Curmudgeon Gamer
Curmudgeoning all games equally.
06 April 2007
Stallman's wrong about consoles
Richard "GNU" Stallman says that there is no Free Software for consoles, therefore using them is unethical. I disagree. The essential differences are:
  • They are not general computation devices
  • They are platforms for perceiving creative works of entertainment. (Cue Ruffin telling me to get busy reading the literature on art and games. Sorry, I confess I haven't done it yet...)
As for the first point, was playing a dedicated Pong machine on TV unethical? It's pure hardware, so I think not. Did the move to the Atari 2600 -- which we can think of as a Pong-playing machine with swappable hardware code -- change that? It's not really programmable, although people did add interfaces that allowed you to do some limited coding. If you grant that the Atari 2600 isn't unethical (and maybe you don't) then I don't see how the PlayStation 3 is much different. It's designed around essentially the same not-general-computing principle: plug it into a TV, pop in a game, pick up the controller, and (hopefully) have a good time. That's how it's intended to be used. If you intend to use it outside of those means, then you're on your own.

(Aside: There is the issue that Sony provides the means to install GNU/Linux on part of the PlayStation 3 hard drive, but I don't think that completely negates the idea. It's essentially bi-modal: either a game machine, or a GNU/Linux device, and the two are cleanly separated.)

Consoles don't have general computing interfaces, don't run productivity software, and are intended for entertainment activity -- an area to which I've never felt necessarily compelled to apply the GNU principle of Freedom. A computer you buy in the PC area of a Best Buy, by contrast, portrays itself as a general computing device, capable of doing everything from word processing and taxes to movies and games. In those cases, data you create or depend on can be held hostage by a non-Free application.

In brief: consoles are appliances. (I suspect that when Bob and I had whatever previous discussion we had about this stuff, I said that. If I didn't, well, I should have.)

(Aside: How will Game 3.0 affect this? If I create a Little Big Planet level that Sony permits me to sell for real money on a Sony PlayStation 3 virtual marketplace...well, that might be a different situation. Of course, Game 3.0 isn't much more than a promise at this point, but it could present interesting differences.)

The other angle is that consoles are really platforms for perceiving creative works of entertainment. The software itself -- with sincere apologies to my friends who make games -- is kind of not the point. The point is the experience in which I take part. I don't really care how a video player decodes the video and puts it on a screen, but I do care about the creative work that is thereby displayed. I don't care whether a game is running the Unreal Engine 3 or the Quake 4 engine, but I do care how the game makes me feel.

Well, there you go. I fully expect everyone to disagree, possibly even myself at some indeterminate time from now. As Miguel de Icaza famously said: You can now flame me, I am full of love.


--Matt Matthews at 19:43
Comment [ 15 ]

Comments on this post:

Minor point: The Atari 2600 was a fully programmable machine, not hardware like Pong (Pong was just TTL circuitry, the 2600 had a processor and the cartridges contained code to run on that processor)

If I'm not mis-remembering (I don't have a cite handy, as I've been ignoring him for years) Richard Stallman believes that charging money for programs is unethical. So ANY FORM where money changes hands for a program is bad in his mind. This is a nicely consistant point of view, just one that I thing is uselessly over the top, especially as applied to appliances like a game console.

What I'm saying is that while Richard Stallman's ideals have created some darned cool and useful stuff, don't take him too seriously.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 07 April, 2007 07:37  

Actually, Stallman himself has charged money for software (and may still do so). He makes the distinction between software which is available at no charge (gratis) and software that gives you freedom.

It is for this reason, I believe, that Ruffin has suggested calling it Freedom Software instead of Free Software.

By Blogger jvm, at 07 April, 2007 08:36  

I think you're article's on the right track. The exchange of money involved with consoles is not, I would argue, for software or a program, it is for the exoerience (or the art) it delivers. Just as an artist will charge money for their work (the old they gotta eat... issue) so must the creater of virtual art such as art for entertainment - i.e. a video game. Ditto video or music or anything created by others for your entertainment, education or artistic appreciation.

Still, if Stallman can convince the creators of video games to provide them for free... I'll have some of that - I won't be holding my breath, though...

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 07 April, 2007 17:03  

How do you even class some consoles?

Modern consoles go out of their way to prevent people from coding their own programs without restriction. This is particularly true for disc-based systems, when many consumers can easily create their own.

But what about early cart systems, where carts were the practical game deliver option, but also an object well out of the average consumer's ability to duplicate? Would the Atari 2600 need to supply a free chip burner along with a programmer's manual to be "accepted"?

