Why Video Game Law is Important

  • February 01, 2015
  • Jon Festinger, QC

Ridiculous or not – here we come

It seems preposterous at first to suggest that a subject seemingly as narrow as video game law could be important, much less essential, to achieving an understanding of the current media/legal landscape.

Jon Festinger, QCWhy that proposition might, in fact, be true becomes increasingly clear when considering the following factors:

  • Video games have been on the leading edge of digital technologies for the last 30 years. For this reason it should be no surprise that emergent digital media legal issues were often first identified in the context of video games.
  • Unlike some emergent digital media technologies, video games have had traditional profit-based business models and balance sheets attached to them almost from the beginning. Moreover, they have had audiences and fans almost from their inception as well. This ensured the development of the game genre, often through further investment in groundbreaking digital technologies.
  • Video games were about interactivity right from the start. This meant they were upsetting to the traditional media apple cart. Where television uses transmitters to beam one-way entertainment to mass audiences, video games make you feel like you are the transmitter and the screen is responding to you (which in most cases is true).

Firsts & furthers

Let’s look at some examples of where games broke barriers that we might not readily appreciate:

  • Meaningful creative world/art-based interactivity arguably started with video games. From the very beginning you were interacting, first with the game’s artificial intelligence, such as it was, but almost immediately with other people. Think of “Pong” – you could play against the ghost in the machine or against others. Today’s massive multiplayer environments crossing continents and date lines are just differences of degree, not kind. In today’s social media world, there are no end of legal headaches traceable to interactivity – and video games anticipated most of them. Perhaps more impressively, what we think of today as social media has (in different forms) been present in the online “communities” that coalesced around various games a very long time ago.
  • Today’s digital media world is often about the mechanics of controlling our devices. Though the development of the computer mouse had little to do with games, many of the technologies and idioms of interactive control arose or were furthered in a gaming context. Think of joysticks, directional pads and voice-command. Extend the principle and you can see (quite literally) 3D, and virtual reality through Oculus Rift (which Facebook recently purchased for approximately $2 billion). And you can hear “Voice over IP,” which had video-game antecedents about a decade before anyone had heard of Skype.
  • Naturally there is much more not yet mentioned. Avatars and anonymity were both significant parts of the evolution of games. The development of micro-transactions was largely game- based. Finally, consider portable devices – you may well have played on a Nintendo hand-held long before you had an iPhone.

Surprised? don’t be

At the end of the day, true real-time interactivity is precisely the precious commodity that digital media made so easy to achieve. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that today’s interactive digital media legal issues all have readily identifiable antecedents in the video game world. So should you be searching to identify the next legal frontier in the digital realm, you could do a lot worse than starting with the various emerging evolutions and revolutions that seem to present themselves almost daily in video-game land.


Jon Festinger, QC practices and is an adjunct professor at UBC Law School and sessional faculty at the Faculty of Law, TRU. He is also a faculty member of the Centre for Digital Media. The UBC course website for Video Game Law can be found at videogame.law.ubc.ca.