Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Ethics of Gaming Emulators

Inspired by Kotaku Australia's video podcast, let's talk about the ethics behind emulators. A number of gamers use them to run ROM's of old video games that are no longer in production. Whole websites are dedicated to arcade, Nintendo, and Sega games. Until the recent advent of digital gaming making classic titles like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog accessible to modern consoles, ROM's and emulators were one of two ways of playing retro games. That or spending a lot of free time, and money, locating the original system, cables, controllers, and game - all in working condition. Emulators were a faster, and cheaper way to go.

Emulators allow a host computer to run like a guest computer. It's typically used to run programs that are out of date. With a number of emulators for games, they are designed to offer more controller flexibility. You have the option to play Star Fox with a PS4 controller and not be limited to your keyboard.

But is all of this really legal? Creating an emulator and ROM for an older video game might infringe on copyright and trade agreements, so would code writers be in violation of the law? Technically no. Pretty much all emulators available for gaming systems are free. There are donation buttons, but there is no payment required to download and use. This isn't a GameStop enterprise where they are taking used games and reselling them. The content is free. And according to a 1992 court ruling of Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. v. Nintendo of America, Inc. (The Game Genie case), as long as the user has obtained a copy of the systems BIOS legally, they can modify it as they see fit. This is why you haven't seen Nintendo go after emulator sites like they have with Archive.org and YouTube.

For the end-user, that's a giant abyss of "we don't know." Technically you are safe to play emulators for free. They're not considered kosher by some developers as they don't make any money from it. And while it's still illegal to distribute game code, many ROM's are created with a unique source code that replicates the original data but! it's not the same. Therefore bypassing that tricky little rule. Yea!

But is it right for gamers to play the ROM's if they don't own a copy of the game? That's up to you to decide. For every ROM on my system, I have a physical copy of the game. I play them on my computer so I can stream them. Having to stream from my Super Nintendo is a butt and requires a ton of time, and equipment, that I don't want to invest in for temporary video streams. An emulator is a faster, inexpensive alternative. My argument is that I have a physical copy; I've paid my money to the publisher, so I have the right to download a ROM version of it to play my own way. Some people don't agree with me, and that's okay. And there are others who will download any ROM never owning a physical copy of the game. Legally, they can do it. And most ROM's are for games that have been out of production for years - some are in the realm of decades. The publishers are not producing the games, so shouldn't it be okay to run an emulator? Now if this were an emulator for the XBox One and you are uploading the latest Battlefield for people to play, then yes. That's an issue. The game is set to release soon and will be in production for several years. That is taking money out of the publisher's pocket. But for games that are no longer on the market, well what's the harm in the ROM?

What do you think? Where do you stand on the debate?

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