On my shelf of games is, literally, a three-ring binder with more than 15 printed-out pages documenting everything I own across three subscription services. There is no reasonable way I can download all of the games I’m entitled to from Xbox Live, PlayStation Plus and EA Access. So I have this catalog to remind me of what I own.
The “pile of shame” concept is something very old and well understood in video game culture. Typically, it means something a player picked up — either because of hype or because of sale price — and never got around to beating (or, worse, starting). The shame is justified by the idea that if you buy something, you should at least play it. But in the past decade, particularly with the advent of console services with free games libraries — and let’s not leave out attention-grabbing deals like the Humble Bundle, which can deliver a bunch of titles at a low price — you’re talking about a volume of content that no one could reasonably get around to finishing or even starting.
Look, I’m not naive. The “free games” in PS Plus or Xbox Live Gold aren’t really “free” — not only do you have to pay a monthly or yearly (now $60) fee to get them, you have to keep that current if you think you might want to play them later. There are more than 550 in PlayStation Plus’ catalog (across three platforms) going back to 2010. In Xbox Live, there are more than 200 for two consoles dating back to 2013. It was, legitimately, panic inducing when I was away on business two years ago and got an email notice that, thanks to a change in my credit card number, my PlayStation Plus subscription was expiring and along with it my access to Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Infamous 2 and Red Faction: Guerrilla — none of which I have ever put a minute into. I left a meeting room to phone customer service, update my credit card and get assurance I wasn’t losing that library.
Subscription services, Steam Sales and Humble Bundles exploit the satisfaction of the having, not necessarily the playing, of video games. No, it’s not a physical collection, like the impressive walls of cases and boxes you occasionally see when someone is either showing off or putting up a video games estate for sale. But the idea of ownership is a powerful part of a consumer culture, and that is still how most of us came to this hobby and lifestyle, before developing all of these ideas about art and expression that make us feel better for overspending on it.
I know, it’s silly. and I promise I’m not writing this to lecture those who diligently download the latest offerings; I am one of them, after all. (In fact, I need to go do that right now.) Since 2015 I’ve tried to document the value, in both money and critical acclaim, of the games Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus have offered each year. Realizing that digital marketplace pricing is very discretionary, it’s still something in the neighborhood of $1,000, for both services. And many are games that, at one point, rated at least some kind of a mention in an E3 news conference or booth visit from me or my colleagues, even if everyone quickly forgot about them after launch.
Of course, there are also games that didn’t get that kind of treatment, but I still run out to get them anyway, like I’m stuffing ham in a suit jacket pocket from a lunch buffet at a country club where I’m a guest, not a member. I trashed Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel when it launched in 2013. But when it showed up on Xbox Live Games with Gold in January, heck yes I claimed it.
Ownership requires management
There’s an ongoing management obligation to things like PS Plus and Xbox Live, too. Players of licensed sports titles and some movie adaptations are by now familiar with the reality that those deals terminate, meaning they will be pulled from service and if you don’t have them on your hard drive, tough luck. In May, Rory McIlroy PGA Tour was taken out of circulation from EA Access — despite original promises that once a game is placed into that “vault” of available titles, it’ll stay there forever. I found about this too late. I love video game golf, but this had been uninstalled on my Xbox One to make room for Star Wars: Battlefront 2, a couple of MMOs and some other things. (Rory Mclroy was in my binder, after all!) But when the licensing deal between the PGA and EA Sports expired, so did it. I just ordered a hard copy of this game from a used games website where sellers, no longer facing competition from online marketplaces or subscription libraries, marked it up accordingly.
On the PC side of things, Steam’s seasonal sales, plus Humble Bundle’s sure-why-not pricing, dumps a ton of inventory on the collector. People joke self-consciously about the damage done to their wallets or credit card balances when these events pop up, and sure, it’s taken in stride — this is, fundamentally, a consumer culture we’re in. But when the “oof my wallet” jokes are done, you’re still left with a stack of unplayed video games.
I don’t mean to sound like an old man when I’m 100 percent guilty of, or at least willingly exploited by, the same thing. But an increasing back catalog of digital content and publishers’ willingness to unload it for little or nothing has for sure altered and expanded the “pile of shame” concept in ways we didn’t really expect when friends first started kidding each other about this moral burden a decade or so ago. Back then, it really was all packaged goods, whether bought on impulse or otherwise, that was sitting on the shelf of an entertainment center. One acquired these games on their own, not as some freebie thrown in for being a good sport about paying for online multiplayer.
Today, re-releases, re-masters and services like EA Access and Xbox Live needing fresh content to deliver, video game fans are being stuffed with more games than they can handle, and feeling like they’re leaving money on the table if they don’t pick them up.
Yes, it’s a good problem to have. We should all be so fortunate to own so many games. But as players contemplate their priorities and libraries, subscriptions and “vaults” like EA Access and Xbox Live, some forgiveness has to be made for the influence of subscription services on one’s pile of shame. It’s very hard to say no to something “free,” after all — or at least slashed to an impulse-buy price in the case of the Humble Bundles or Steam sales.
But this is how they keep you around, after all. To discontinue a subscription — hell, to sell a console and getting out of the platform altogether — means one most consider the literal thousands of dollars in video game content they have acquired and are forsaking. It’s a powerful reason to stay with a platform. Small wonder, then, that platform holders are behind all this.