As I walked past my gaming retail chain’s local instance I felt something stir within me. Wouldn’t it be great to pick up a new game? I haven’t done that in months! I changed direction and veered towards their menacing Bioshock 2 window display.
Wait a minute, what am I talking about? I download a new game or two every week. Heck, my computer’s downloading Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising at this very moment! I don’t need (read: “can’t afford”) any new games!
At this moment I was struck with a wave of nostalgia. While I’ve steadily fed my appetite for new video games over the last several months, I haven’t exchanged paper currency for game software laser-etched onto thin, some might even say “compact,” discs since sometime last fall.
While the inevitability of truly pervasive digital purchasing is still some years off, the trend’s already growing momentum is worth considering. Not so long ago, the best way to get an idea of what video games were available for any given system was to pay a visit to an actual, physical store. You had to place a preorder for your anxiously awaited sequel, or the stores in your area could (and often would) sell out of your game. If you wanted to play a game as soon as it came out, you had to wait in line the night before.
Now don’t get me wrong – I love being able to purchase my games at 3AM, from the comfort of my apartment, while wearing my jammies and slipper socks. I love being able to purchase games that came out three months ago at 75% off. I love the access to indie games, the ability to download and play my games at any computer with internet access, and being able to rediscover games that haven’t been published in physical form for 15 years. At the same time, the part of me that perked up on the street the other day misses going into a real store, poking around in real merchandise, and paying for my virtual experiences with real money.
That part of me has a point. There’s something about the experience of venturing out into the real world, of braving the inconveniences of traffic, weather, and the modern retail experience, in pursuit of a game, that lends the whole experience an air of real magic. The anticipation of weeks and months of waiting culminates as you ditch your car, charge towards the new-game-advertisement clung doors, and duck inside. The smell of glossy printing and fresh plastic fills your nostrils. You stride down the aisle, and seize upon your prize. The checkout line can’t move fast enough, but after answering the register troll’s riddles (strategy guide? - No, that’s what the internet’s for!), you’re able to break away from the horde of ravenous game customers and make a last mad dash back to your chopper (car).
The march of digital downloads will carry on. However, I can’t help but feel that as more and more gamers take advantage of the convenience and savings of downloads, they will be missing out on that unique journey from anxious hope and waiting through the tedious and thrilling voyage to the irreplaceable reward of peeling back the plastic, snapping open the case, and loading the game for the first time. Maybe this is just a backward musing, a leftover longing on my part, but it seems to me that on some level that first quest to purchase your game may be at least as meaningful as all the quests that end up being completed within.
In a form of media dominated by its audience’s battle though level after stage after mission, wherein the concept of relishing the journey is so central to both the underlying mechanics and often the overarching mythos, it seems a shame that the technology that makes these game experiences possible is helping to chip away at one of the few opportunities gamers have to realize a quest of their own, in their own, real lives.
In any case, Operation Flashpoint has finished downloading, and I am sitting here, in my jammies and slipper socks, instead of waiting in line.