Retro Gaming Subculture and the Social Construction of a Piracy Ethic

By Downing, Steven | International Journal of Cyber Criminology, January-July 2011 | Go to article overview

Retro Gaming Subculture and the Social Construction of a Piracy Ethic


Downing, Steven, International Journal of Cyber Criminology


Introduction

Electronic gaming has become a massive industry, rivaling Hollywood in its revenues (San Francisco Chronicle, 2004). Growing alongside it is a form of copyright infringement increasingly investigated by scholars: digital piracy. Most of this research considers the nature, extent and impact of the copying and distribution of contemporary game software. Indeed, software piracy rates in 2008 (on the PC) account for an estimated 41% of total used software (Business Software Alliance (BSA), 2008). Researchers have approached digital piracy from a number of perspectives, including through the lens of deterrence, differential association, subcultural and macro-cultural theories (See, for e.g., Downing, 2010; Condry, 2004; Marshall, 2004; Kini, Ramakrishna, & Vijayaraman, 2004; Yar, 2005; North & Oishi, 2006; Gunter, 2009). Nevertheless, there is no research that has specifically focused on the relationship between retro gaming and digital piracy. Retro gaming is a fluid concept, but members of the current research setting generally define it as involving the collection and/or consumption of video and computer games published up to roughly the early 2000s. Thus, in the current study, I seek to fill this gap in the literature. However, though the current research is framed in the context of digital piracy, I do not seek exclusively to explain piracy. Instead, I discuss piracy as a form of behavior that challenges some norms while reinforcing others, thus explaining how an ethic of piracy is socially constructed through a negotiation of moral and cultural ideas between members of a subculture.

Retro gaming is an appropriate context through which to examine the moral gray areas surrounding piracy. As will be discussed, I find that the retro gaming community may be more ambivalent toward piracy than other gaming groups. On the one hand, retro gaming subcultures believe that the games they appreciate should be experienced by all "true gamers"; piracy provides access to such media, which would otherwise be unavailable to a larger audience. On the other hand, the retro gaming subculture is also defined by exclusivity, suggesting a certain degree of heightened "taste" exhibited by members; piracy conflicts with the desire to keep the retro subculture exclusive (Yochim & Biddinger, 2008). Piracy also undermines the "collectors" mentality. Further complications arise when retro gamers negotiate the moral implications of piracy, including the apparent reality that original developers and publishers do not stand to profit directly from the (re)sale of vintage games.

Through a theoretical framework emphasizing subcultural status acquisition and hierarchy, I will examine these multiple elements of piracy within retro gaming subculture. This examination stands to fill the aforementioned gap in the piracy literature as well as contribute to further understanding of the organic processes through which subcultural members negotiate complex issues of morality alongside internal and external structural issues (e.g., exclusivity, sustainability, and relevance). I will begin with a review of the several component areas that I seek to capture within this overall analysis. I will next discuss both the methodology I employ in the current study and my findings. Finally, I will suggest potential theoretical, policy and industry implications. Throughout these sections, I intend to integrate the following bodies of literature under a single theoretical umbrella.

Literature Review

Gaming and Digital Piracy

Given that the focus of this analysis is not the extent and nature of digital piracy, but instead on how it is managed within a given subculture, I will focus my review of the literature on studies and perspectives that contribute to understanding digital piracy through the lens of subculture. While a large number of studies focus on a macro culture of piracy (e.g., Condry, 2004; Kini et al., 2004; Yar, 2005; Marshall, 2004), relatively few have examined piracy specifically in gaming subcultures. …

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