‘We the People’ is a section of the White House’s official web presence that allows for the public to make their demands heard. One vocal and prolific contributor to popular games forum NeoGaf, Cheesemeister, has begun a petition to ban region-locking in games, movies and other software.
So what’s all the fuss about?
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“Region-locking” is, essentially, when your device will only accept software made for your geographic location. If you buy one device in Japan, for instance, and then buy a piece of software in France, if the device is locked you won’t be able to use it. The official petition explains that,
Preventing the sales of books across borders would be absurd, yet this happens regularly with digital media. Neither the assumption of consumers’ language abilities nor the lack of coordinated international publishing should strip consumers of their right to choose their purchases.
Game consoles have previously been locked by physical constraints. The American Super Nintendo has an extra piece of plastic in the cartridge slot, which prevents the Japanese Super Famicom games from fitting in your system. Some pliers and a little elbow grease will fix that stubborn issue easily enough. For some time console makers have been able to implement region-locks at a digital level, essentially neutering your machine from enjoying the fruits of companies outside your home market. But only recently have such concerted efforts been made.
Every Nintendo handheld, from the Game Boy to the DS, could play imported games. The 3DS, however, is locked to your region, while the viable market for a global buffet of gaming is larger than ever. Sony remains import-friendly, with both the PS3 and Vita region-free (aside from rare exceptions). Cheesemeister’s argument is that, since information about these products is now so easily accessible, the demand for these products increase. And these system-level locks “prevent consumers from exercising their right to choose to import digital goods and services from abroad, whether in the form of physical media or purely as data.”
But do we have a “right to choose” these goods? Proponents of the open market found stateside would say yes. The reality is stickier. Just as our connected culture changes the flow of information, such that we now know the latest tchotchke sold by some obscure street vendor in Malaysia, these same tendrils affect our access to that information. YouTube videos are taken down. Digital journals are locked away. The horribly sad case of Aaron Schwartz highlights the importance of this issue, and is one worst-case scenario to what happens when information, ostensibly available, is locked away for suspect reasons.
Region-locking games is different than freedom of information. Or is it? Should some inalienable right allow us to buy E.X. Troopers, a Capcom squad-based shooter based on the Lost Planet franchise and available only in Japan, and play it on our American 3DS? I’m not sure.
The issue doesn’t stop at games, though. Video-streaming services like Hulu and Netflix also employ a type of region-locking, keeping certain content sequestered to certain countries. As do music services Pandora and Spotify. With digital consumption of goods only increasing, there will be added pressure on distributors to explain why present-day consumers are handcuffed by rules written decades ago, maintained for dubious or greedy reasons.
Gabe Newell, founder of Valve, has so eloquently argued that piracy is a “service issue” and the more you handicap users, the more they’ll seek out illicit means anyway. Artificial scarcity may satisfy my adolescent itch for the unattainable, but it may not be good business.
Permit me an unpopular thought: what if such limitations aren’t so bad after all? In a way, these arbitrary obstacles remind me of how consumers must have felt centuries ago, before shipping technology advanced beyond salted meat as a way to preserve freshness. The earth is a big place, yet its vastness is whittled away every day. Might there be worth in maintaining a certain level of exoticism to those areas beyond our vision?
I remember scouring old gaming magazines for the Japan Only section, squinting at indecipherable text and imagining the thrill of simulated horse-racing. The idea of this game, existing outside my reach, was likely far more compelling than the actual experience of playing it would have been. Maybe it’s better that we can’t quench every urge, even if we know something out there can satisfy it. Call me old-fashioned, I guess.
If you disagree, click here and sign. Only 98,000 signatures to go.