I Learned How to Share My Toys By Kindergarten, But Modern Gaming Makes It Really Hard to Do

There are a few dozen games in our home that I haven't really ever been able to play. The same goes for my spouse. It's not a lack of interest, time, or ability that keeps each of us from experiencing these games; it's Steam. Although Steam is hardly the only culprit, of course. Origin now plays the same role, as do console user profile systems.

The issue we face, as a multi-gamer household, is this: Our furniture, dishes, movies, books, consoles, and even cat are joint property—but technically, our video games are not.

The era of digital distribution has thrown something of a wrench in the basic practice of sharing games, even within a family. We may have new PC games on disc, but their serial keys and online passes are just as tied to individual accounts as if we'd downloaded them. We can buy and share DRM-free games from sources like GOG, but the majority of newer titles are strictly tied to account-based verification. There are three ways we can both experience most modern games, then: we can trade computers, we can switch account logins, or we can buy two copies. None of those options is an ideal solution.

Digital distribution has both its benefits and its problems, and it's not just games facing the challenges. We can play any CD, DVD, or Blu-Ray on any player either of us purchased, but sharing an iTunes library of songs is, by design, greatly more challenging. Similarly, either of us can pick up any book off the shelf in the living room, but Kindle books belong to only one of us.

The problem of sorting out what digital property actually legally is came up recently in the Wall Street Journal's SmartMoney magazine with the rather morbid question, "Who inherits your iTunes library when you die?"

Digital music and books, like games, tend to be licensed, rather than purchased. The end effect is that when the owner expires, the license does too: "Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn't have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files – but they don't actually own them. Apple and Amazon grant 'nontransferable' rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the White Album to your son and Abbey Road to your daughter."

Games operate similarly. The End User License Agreement a player has to check off on, when installing nearly any PC game, specifies up front that it is, in fact, a license agreement. You have purchased the right to access the game, but you have not technically purchased the game itself. The license is nontransferable. And yet even the SmartMoney article advises that for digital property, bending the rules, practically speaking, makes more sense than trying to work within them:

The simpler alternative is to just use your loved one's devices and accounts after they're gone - as long as you have the right passwords. Chester Jankowski, a New York-based technology consultant, says he'd look for a way to get around the licensing code written into his 15,000 digital files. "Anyone who was tech-savvy could probably find a way to transfer those files onto their computer – without ending up in Guantanamo," he says. But experts say there should be an easier solution, and a way such content can be transferred to another's account or divided between several people."We need to reform and update intellectual-property law," says Dazza Greenwood, lecturer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

In many ways, I love Steam. It's become a handy one-stop shop for most of my PC gaming needs. After having the entirety of my PC game collection (carefully built since 1993) stolen in 2006, it's been a delight for me to be able to tie games permanently to my account and access them at a whim. Through new computers and hard drive failures, it's made keeping my collection straight and carrying my games forward simple.

Gaming offers the chance to share every single accomplishment or iota of progress—everything is to be shared, it seems, except the actual games themselves.

And yet, I remember when my friend across the street and her younger brother first got a PlayStation. There were a few games they both played, and they could take turns, each with their own save file. I can still pop a cartridge out of my DS and hand it over, but to share any other kind of game we have requires handing over not only the disc, but also the social identity I have, by necessity, tied to it.

The ability to resell retail discs remains surprisingly contentious as we continue to move into a more digital, networked future. GameStop is looking into a way to facilitate digital used game sales (and therefore, to take a cut).

I can live without reselling my collection of serial codes and Steam keys; something about a "used" digital property feels ridiculous. But if everything we're going to do must be tied to unique online accounts—and it is—then the time has long since come to be able to link them into family units. A family with two children should be able to buy one copy of a game for both of them to play; an adult couple of two gamers should be able to share their entertainment.

Amazon has arranged it such that I can loan a Kindle book to a friend's account. I should be able to loan my games to another Xbox Live, PSN, or Steam account as well. Gaming requires ties to social identities now, and offers the chance, through achievements, trophies, Twitter, and Facebook, to share every single accomplishment or iota of progress—everything is to be shared, it seems, except the actual games themselves.

(Top photo: Shutterstock)