Have you ever stopped to think about how overwhelmingly quickly everything is moving towards digitization? Music, books, movies, video games, every form of consumable media and entertainment is quickly shifting away from physical representations and into a form which we can’t really ‘see’ or identify, let alone truly comprehend. Without really stopping to consider the results, we instantly began to transform it all into a more cost-effective, easily storable and ‘more efficient’ format without really weighing potential consequences.
I had never really thought about it myself until just recently, when I booted up my Steam (a purely digital game distributor, think iTunes for PC games) account the other day. I was shocked to find that in just a year of owning my nice and powerful laptop, I’ve purchased over 85 games that are now digitally linked to my account, less than 20% of which I’ve ever even touched. That largely untouched 80% even includes some major AAA titles, all bought almost instinctively during crazy sales: both Portal games, both Witcher games, all the FEAR and Saint’s Row games, the Arkham games, even Dishonored and LEGO: Lord of the Rings. And as crazy as that may be, many of my friends have even more purchases than that, upwards into the range of 200-300 titles and beyond.
I’m sure none of this comes as any surprise to all of the gamers reading this. In the past few years, a new term has been coined specifically to refer to all of those games you’ve purchased but don’t have time to play: ‘backlog.’ We’ve reached the point where we purchase games at such an absurd rate – which go for pennies on the dollar, sometimes in bundles, through insanely cheap sales on digital storefronts – most gamers now have exponentially more games than any reasonable person could ever expect to play or enjoy, simply because we can. We either play through them very slowly one at a time as other aspects of life distract or busy us, or (more likely) we play the best ones for only a few hours at most before just moving onto the next we’ve purchased. Whichever way it goes, most of those games inevitably become lost in the shuffle, never to be played.
This isn’t a phenomenon restricted solely to the gaming world. E-reader owners purchase books at the same unprecedented rates (often for even cheaper than games), and Netflix allows film and television aficionados to avoid the process altogether by just paying a monthly fee for unrestricted access to millions of hours of content. Nearly every form of video, audio, or written entertainment and media is now instantly available at your fingertips thanks to the revolution of the internet age. The main issue I have with all of this is that we, as physical creatures, aren’t really built to understand something non-physical like this, and yet it currently is growing in our lives at an unprecedented rate.
In a psychological case study conducted two years ago, it was discovered that having to spend physical money when purchasing an item caused the buyer a certain amount of psychological pain at their loss, but this pain was absent whenever someone purchased the same item with a credit or debit card. This is because cold, hard cash is a physical object that you own, whereas money spent with a debit or credit card is never really seen or held first – the transaction is entirely digital. For billions of years we’ve grown and evolved in a purely physical space, leading lives that involved purely physical objects of consumption and use, so it should come as no surprise that, to a certain extent, our minds aren’t built to handle something as complicated as a digital, non-physical currency. This is similar to how we can’t fully comprehend non-existence or infinity, because until now, the concept of ‘digital’ was never a necessary part of our natural world. The result of all this is that digital money holds no intrinsic value the same way our physical cash does, causing us to overspend and waste it regularly because it holds very little, if any, actual significance in our own minds.
The same is true on the digital media front as it is for currency. I can buy endless games for a few dollars at a time whenever I see a big name for cheap, because I’m not in a store checking game cases and actually looking at the object. This isn’t the old days when my games would be lovingly displayed on my shelf for me to look at or choose from when the mood strikes me, to look at their alluring box art and actually hold the discs or cartridges they come on. Today I shell out dollar after dollar for great games on my Steam or PSN (Playstation 3’s digital storefront) accounts with as little care as if it was digital currency, even though instead of numbers, it’s a huge list of names that I slowly add to. All that my mind knows is that each name is tied to a certain type of gaming entertainment or visual display, and I should collect as many different types as I can. So the unmatched avarice of humankind takes hold as we begin to hoard things digitally to a horrendous amount, whether it’s books on our Kindles or games on our consoles and PCs, with no real incentive to thoroughly enjoy or ‘finish’ any of them.
The real troubling issue becomes even more evident when you consider what the actual games, movies, or books themselves represent. It most likely took a team of over 100 people more than two years to create some of these major blockbuster game titles just so I could buy them for nearly 10% of their asking price and shove it into a list. Someone spent hundreds of hours writing that novel so you can buy it for a few dollars (or less) to proudly, vapidly display on a digital bookshelf. Regardless of whether or not the people that create these things are actually making any money off of them, they are totally meaningless to us as the consumers. We are so inundated with entertainment media, at such rock-bottom prices, that we unashamedly hoard it all on an alarming level without really caring for how much effort and time it takes to create some of these works and masterpieces. It’s no wonder a horrible abortion of game design like Flappy Bird can make far more money than a masterpiece like The Last of Us – high or low art, it no longer matters, it’s all meaningless entertainment to us.
As in many cases, this is an issue where I don’t necessarily have an answer, merely troubled thoughts regarding something I see going wrong with our culture. I’m not even sure if this path will continue on its’ expected trajectory or maybe-somehow right itself when we, as a species, evolve to understand and comprehend the digital space more fully. Yet I feel it is a point that few others have really raised in the public consciousness.
My point is that the current road is looking bleak for the time being, and is enough to make me question how we appreciate art and craftsmanship moving into the digital age. We are in serious danger of losing all care and appreciation for human ingenuity and creativity when so much of it just gets lost in the stream of consumable media. All I can do is try to cherish and enjoy my access to incredible games, literature, and film as much as possible and hope that others will do the same, even as the flow ramps up over time. I urge you to not lose a sharp, discerning mind for finding, supporting, and preserving those pieces of cultural media that enrich, teach, and build us into better and wiser people.