The Museum Model, or “Who really owns your games?”

I was frowning while reading through “Endgame: Syria and Game Censorship” yesterday. As I was learning about yet another game rejected by Apple from their App store, I couldn’t help but to think of coverage I’ve read and conversations I’ve had in the last few months around entries like App stores, various fundraising platforms, and especially all-digital ecosystems like Steam. It seems as if it takes an incident like this to remind us of a central fact to many of these conversations we often overlook: we often don’t “own” what we think we do.

Jorge puts forth a great metaphor for App stories: they should be libraries where anyone can come in and get an app they need. Part of me really loves that. If people could find what they need, discover other great apps, and have a platform for the conversations around those apps, that would be fantastic. However, as I suggested, a better metaphor might be one of a museum.

You enter a fixed place. There are rules — strictly enforced rules — and selections presented for people to see. Everything, from what is shown to when it is open, is controlled. It’s an entirely designed experience, start to finish. Nothing makes an external reference and everything directs the visitor to other places within the museum. It’s, to use another term familiar to those interested in these conversations, a closed-off garden.

It’s easy to see why platforms like Apple’s App store might be characterized this way too: they want money. Sure, sometimes the interests of the company and that of the consumers might overlap. And, in even rarer times, Apple might takes moves to help the consumer, but it’s all toward the goal of making more revenue. Apple’s a company, that’s how companies act.

Yet, we “forget” this in reference to Apple — and even Steam. Because the entire system is automated, because we can, with a single touch or click, purchase and play what we pick, we “forget” that we are often only visiting what we pay for. It’s housed, maintained, and even watched by other parties. Our apps, games, and now even tools live on platforms which we don’t own and whose access is mediated through gatekeepers who fiercely guard it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking you to give up on Apple’s App store. Nor am I asking you to stopping using Steam. No, what I want is some caution, some questioning. Back when there was a conversation around the introduction of Steam Greenlight, I tried to voice concern over how much power Steam has over how you interact, communicate, and even play the games on their service, and was drown out by cries of “But we trust Steam!” Here is another company and another example. And I have already seen the “We trust Apple!” messages about this.

If only in my own life, 2013 is going to be a year of growth for the videogame medium. I’m going to make more games, talk more about development, and write as I can about what I play. Throughout all that, I want to read and hopefully take part in conversations like this. I want us to argue about representation, control, and the systems of power we interact with to play videogames. Let’s look at the services and stores we give money to and question their actions, especially when they ban something because it’s “offense” to one group or another.

I think Jorge puts forth a challenge to us when he writes, “As games become an increasingly important medium for politically and socially relevant messaging, we should seriously consider what the future holds for our freedom to play.” When playing videogames on a digital platform, let’s all begin to think about that: are we really “free”? If not, does it matter?