• notebookcomputer
  • 02/12/2022

Piracy or preservation? Why video game emulation is a good thing

By: Austin Evans – Volunteer Contributor

The video game industry is the largest entertainment industry out there right now, exceeding both music and cinema combined.

To put it in perspective, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame earned roughly $860 million in its opening weekend, while 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V made $1 billion in the same amount of time. This comparison is slightly skewed, of course; the most expensive movie tickets (at Cineplex at least) are about $13, whereas the majority of modern-day video games cost $80. Combined with the high prices of video game hardware – both consoles and gaming PCs – and it’s clear to see that video games have a higher financial barrier to entry than any other entertainment medium.

That may be the reason that when people think of video game piracy (otherwise known as “emulation”), they imagine it is done by those unable to afford the Grand Theft Auto-level releases, and equate it to theft. However, emulation is far more than stealing video games, it’s a major component of preserving the legacy and history of the industry.

Like paper and stone before it, the digital file is susceptible to the forces of time. The technology inside retro video game cartridges is already starting to show its age; many old video games rely on batteries located inside the cartridge, which have in large part died now that these cartridges are decades old.

Piracy or preservation? Why video game emulation is a good thing

But even for games without battery cartridges, there have been issues with preserving these games in their original state. Many floppy discs and CD-ROMs now experience disc rot, a chemical deterioration that makes the discs unreadable. Relying on these physical methods of playing games will eventually leave many of gaming’s pivotal titles in the dust as one by one their copies become unplayable, erasing the history of the genre.

Exporting the game files to a computer and posting them online helps circumvent this issue, as the infrastructure that keeps the internet running is far more reliable than 20-year-old, pocket-sized discs and plastic cartridges. However, it is worth noting that older games becoming unreadable is only an issue because those old video games are no longer being produced.

Let’s say you wanted to play 2003’s Mario Kart: Double Dash!! (the best Mario Kart game, don’t @ me). Let’s also pretend you already own either a GameCube or a Wii with GameCube support, as well as a couple of GameCube controllers; not super unreasonable, since Nintendo has rereleased the GameCube controller several times in recent years, and the Wii from 2006-2008 sold better than toilet paper did back in March 2020.

You, like others before you, may go on eBay and search for “mario kart double dash” and if you did, you’d be greeted by rows and rows of listings. However, with the catch being that each one costs roughly $90-$100. That’s about $20 more than the most recent Mario Kart release, and $40 more than the game cost when it was first released.

This is not an outlier case either; fans of the Pokemon series may be familiar with how costly the older games can be, with fan-favourites Pokemon Black and Pokemon White regularly going for $80-$100 at local pawn shops, compared to $40 back when they were released.

Old games, and especially old Nintendo games, increase in value as time goes on and more people want to revisit them. The publishers don’t see a single cent of this, of course; they stopped publishing these games years ago, leading to this high demand. From this perspective, emulation is a cost-saving technique, but the money saved would have never gone to the original publishers anyways; they are not impacted at all by emulation of retro games.

That’s not to say all emulation is great, of course. Emulating modern games or games that still earn money for their creators with current-day sales (most notably, digital games and “indie” games) does negatively impact the game’s creators. However, the laws surrounding video game emulation do not differentiate between those kinds of games and the games which are no longer supported by their companies, and it’s ludicrous that it is illegal to emulate a game that the original developer no longer supports anyway.

For the purposes of preservation (and just plain old enjoyment of retro games) we need to flip the script on emulation.