And where do semi-crippled systems come into play? Sony's very expensive Yaroze system let you program for the PS1, though you could only easily use your programs on other Yaroze or development systems. Microsoft is taking a similar route with XNA, where a license fee lets you run XNA-based apps on the Xbox360. Is that a positive or an extra negative? After all, XNA for a Windows PC is free, as is Visual C# Express, but you have to pay a recurring fee to run XNA on the 360.

By Anonymous Baines, at 07 April, 2007 17:55  

I don't think that Stallman is wrong, precisely. But as noted, he's typically "right" only when you regard things from his particular vantage point.

He's definitely not against software that has a fee associated with it. He IS against software that has licensing agreements or other impediments (lack of source code) to end users modifying that software and doing with it as they please, whether that be changing features, optimizing it, porting it to a different platform, or just learning the approaches that other programmers are using to solve a given problem.

He sees those restrictions as being in the same vein as other attempts to restrict fundamental liberties that individuals should have within a society.

He's not against charging money for music, but he is against implementing DRM or proprietary file formats that ensure that you're tied to a single device and source (iTunes, Zune, etc).

I happen to agree with his overall commentary about liberty and the purpose of societies, even if I might from a practical standpoint disagree about the route we should take to get back to that, assuming we ever had it.

But even if I didn't, arguing that he's wrong is utterly counterproductive, you're much better starting from his viewpoint and exploring alternate solutions if you want to get anywhere with him.

It's the same with anyone though.

I haven't met with him personally, but other people at my firm do deal with FSF on a regular basis, and he's definitely a polarizing figure. No matter what the subject is, he'll always bring it back to his overall worldview, or a specific example of it, so really that's where it starts. If you agree with his starting point, then his positions are all logical. If you don't, then he's a dangerous, morally and intellectually unhinged counterculture figurehead ;)

By Blogger Jeremy, at 07 April, 2007 19:03  

I think people who agree with Stallman (which I do sometimes--the man is the opposite of pragmatic, but his ideals are sound) do so out of an innate sense concerning the nature of computer software. Thus, disproportionately, a lot of computer science college student agree with him. This is because, to a programmer, programs don't look like anything special. For a long time, I have rebelled against thinking of computer software as "technology," it seems stupid to me. Software is plumbing.

But I'd better stick to the point at hand. What is an object's purpose, and where does it get it from?

Game consoles have playing games as a purpose only because the people who made it assign that purpose to it, and that is all. The only reason I can't boot Linux on my Wii, pop a USB keyboard in the back, and start writing a novel on OpenOffice is that Nintendo doesn't want me to.

I think objects have no explicit purpose: they are just collections of atoms. To attach a purpose to an object strikes me as confusing the thing with a Platonic idea of the thing: a chair is a chair not because you sit in it, but because it is an exemplar of chairness.

To allow companies to prevent you from doing what you want with the objects they sell is, ultimately, to only use those objects for pre-approved uses. It is the idea behind restrictive software licenses. If that idea is allowed to spread, and if it is taken to its logical conclusion, then the days of the concept of the general-use PC are numbered.

By Blogger JohnH, at 07 April, 2007 20:28  

All right loving-boy, I'll quickly say this was one of your weakest posts I've seen in quite some time, at least on the logic register.

Consoles are appliances? I would bet RMS is open to your being able to access and change the software that powers your car, refrig, whatever. If it has 01s, it may be an appliance, but it still clearly has software, and thus should be Free for RMS.

Aside: Is the 2600 an appliance in any meaningful way? How is a cartridge system different from DRM in a practical manner?

Consoles are creative: Here, the logic escapes me. What difference does it make if a computer's job is to provide creative entertainment? If I only use Windows to play games, am I okay? Of course not.

Not to mention the state of the flip-side, Windows is still *the* platform for finding truly creative games, at least from the author's point of view (and I'd argue the player's). From all the articles and rants we've seen here about Sequelmania, and what little I've mentioned here and elsewhere about Facade, Watercooler Games, that JFK assassination recreation game, Nick Montfort's IF, etc, the general purpose PC is still the platform to beat when it comes to creative games.

That's why an article like this hurts the GPL. There is no distinction, nor should there be. If Impossible Mission has a bug and is, truly, impossible, GNU says you can have a chance to fix it. As is, it's a closed system, and you'll have to keep walking to the printer to see if your job's done.

(I really wanted to spend more time writing this one, but c'est la vie, peut-etre.)

By Blogger rufbo, at 07 April, 2007 20:59  


Not just the software, the hardware too. If you own a book, you're free to read it, burn it, use it as toilet paper, whatever.

Consoles are by design the exact opposite of what Stallman approves of. They're closed hardware, laced with extremely large amounts of DRM, running proprietary software encumbered with restrictive licenses, where you need permission to develop and also have to pay license fees just to get your game published.

