No piracy talk: when consumers defend and promote legal gaming

Piracy is a persistent challenge in video game markets. My co-authors Stefania de Almeida, Joao Fleck and I studied a gamer community (for many years!) to understand why they would stand against piracy - even when that meant their access to the games and consoles they loved would be limited. Our research shows how online brand communities can work to reduce piracy among video game players and promote legal gaming, which is more desirable to companies and society alike.

Piracy is a controversial gaming practice because it has proven positive effects in certain markets, all the while leading to global losses of billions of dollars for the gaming industry and threatening the survival of companies that develop games (check out this comprehensive report if you want to know more about these effects). Piracy is difficult to eradicate because people are very good in rationalizing to explain it, and formal sanctions do not seem very effective in reducing piracy intentions.

To eradicate piracy, online gaming companies tend to work alongside legislators and distribution partners. Usually, these companies believe that addressing consumers directly and enlisting consumers in fighting against piracy are not effective strategiesBut we found that when a group of loyal brand fans decides to go countertrend in a piracy-rid market, they will work really hard to turn pirates into legal gamers.  

In this study, we were inspired by Normalization Process Theory (NPT), and used its conceptual framework to examine the collective discursive and practical work of a Brazilian community of Xbox players. We mapped NPT concepts onto our dataset to identify how the community worked in combating the prevalent practice of piracy and disseminating legal gaming (that is, normalizing it) at the turning point when offline video games were taken online through the launch of the online multiplayer Live Platform by Microsoft Xbox.

The Brazilian video game market

The culture of piracy in the Brazilian video game market dates to the late 1970s, when Brazil was under a military dictatorship and the importation of consumer goods was heavily restricted. At that time—and over many years—illegally imported consoles co-existed with alternative versions of famous consoles produced in Brazil, so Brazilian gamers were able to play games from abroad. As both illegal imports and counterfeit consoles violate legitimate consumption practices, the entirety of the market was pirate.

Piracy increased when Panasonic and Sony officially entered the Brazilian market with innovative CD-based video games. It was easier to copy CDs than cartridges. At the time it was common to find stands selling pirate games in every street, even on public markets, and many people who had abandoned video games because of the high prices of the cartridges started to consume again. The average middle-class Brazilian teenager— the core market for CD-based games—justified engaging in piracy saying it was the only way they could afford to play. 

The culture of piracy continued through the next generation of consoles launched around 2000, when Sony released the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft entered the video game market by releasing the first Xbox, which has never been released officially in the Brazilian market. Consumers bought Xbox consoles abroad and usually played with pirated CDs, reasoning that the few original games available on the market costed as much as 18 times more than a pirated game.

In 2006, the so-called “grey market” of illegally imported products represented 80 percent of the Brazilian market for video games and 94 percent of its console market. Changing the local market regarding the purchase and use of pirated versus official products requires a fundamental change in the values of Brazilian consumers, as the practice was ingrained in the local gaming culture. It is in this context that PXB, the anti-piracy brand community that is the focus of this study, was launched and developed. In 2017, Brazil had 66.3 million video game players, generating US$ 1.05 billion, and comprising the 13th largest market worldwide.

In our paper, "No piracy talk": How online brand communities work to denormalize controversial gaming practices" which is published at Internet Research, we explain how community members work to normalize legal gaming by engaging in several activities summarized in four mechanisms: (1) establishing coherence, (2) cognitive participation, (3) collective action and (4) reflexive monitoring.

We believe our work can inspire future research and practice in contexts of collective antisociality on social media, such as online shaming on Twitter or Facebook. Research aiming at understanding the role of consumer collectives in normalizing socially beneficial behavior can support government and policy makers in combating such illegal and damaging online practices.

Images are from Unsplash - thanks creators!