Saturday, January 17, 2009

Security and Responsibility

The games that bear the title of Command and Conquer are usually hailed as welcome additions to the list of real-time strategy games available. And they deserve that acclaim, too: the games are enjoyable and challenging additions to that genre of games. Lately, though, Electronic Arts, the company that is behind the latest Command and Conquer games, is coming under fire from consumers for something completely unrelated to the quality of the games.

I personally own one of the latest additions to the series, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3. After playing it for a while, I find it to be an enjoyable and challenging game, one that certainly lives up to the Command and Conquer title. The tone does border on the ridiculous at times, what with the introduction of Empire of the Rising Sun and its army of Gundam-style transforming mech units alongside other crazy units from the series standard Allies and Soviet sides, but that doesn’t reduce the tactical challenge any.

So after all that, I must say I was somewhat surprised to see the average rating of the game on With 154 total reviews, the average rating was a mere two stars out of five. (I got those numbers at 1617 hours on 12-31-08.) This alongside a review from giving the game an A- grade. I was pretty curious as to why the Amazon reviewers seemed to dislike the game so much; I certainly hadn’t found that much to dislike.

Well, as it turns out, there is a digital rights management system called SecuROM that Electronic Arts uses in an attempt to protect the game from piracy. And a good deal (not all of them, but many) of the negative reviews on Amazon never even mentioned anything about the game itself, only this security system that comes with the game. Now, I know I haven’t really had any problems with it. My computer hasn’t had any issues; the game runs without problems.

All the same, though, I do respect the decisions of people to refuse to buy the game with that system. After all, the power of the consumer in a capitalist economy is the power to choose what to support. If people want to refrain from buying the game, that’s fair. What I do have the problem with is the victim mentality that seems to be developing here. From what I can see, people are intent on punishing EA, because it’s the evil corporation that’s punishing innocent consumers with this restrictive system.

And frankly, that view makes little to no sense to me. It’s not just seen in the real world, either. From what I can see, some people have an interesting view of the way responsibility works, specifically who has responsibility for a given end result that develops. It’s not one that I agree with. Another example, this time from the annals of role-playing games, helps to illustrate what exactly I mean.

This is an example culled from the forums of Giant in the Playground Games; I have no idea who first proposed it. In this hypothetical scenario, a group of evil cultists are casting a ritual to summon a powerful demon to the world, a ritual which requires a human that the demon will possess. A group of heroic adventurers reach the room in which this ritual is being cast. That said, though, they are all but depleted, having fought through most of the cultists and their allies before reaching that room.

Knowing that the demon is far more powerful than they are, and fearing for the results if it is summoned, the adventurers must attempt to halt the ritual, but they don’t have the remaining strength or time to defeat the cultists that are actually casting the ritual. Thus, their choices are presented as a dichotomy: allow the ritual to complete and the demon to arrive, or kill the innocent human themselves to prevent the ritual’s completion.

Those presenting this scenario usually go on to argue that the morally correct choice is the second. The justification is presented thus: anything other than the assured halt to the ritual that that second option offers is tantamount to allowing the ritual to complete, allowing the demon into the world to wreak whatever havoc it likes. Furthermore, it is impossible to claim that it is morally wrong to kill an innocent, because refusing to do so makes the adventurers responsible for the summoning of the demon and any further havoc that it causes.

The idea that a third choice is present almost never comes up initially. Even when someone does ask, “Well, what about if they fight like all hell anyway, using more morally correct means,” the usual response is, “No, they’re still responsible for the ensuing chaos.” And again, we see this idea of responsibility. We see this idea that a group with limited resources and means that does its best within those bounds becomes the party responsible, regardless of who else is involved.

In the RPG scenario, with the demon, I cannot in good conscience give the adventurers much of the responsibility for the summoning, regardless of their choices. If they do their best within their bounds to halt the summoning and fail, then the responsibility falls primarily on the cultists that summoned the demon and the demon itself. Even if they stand by and do nothing, the responsibility still must be evenly split between them and the people who did the actual summoning.

Likewise, Electronic Arts is not the oppressor doing horrible things to the victimized consumers. Both EA and the consumer are the victims in this case, just as the adventurers and the populace are both the victims of the demon in the role-playing scenario. The analogue of the demon in the real world scenario is not Electronic Arts, but rather the people that lead EA to think that things like SecuROM are necessary.

Electronic Arts isn’t out to screw their customers over. Their stated intent (from the support section of their website) is this: “This solution serves to protect our software from piracy.” If we don’t like the digital rights management that EA put in its game, then we do have every right to refuse to buy from EA. But it seems to me that it would be more productive to go after the true root of the problem: the people that attempt to avoid paying for the game.

The customers may be the victims in this case, but Electronic Arts isn’t the demon that’s entirely responsible for attempting to add security to their games. The real demons in this case are the people that want to cheat EA out of what they deserve for producing such a good game. If such piracy could be shut down, then things like SecuROM wouldn’t be necessary. That seems like a better focus for our efforts than demonizing EA, when the true responsibility for this lies elsewhere.

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