn’t have the cash right away then they put the game on their wishlist and moved on.  If they didn’t like a game then they weren’t likely to finish it anyway and they didn’t buy it.  They also made it a point not to pirate any independent games.  But these rules ultimately didn’t justify piracy to me.  Even with these rules, there is always that risk, that temptation, to play through a game and not pay for it, reassuring yourself that someday you would buy it and make up for the piracy.

Super Mario Bros. Start Screen

Yet, I was met with some particularly creative criticisms when one moment I would tell them not to pirate and then turn around and use an emulator to play Super Mario Bros. on my computer.  “Aren’t emulators basically pirating but for old games?” they’d say.  Well, yes and no.  In theory, there really isn’t much of difference between piracy and emulation.  Emulation is the use of a program, called an emulator, that mimics the behavior of another video game console.  ROMs are the files of cartridge-based games that the emulator runs.  Essentially, you’re playing a game without paying for it or getting it from its creators.  In many cases, emulation avoids creating the problems that piracy does.  On top of that, it provides an essential role that the game industry blindly ignores as it barrels forward from one console generation to the next.  But like piracy, emulation isn’t a black-and-white choice of good and evil (discussion for another time: “binary moral choice systems are really really dumb”)

Whenever a game developer or publisher (or musician, movie producer, etc.) goes after piracy, their number one complaint is that they’re not being paid for the service and goods that they provide to consumers.  They risk their own money when creating works of art and entertainment.  It’s an understandable problem since many of us will gladly reward the artists we like for the work they do.  While piracy does mean that an artist or creator isn’t getting paid for their work (or is at least at a higher risk of not getting paid for their work) emulators and ROMs don’t have this issue.  If I wanted to buy an NES and Super Mario Bros. I’d have to get it second-hand.  The NES was discontinued in 1995.  Nintendo simply doesn’t produce the console or the game cartridge anymore.  No stores sell new NES consoles.  So the only way to get an NES would be to buy a used one.  Even if I bought a genuine NES console instead of getting an NES emulator, the money wouldn’t even go to the creators anyway.  Unlike piracy, the use of emulators doesn’t affect any money flow to the original creators.

That's not to say anything of prices. This NES game went for $22,800 in an eBay auction in 2011.

That’s not to say anything of prices. This NES game went for $22,800 in an eBay auction in 2011.

While the above point is useful, I think it’s the role emulators play in preserving video game history is what truly sets them apart from piracy.  Every time a new generation comes out a big question asked is whether the new generation consoles can play the old generation games.  The answer is usually a resounding “no”.  The big three console manufacturers blunder forward ignorant, or possibly uncaring, of what happens to gaming’s history.  If it were left to console makers and game developers, older generations of gaming’s history would simply one day die out.  But emulators and ROMs preserve these works.  Putting them on PCs  means that the games won’t become defunct or outdated after a few years when it’s time for an upgrade to new hardware.  Of course, Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo put old games up for sale on their respective online stores, but they’re efforts are only in the hopes of making money.  If they don’t think a game will sell, then there’s no chance one of the big three are going to take the steps to preserve online.

According to this New York Times article in 2010, 90% of silent films and 50% of sound films made before 1950 are lost forever.  The majority of cinema’s early formative years is simply gone, never to be seen again.  It’s a fate we can’t and shouldn’t let happen to gaming.  In our era, we have the ability to store these games digitally preserving their content, entertainment, and artistry forever.  To not do so would be wrong.

The Library of Congress preserves books, sheet music, paintings, movies, comic books, and works of all kinds, except video games.

The Library of Congress preserves books, sheet music, paintings, movies, comic books, and works of all kinds, except video games.

Piracy is such a tricky issue.  It isn’t exactly like stealing, but then again, it’s not totally unlike stealing.  Saying you won’t pirate a game because it takes money away from deserving creators is nice, but what if the original creator no longer benefits from any sales and a company has kept the copyright of the creative work to keep making money off of it?  Now you get into the contentious debate over copyright law  It’s a murky gray area, and ROMs and emulators aren’t free of it.  There are some old games, like Super Mario Bros., that are available online from Nintendo.  Does that not make emulating Mario just as much of an act of piracy as pirating the newest Call of Duty?  In these cases, emulation fall under the same problems that piracy does.  It can keep creators from being rewarded for their creativity and work.

Even writing this now, I’m not totally sure how I feel about emulation or piracy.  Arguments of price (if a company decides to charge an exorbitant price for a piece of art is it right to make it available against their wishes?), convenience (is it right to pirate something if a company doesn’t make a piece of art available in a convenient manner?), availability (is it right to pirate a piece of art if it isn’t made available to you in any other way but piracy?), and more are raised in this tangled knot of art and commerce.  Ultimately, I think, for the time being, emulation serves an essential role for the video game industry.  Unless the game industry switches its focus from the consoles to the games, the risk of losing gaming’s history will always be present.  Until that day, emulators will have to do.

– Cam

Check out Blackman’N Robin for my stuff and more, and come back here every Tuesday for more opinions and whatnot.  Also follow me on Twitter, @cam_wade37, for introspective tweets like “You know how old books sometimes have two titles separated by ‘or’?  What’s up with that?”


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