Philosony: Where's my box art?

This is a two-part column on digital distribution and its effect on the psychology of your average gamer. In part one we look at the change from the aesthetic of a well-stocked gaming shelf to a digital software library and what is lost or gained by it. Next week we will look at the they way smaller, quick-fix digital game downloads may change our gaming habits.

Sorry for the brief hiatus, Inconstant Readers, but I was too busy making repeated trips to the store to pick up more Dramamine and an extra Dual Shock 3 after the PSN update last week. Let's just say that what Wipeout HD lacks as an epileptic stimulant it makes up for with motion sickness at 60fps. Mega Man 9 should also carry a warning about possible "controller malfunction" - here's a tip kiddos: the original Sixaxis is slightly lighter than the Dual Shock 3 and thus has a smaller chance of cracking televisions and denting walls when thrown.

Still, I wouldn't have traded this weekend's gaming experiences for anything short of an LBP beta key. Generally after some frantic gaming and letting my house devolve itself into a special level of disarray I rather savor picking up the pieces - smoothing out the crumbled instruction manuals and reinserting them into their cases while finding the perfect organizational spot on the shelf for the box art (alphabetically? by genre? producer?). Imagine my lament when come Monday morning I realized I had nothing but broken controller pieces to pick up. The game's I'd spent my weekend with were all digital downloads!

If you're at all like me you probably have several boxes and/or tubs of old games, gaming systems, and peripherals hidden in a closet somewhere. Perhaps you dream of one day having the space for your own personal gaming museum. If you're a bit more forward thinking you may instead have your eye on the day when that collection fits on a piece of hardware the size of your PS3 and the "game room" is full of 13 generations of Rock Band instruments. That also means you probably own a Kindle full of 19th century French literature - the tangible smell of a leathery, musty old Balzac is nothing compared to the musk of new electronics, no? But as for the rest of us we need to ask: are we ready for the disappearance of physical games? Better yet: are we comfortable with the notion of being collectors of the immaterial?

Consumers made very little fuss when this happened with music. The very notion these days of a "CD" collection is laughably passé. But digital distribution seems as though it were made for music. As the natural unit of music has moved from the album to the individual track what we are actually collecting are discrete 3-5 minute songs. It's natural to want to be able to organize and recompile them in what David Weinberger would call a "miscellaneous" way. Games are different. I'm not entirely sure what it would mean to have a frequently reorganized play list of games, or why it would be substantially helpful to organize on-the-fly by information such as length, voice actor, times played, date purchased, or key grip. It could be argued that digital storage is the only way to accommodate collectors who have thousands of games, but I think that if you're holding on to that many cartridges and jewel cases then you're in it for the collecting itself and not the convenience of quick searching and playability that some sort of iGame interface would offer.

Then there's the question of visibility. While there are still some who drool over album cover art most of us are happy just to have the songs. It wasn't too long ago that PC games came in boxes the size of your average metaphysical treatise. Like the proverbial Hummer owner, PC games from the floppy disk era may have felt that their highly visible if impractical boxing made up for the fact that all you really needed to do to play them was enter a command prompt. Once you were done with the game you might have forgotten it existed, buried for eternity deep in your C: drive. Do we tend to forget about games and demos that exist solely on the desktop or XMB? Do we need material reminders of the ghosts of gaming's past?

Perhaps it depends on the type of game. Long form dramas like Oblivion may demand prominent shelf-space. They have gravitas - the Latin equivalent of Hideo Kojima's aura. These aren't the sort of games you can pick up and play through again quickly so keeping them on the shelf is a visible reminder of the experience. Pick up and play games like, say, Burnout may not need that physical presence because we can easily load it up and run a race or two for old time's sake in a short amount of time. For similar reasons we may like the physical nature of books but be happier with short articles in digital form. I also keep my extended cuts of Lord of the Rings prominently displayed on the movie shelf but would rather the occasional Friends episode I've downloaded be tucked away in some dark corner of my hard drive - easily accessible but not quite as, ahem, visible.

What about the aesthetic question? Few can deny that there is something inherently appealing about a shelf stocked full of games. It whets our appetite and empowers our imagination by letting us know that we have options. Many of the things that we find visually appealing are anachronistic holdovers from a past time in which they were necessary. Even most operating systems, the XMB being an exception, rely on old models of organization into folders and desktops because we are used to it, even if we've never held a file folder in our lives. Could this mean that we are just a stone's throw away from digital bookshelves that display our books, movies and games the "old fashioned way" on the OLED walls of our future smart homes?

We could also go on to talk about how digital downloads eliminate physical waste in the form of plastics, packaging, and shipping but I'll leave that for other let's-blame-global-warming-on-cod4 musings. Whaddya say fanpeeps? Is clearing game boxes off of bookshelves and out of milk crates a good thing or the loss of a simpler, more nostalgic time?

This article was originally published on Joystiq.