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Cole Gleason

Ph.D. student at the Human-Computer Interaction Institue at CMU. I work on accesibility technology for the blind.

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In class, the idea of using a blockchain to sell and transfer video games was raised. I’d like to point out the good and bad examples of the game industry using a blockchain for this application, and how it is all still just a buzzword. I’ve previously given a talk on blockchains and the useful scenarios for them, and this does not seem to be one of them.

Bad Examples

There is exactly one reason to use a blockchain: you have a problem with centralized systems. Maybe you live in a country where the institutions, government or corporate, can’t be trusted or are unstable. Maybe you have to work in an environment where any form of centralization leads to risk (organized crime rings, for example).

The video game industry does not have this problem at all. Back when games were sold mostly on physical media without DRM, maybe adding a blockchain would have seemed like a reasonable way to capture extra money. But this amounts to just adding DRM to your video games. If I put a disk in from a friend, and it says “Please pay $10 to buy this from your friend (and we will keep a fee of $5).” thats a form of DRM. A blockchain is not necessary to accomplish that, and just adds complexity.

But maybe you were thinking of digitial games? After all, there are a lot of downloads now. Maybe it would be nice to transfer ownership so people can play those as used copies. This also can be solved with a simple centralized database! I buy a game on Steam, I want to sell it to a friend when I’m done. All I should have to do is fire up Steam and transfer the game ownership to their account! The blockchain solves no problem here, and again, just adds complexity.

Let’s go ahead and suppose the problem is centralization. If you have a bunch of platforms, like Steam, Oculus Store, Humble Bundle, whatever, it isn’t easy to move game ownership between platforms. Is a decentralized blockchain a better solution for this than the interested parties just sharing an ownership database, enforced by legal contracts? I wouldn’t think so. Most game companies are in countries with strong legal systems, so there is no reason to choose code over law. Law is something that judges can interpret freely, whereas a bug in a blockchain can lead to unwanted consequences.

Good Example (Maybe)

There is one scenario where I think the game industry could consider a blockchain to sell or transfer games, and that is for indie publishers. Maybe you want to build a game and allow sales and resales of the game or associated digital content, but no large publisher has a system in place to handle that ownership tracking. You don’t want to tie yourself to Steam or other platforms for some reason. A decentralized blockchain would allow your users to trade the game even if your company dissapeared.

Of course, someone has to be wiling to take up all of the governance, consensus, and other issues that will rise up around the blockchain itself, which seems like it will be more costly than a simple database. Look at past examples of blockchain governance issues: The DAO on Ethereum, Bitcoin forks, etc. What happpens when your users wrest control of the blockchain from you and trade it freely?