Digital game purchases: do we really "own" them?

By Lee Kaelin on

Gaming website Rock, Paper and Shotgun has published an interesting piece chronicling the ill-treatment received by one of its readers, a PC gamer by the name of Gimperial, from Valve.The gaming firm disabled his Steam account without citing an exact reason and thus blocked access to over 250 purchased games. This is not an isolated incident, but it raises an important question -- do you actually own your games?

Gimperial, a gamer from Russia had access to his steam account disabled for breaking Valve’s Steam Subscriber Agreement. Despite admitting he did sometimes gift games for financial reward, something that's against Valve’s Terms of Service, Valve told him that this wasn’t the reason for having access to his account terminated -- but they wouldn’t tell him the real reason either.

After numerous exchanges, and a demand for an explanation of what aspect of the SSA he had broken, Steam’s customer service contacted him back saying “we will not be able to help you further with this issue,” pasting the full SSA text below the comment. They then ignored further correspondence from Gimperial.

This has happened before and other people have been less fortunate. Steam will argue that providing a reason could aid a scammer in avoiding future detection, but it seems very unfair to not know why you had your account disabled, especially for those with legitimate activity that have been caught inadvertently in the company's security measures. RPS asked lawyer Jas Purewal of Gamer Law for his thoughts.

Is a EULA subject to consumer protection law? Yes. Has that been tested in a court yet? No, although as a very broad summary it requires a company who sells to consumers to act ‘reasonably’ towards its customers. Nor have governments/regulators definitively stated their position regarding consumer protection regarding digital content yet (though that is already beginning to change, certainly within the UK/Europe). So we don’t know the exact extent of consumer protection law regarding games – although developers/publishers generally do try to comply with the law insofar as they are able.

Rock, Paper and Shotgun decided to get involved and contacted Steam on the reader’s behalf, and though there was no reply, Gimperial regained access to his account shortly afterwards. However, his trading privileges were suspended until January 30, 2022.

Owning the boxed version of a game gives users a higher degree of contol over their purchase. You won't lose access to the game as long as you physically have it in your possession and you are free to sell it second hand -- even though publishers are already trying to curb that practice. But with the rise of online purchases and digital downloads you just trust the store you’ve purchased the game from will continue to give you access.

Steam, like other online game shops generally sell games under their own Service Agreement, often overriding those of the title publisher. More crucially, those terms essentially result in you not owning your games; in many respects you’re at best renting them from the digital platform, with no guarantees that the live account required to play them will remain usable indefinitely. 

Image credit: RPS

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