That's not stopping me from playing console games, of course, but I can see where he's coming from.

For me, the flaw isn't his moral perspective, it's on the other side of the issue.

1. Very large amounts of money go into these games, more than you or I individually could cough up.

2. To pay for something like Gears of War (or Final Fantasy 42, whatever), you need to gather a large number of people together into a special purpose community.

3. Some people are willing to put up money, some are willing to lend effort, others are only willing to accept money for their effort. Some are only willing to accept contracts to receive future assets for their money.

4. Other people only want the end product, and they don't want to pay for it, so they'll steal it.

4. To ensure a future stream of assets, the special purpose community needs to prevent those who might be willing to pay for it, but who would steal it if given the opportunity from stealing it (the bike lock approach).

To me this is the same as needed a town sticker to park at the beach. You need to accept some restrictions to be a member of certain types of communities. It's the classic exchange of rights and responsibilities.

While ideally we'd all like to be free, in reality, we have to trade some freedoms for others if we want to get things done.

Really, I don't think that Stallman disagrees with that either, he just thinks that the balance is in a different place than I do.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 08 April, 2007 08:37  

Not just the software, the hardware too. If you own a book, you're free to read it, burn it, use it as toilet paper, whatever.

I'm not quite sure I follow. With Stallman, for some reason, I thought it was precisely the lack of materiality with software that made it such a great candidate for Free[dom]. That is, we're not talking about derivative copies so much as exact reproductions -- the same thing. That you could create exactly the same thing, in theory, with such trivial resources [after laying out enough to establish the rest of the platform's barrier of entry].

You can't reproduce a codex nearly so easily as a piece of 01 software. You GPL because, in the case of software, it's a crime not to.

By Blogger rufbo, at 08 April, 2007 14:21  

Interesting points here and something I hadn't been aware of as a casual gamer.

As an author I wonder at the comments and concept of software being something anyone could create and the notion of complete freedom, as this doesn't seem to make sense to me (although this is outside my sphere of knowledge unlike writing).

My reasoning is that everything created, whether the words I write or a piece of code, depends upon the mind behind it - and as an author funnily enough I believe in copyright and ownership of ideas.

If you buy one of my books you can indeed burn it, use it to prop up stuff or even read it... but I'd better not catch you altering parts of it and passing it off as your own creation because, you know, if you sat down with a word processor you could have created the same novel from scratch yourself anyway...

Now, for a game (which is what a games console supports from my point of view - and I absolutely see it as an appliance, no different from my LCD TV or DVD player) there is creation too.

Textures, the concept, etc. which I would imagine the authors of would feel just as strongly about. The software for a game is like the paper in a book; part of the medium of transference, but not in itself the focus.

For example I've just completed (a little late I admit) Shadow of the Colossus, which is a fantastic game and artistic creation. Should anyone be able to change it and alter something because technically they can? Without the consent of the author of creation? I'd have to argue no.

The fact it is created with software does not make the game nor the console it runs on unethical, nor should anyone be free to change it.

Anyway, I'm finding this area very interesting as this is the first I've heard of Stallman, so I look forward to more posts and for myself am off to surf some more on this topic.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 08 April, 2007 19:06  

If you're interested in Stallman, his own web page isn't a bad place to start:

He's definitely a radical, and I'd say that 99.999% of people will find something to disagree with him on. He's about a lot more than just software. His worldview is all encompassing, and that's just one part of it.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 09 April, 2007 08:36  

This reminds me of a similar RMS imbroglio I was on the periphery of:

Discussion with Richard Stallman about the PS2 Console Port

I agree with at least some of RMS' positions, but he can come off as an arrogant jerk sometimes.

By Anonymous Crusader, at 09 April, 2007 13:04  

I remember finding some text on the GNU project's website that entertainment software isn't within the scope of what they argue for/against. That is, proprietary games aren't going to be their focus.

So why the concern about consoles? Calling them appliances isn't enough to justify it one way or another. If the DRM used on some (all?) of them is the problem, then that's one thing, but if entertainment software is now a target of the GNU project, then something else must have changed.

crusader: That was an interesting series of emails. B-)

By Anonymous GBGames, at 09 April, 2007 20:18  

GB has a point, I think.

From the licenses page:
"We don't take the position that artistic or entertainment works must be free, but if you want to make one free, we recommend the Free Art License."

By Blogger jvm, at 09 April, 2007 20:31  

Richard Stallman is neither GNU nor the FSF, no matter how much that may appear to be the case.

Neither is Steve Allen Microsoft or Steve Wozniak Apple.

By Blogger Jeremy, at 10 April, 2007 10:15  

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