A friend of mine has two boys, ages 7 and 10. They have their own Steam accounts, with their own collections of games.
"I’m going to stack them with cheap games, and then hand them over, heirloom-style, when they eventually get their own gaming PCs," he told me, and for a moment I thought he was joking. The next day I made a Steam account for my own son and daughter.
This act may represent a rather optimistic view of how long Steam will be around, and how long the games we buy now will be supported on our current hardware, but I don't mind being hopeful when it comes to my children. I'm planning for their future.
The game collection as physical relic
There is a wall of games in our basement, right across from my home office. The games start with the Atari era, and go up to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation.
What used to feel like a collection of games now feels like an anachronism, a space-consuming and arguably unsightly pile of software that require either hardware we don’t have or services that don’t exist. It’s unknown how many years worth of working Virtual Boys we have as a society, and nothing will return the Chromehounds servers so we can play online.
Video games are reliant on specialized consoles, online services, and sometimes even custom controllers that all limit our ability to enjoy them in the long run. I doubt my collection of games will be of much interest to my children as anything but a curiosity; playing the games would be impossible without a sizable investment of time and money, and that's assuming they were even tempted to do so.
Modern games are living on borrowed time
Stephen King once told the story of a writer who was being interviewed by a reporter who claimed a recent movie "ruined" one of his books. The writer in question went to his book shelf, picked up the book, and handed it to the reporter. "They didn’t touch it, it looks fine to me," he said.
No movie, no matter how popular, can change the books we have on our shelves, nor can they harm our enjoyment of the source material. We can happily ignore the Golden Compass film and continue reading the His Dark Materials series until the end of time.
Movies can’t ruin good books, but video games are digital creatures; it’s all too easy for someone to go into the "pages" and change the words if they’d like. We live in a world where our PlayStation 4 games are updated as we sleep. There is rarely a "definitive" version of a game, nor is it possible to stop the flow of progress and enjoy your favorite version of a game on modern consoles. At some point the servers will be pulled from games like Titanfall, and they will cease to exist. Modern games are living on borrowed time.
This leads to interesting situations. I’m in the process of trying to regain control of my Battle.net account. Blizzard thinks I was taking part in some "suspicious activity," and with the amount of laptops and gaming PCs in my house that’s not surprising. I found out too late that my account is tied to an old e-mail address that I can't access, and I’m hesitant about sending in a copy of my driver’s license or passport. On the other hand, my copies of Starcraft 2,, and my Hearthstone deck are all locked in there, and I want them back.
We found ourselves in the awkward position of having to prove we own the games we've bought before we can touch them again. If’s father was a gamer, it’s possible that his escape capsule might have included a Blizzard authenticator wrapped in that famous red cape. "I leave to you, my only son, this Murloc deck."
It's not all bad
The switch to digital may have harmed our ability to keep content permanently, but the rise of communal property in our family is a nice trade-off. My children love physical books, but they also both have Kindles, and we share one account. That means I buy one copy of a book and we can all be reading it at the same time, or both kids can read it without arguing about who gets the one copy before bed time.
There are no pages to tear, no bookmarks to lose. The downside is that one day Amazon may go out of business, or the licensing may change in some ways and the books become unreachable.
The wall of books doesn’t seem like an anachronism, and there is no risk their hardware will become obsolete. I hope my children take good care of them if I’m no longer around; it makes me happy to think that one day a grandchild will stumble upon a book that made me happy and lose a day to it.
This is an impossible situation with most games. The things I loved on my PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii will likely be untouchable in any recognizable form by my grandchildren. Our enjoyment of games is impermanent, these memories tie us to a specific time and place in a way books do not. Our time with these $60 purchases is limited.
Creating a Steam account for my oldest son and daughter and filling it with great games is an act of hope. It allows them to feel like they "own" something, even if it’s mostly an illusion. It's saying that I believe that the service will be around in 20 years, and that these games will continue to run. That my children will want to play them, or at least visit them from time to time.
It’s not as permanent as a wall of games, but the games they play and buy will still be a reflection of who they are. One day they’ll take their computer and that Steam account with them when they move out, and maybe they’ll play games with their spouse, or even children.
"I bought this for you when you were 11," I’ll say, pointing to their copy of Terraria. Hopefully it will still work; nothing is forever.