Nonfree DRM'd Games on GNU/Linux: Good or Bad?

A well known company, Valve, that distributes nonfree computer games with Digital Restrictions Management, recently announced it would distribute these games for GNU/Linux. What good and bad effects can this have?

I suppose that availability of popular nonfree programs on the GNU/Linux system can boost adoption of the system. However, the aim of GNU goes beyond “success”; its purpose is to bring freedom to the users . Thus, the larger question is how this development affects users' freedom.

The problem with these games is not that they are commercial. (We see nothing wrong with that.) It is not that the developers sell copies; that's not wrong either. The problem is that the games contain software that is not free (free in the sense of freedom, of course).

Nonfree game programs (like other nonfree programs) are unethical because they deny freedom to their users. (Game art is a different issue, because it isn't software.) If you want freedom, one requisite for it is not having or running nonfree programs on your computer. That much is clear.

However, if you're going to use these games, you're better off using them on GNU/Linux rather than on Microsoft Windows. At least you avoid the harm to your freedom that Windows would do.

Thus, in direct practical terms, this development can do both harm and good. It might encourage GNU/Linux users to install these games, and it might encourage users of the games to replace Windows with GNU/Linux. My guess is that the direct good effect will be bigger than the direct harm. But there is also an indirect effect: what does the use of these games teach people in our community?

Any GNU/Linux distro that comes with software to offer these games will teach users that the point is not freedom. Nonfree software in GNU/Linux distros already works against the goal of freedom. Adding these games to a distro would augment that effect.

Free software is a matter of freedom, not price. A free game need not be gratis. It is feasible to develop free games commercially, while respecting your freedom to change the software you use. Since the art in the game is not software, it is not ethically imperative to make the art free—though free art is an additional contribution. There is in fact free game software developed by companies, as well as free games developed noncommercially by volunteers. Crowdfunding development will only get easier.

But if we suppose that it is not feasible in the current situation to develop a certain kind of free game—what would follow then? There's no good in writing it as a nonfree game. To have freedom in your computing, requires rejecting nonfree software, pure and simple. You as a freedom-lover won't use the nonfree game if it exists, so you won't lose anything if it does not exist.

If you want to promote the cause of freedom in computing, please take care not to talk about the availability of these games on GNU/Linux as support for our cause. Instead you could tell people about the libre games wiki that attempts to catalog free games, the Free Game Dev Forum, and the LibrePlanet Gaming Collective's free gaming night.


Watch out for “nonfree game data” that actually contains software.