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Planned Obsolescence: (Getting Pwned By The Game Companies)

December 24, 2015

My family loves games. It’s the time of year for them. Over the next couple of weeks we’ll play a half dozen or more games. One of the first games my lovely wife and I bought when we were first married was Monopoly. Thirteen kids later, the box is a little worse for wear and despite combining a couple of different copies, the battleship piece is still missing. 

  
But, it’s unlikely we’ll be playing Monopoly over the coming week. We have moved on to games like King of Toyko, and Star Trek: Attack Squadron and Wings of War. My brother, Richard Bliss, is a boardgame consultant. He helps people create new games via Kickstarter and is a championship level player of a host of boardgames. My kids love when Uncle Rick comes for the holidays because he always brings a suitcase full of new games for us to try out. Our family room has an entire bookshelf devoted to games, old and new. 

We are also a house full of computers. We have six or seven computers, a couple of tablets, a half dozen smartphones and an XBox. We have games for our electronic devices as well, of course. In addition to access to online games. 

With teenagers, we’ve been very cautious about online games. Maybe because I’m in the computer industry, I have more of a concern about online safety and the potential dangers of online game playing. Recently we decided that kids could no longer play online games on the home computers. We found that after a session of online play, the computers were overly slow. Maybe it was simply a cache and cookies issue, but the computers are online first and foremost so that kids can do schoolwork. Even with three family computers, there is often a wait for kids to get online and post assignments or check grades.

Dad, can we still play some of the older games like Microsoft Age of Empires?

Sure, we still have the CD’s in a case downstairs.

My son went to install Microsoft Age of Mythology on our Windows 7 computer. It installed successfully, but that’s where we ran into an issue. Despite my and his best efforts, along with several potentially helpful Google searches, we could not get Age of Mythology to run. 

I thought about the business model that not just Microsoft, but all the computer game makers have convinced us to buy into. I have no idea how old my Monopoly game is. The instruction book is long gone. The board says the trademark was last updated in 1961, although my copy of the game is probably only 25 years old or so. And it is still as playable as the day we bought it. (Well, unless you want to play as the battleship.) 

Age of Mythology was released on October 30, 2002. And while we can still insert the CD, the game is useless. I have disks for Microsoft Arcade. This was a collection of classic arcade games from the 1980’s like DigDug, Pole Position and Galaga. 

  
Not only will these games not play on Windows 7, modern computers don’t even include the floppy disk drive that would be required to install them. 

This is a great deal for the computer game companies. I paid $30 for my copy of Monopoly thirty years ago and there is little chance I’m going to give Parker Brothers another $30 for an updated copy. (Well, unless I really want to play as the battleship.) However, every few years I need to refresh my computer game library. Even now, the newest XBox games are written for the XBox One. My XBox 360 is headed toward planned obsolescence sooner rather than later. The $50 game that I buy today, like a carton of milk, has an expiration date. It might not be stamped on the DVD case, but the game companies know that I’ll be back in a couple of years to get the newest version. 

Online games are even worse in that respect. The subscription model means that I can play as long as I like. As long, that is, as I continue to pay them for the privilege. Again, there’s a tradeoff for the gamers. For a small fee, I can have constant access to the very latest and greatest cutting edge technology and graphics. But, I can’t help but wonder at what cost we get that convenience and those features.

The problem is more than just games. I worked at WordPerfect years ago. And while it might seem like Microsoft Word document format is the way files are and always were stored, I remember the days when you picked your own file extensions. You could use those last three characters to seperate out files like 

Rodney.rsm

might be my current resume. I recently stumbled on an old collection of files that I’ve been faithfully copying from one computer to another as I upgraded over the past 20 years. There was a folder (we called them directories back then) full of old work files in an ancient WordPerfect format. I tried several different programs and processes for opening them. None worked. I finally gave up and deleted them. They weren’t all that important anyway. . .I don’t think.

But, suppose they were. Suppose they had been letters from my father who passed away years ago? Suppose they were my early journal entries? Suppose they were family pictures from twenty years ago? 

We are a throw away culture. Technology marches on, and I’m one of those right at the front pushing the boundaries. But, at what cost? Am I simply pining for “the good old days”? Is it just that I’m old and afraid of change? I don’t think so. 

We may find ourselves at some point with an electronic box of Super 8 files in an age of DVD players. Two things stand out to me. First, there will no doubt be people with access to really old technology who will take your old WordPerfect documents or ancient picture files or old video files and for a fee convert them to the newest format. Like futuristic VHS -> DVD conversion companies, there will be an entire micro industry designed to recover your electronic memories. 

Second, I should print more. I have books that were written in the 19th century. Those books are still as accessible as ever. I’ll be able to play my copy of Monomopoly with my grandkids. Our photo albums will be around as long as the paper holds up. At some point it will be useful, important even, to print my memories out on the pulp of dead trees. Who knows, that time might be here already. No one ever lost a copy of a printed book because their hard disk crashed.

The Age of Mythology story had a happy ending. While I save my old DVDs, I also save my old computers. My son dug out an old Pentium-based computer running Windows XP and the game installed and ran flawlessly. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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