Gaming with an Expiration Date

Most video games would be considered a form of “permanent” art, similar to novels, poetry, and film. As long as a player has a working NES and a copy of Super Mario Bros, that player can experience the game the way that Nintendo initially created it. Yet, as the recent shutdown of GameSpy‘s servers has shown, not all video games are “permanent,” and in fact, many are temporal in nature.

This is nothing entirely “new” to the art world. In fact, plenty of art forms are not permanent or only semi-permanent. Music before recording was like this. All we have of Beethoven is his sheet music, which as time has shown, can not fully replicate the sound or feel of Beethoven’s art. The same can be said of Shakespeare. While we can appreciate his great writing capabilities, we will never fully know what it looked like on the Shakespearean stage, performed by the bard’s own troupe. Even paintings fade over time and need to be restored.

Temporality can often be a selling point for some art. The entire point of a live performance or even seeing a film in a theater is that the experience of these things exists in limited time only. While these sort of things occasionally happen during the release of video games, by and large video games recognize themselves as a permanent art forms.

Despite this, many video games, specifically online games, are starting to die. Just last year Halo 2‘s servers shut down. While players can still play through the campaign and local multiplayer, the centerpiece of Halo 2 was its innovative online play. Without it, playing the game has fundamentally changed. Still, this is more reminiscent of a Shakespearean play than a lost painting or book because players can still experience part of Halo 2, just not all of it.

A more drastic change is happening to dying Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) like Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning or countless other MMOs that are going offline. These games require a large amount of people to be playing them in order to be fully functional, thus when their populations start to dwindle, they die a death similar to sheet music. But there is a far greater danger to an online game than just losing players, if the operating costs grow too large, servers are often shut down effectively killing a game.

This hasn’t happened yet with many “large” MMOs like World of Warcraft or EVE Online, but someday these games will probably lose their luster and their servers will be shut down and with them the experience that those games brought to their players. James Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man will probably survive as long as human culture does. They have been reprinted and experienced over and over for almost a century. League of Legends will not survive in the same way, despite the fact that more collective hours are put into playing that game than all the amount of time that people have spent reading Joyce.

In the future, many online games will become like “lost film.” Decayed over time and only known through descriptions of what they were instead of as something to directly experience. Though, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In 50 years, if I’m still alive, I may not be able to go back and play League of Legends. However, the experience will have still changed completely and might give a worse sense of what the game means in the mid 2010s than just a simple description or book might describe if I could play it.

Similarly, even if all four Beatles were alive today, going to their concert would not be the same experience as seeing them live in the 60s. As things age, they change. Recordings, films, novels, poems, and even most video games though effectively capture something of their time. John Lennon will always be 31 when I hear “Imagine,” Harrison Ford will always be dashing when I watch Star Wars, and Sonic will always be really, really fast when I play Sonic the Hedgehog.

This will not be the case for World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Dota 2. So perhaps when we play these games we should keep that in the back of our minds. We are attending a concert, seeing the ballet, swing dancing in the crowd. The moment will be lost in time, but sometimes the most effective and intense experiences can’t be captured and instead can only be lived. That should be the goal of an online game.

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