PC Gaming Emulators: Are They Morally OK?

You wouldn't steal a car, but would you emulate a game?

pc gaming emulators

Emulation, when a software or hardware device imitates another, can be great, I’ve had hours of fun playing and rediscovering childhood games using emulators. However, like many things with the capacity for greatness, emulation can also be used in a harmful manner. The most prominent example being players committing piracy and theft using emulation, although companies can also use emulation to overcharge for older games.

Due to this, emulation can be a controversial topic within the gaming community, with a lot of gray areas, both the morality and legality of emulators are subject to debate.

As someone who experienced gaming in large part due to emulators, I would like to share my perspective on the wrongs, rights, and in-betweens of game emulation.

The Darkside Of Emulators

Starting off with the negative elements of emulation: piracy and theft.

Using emulation to play a current title you don’t own is wrong, regardless of your reasons for doing it, people will have worked hard creating the game – no matter how polished the finished product. So, diminishing their game into a free download isn’t any way to repay that hard work.

In the same vein as the games themselves, it is also wrong to use emulation as a substitute for purchasing a current console or operating system, even if you buy the games themselves. This aspect of using emulation harmfully is less widespread than the former since emulators take time to develop and with each new console/OS release the architecture usually becomes harder to crack.

My final point is purely moral in nature, that being the pricing of emulated games by game companies. While, as the owners of the game, they are completely within their legal rights to re-release games for whatever price they wish, it can be upsetting when game re-releases are more expensive than expected. For example one of the main criticisms of the recent PlayStation Classic was its high price tag, although this criticism was given due to multiple factors, it also has applications for game availability. The PlayStation Classic served as the only re-release for some of its titles, meaning the only available options to play those games was on the original PlayStation or to spend (originally) $99.99.

Why People Love Emulators

Despite these negatives, emulation definitely has positive uses that I consider to stay on the right side of morality.  For starters: game preservation.

Although media preservation is sometimes used as a guise to justify piracy there are definitely cases where games, both obscure and beloved, would be lost forever without emulation. For example, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game, a cult-classic comic book movie tie-in game, was released in August 2010 on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. The game was received favorably and gained its own fanbase. However, probably due to the tie-in nature of the game, it was removed from both digital stores on the 30th of December 2014. Without emulation, the game would be unplayable to this very day which is both a disappointment for fans of the game and gaming history, which is why I consider preserving and playing such a title through emulation morally sound.

Another similar example of emulators providing needed game preservation is the Wii Shop Channel after the discontinuation of the service, with the only way to access many titles on the service being through emulation.

In the same game preservation vein, the recent Nintendo leaks have provided a wondrous look into the pre-release forms of many beloved games. While the methods used to obtain the files and information were wrongful, the information itself is amazing for gaming history and research, and, since most of the leaked prototypes aren’t on cartridges, emulation serves as the main vessel to experience them.

Emulation may also be able to preserve game features or content which may become inaccessible due to various factors. For example, hardware such as cartridges, memory cards, add ons, and cables may become discontinued or unusable rendering features (or in some cases, the games themselves) inaccessible. Some strong emulators can emulate the peripherals of the console allowing for games to be played with full functionality, such as running Donkey Kong 64 (which required the Nintendo 64 Expansion Pak) or injecting old Pokemon events, the pre-online equivalent of free DLC updates. The digitizing of hardware due to emulation is important since older games were usually written on volatile mediums, and therefore can degrade to the point of becoming unusable with time.

Another use of emulation that I consider morally sound is localization. Localization has become less of an issue as the industry has grown, however, there are numerous games, old and new, that remain unlocalized. It isn’t uncommon for fan-favorite unlocalized games to receive fan translations, allowing non-native speakers to experience foreign games. The Polymega, a retro multi-system gaming console, prides itself on being able to patch games, adding in the capacity for fan translations to be played using the original game cartridge. This use of emulation only serves to benefit the gaming community as it allows players to experience games they usually couldn’t, and, in cases such as the Polymega, still support the official overseas release if possible.

The Murky “Gray Area” Of Emulating Games

Safely in the gray area of moral righteousness, emulating games when you own both the console and game (and have “ripped” any necessary files yourself) lands here, solely due to the legal “grayness” of the situation. Although I consider it to be without fault morally, there are both arguments for and against the legality of “backup ROMs”. So long as the personal copy remains as that, I see little reason why players shouldn’t be able to enhance their experience by emulating content they already own.

Now, let’s get into the actual shades of gray, opinions that are likely to bring out the commenters from the woodwork. I’m in the camp of, if a game is old enough that nobody is making money off it anymore, it’s not too bad to emulate without owning a copy. Especially if the game is “rare”.

Take for example the original Sakura Wars. Released for the SEGA Saturn in 1996, Sakura Wars would go on to become a niche but beloved franchise. A few ports of the original game were made for other devices and countries, but to this day no official English localization has been released. However, in the past year, a fan translation patch has been released which allows English players to experience the first installment in the series. While it is possible to import a foreign copy of the decades-old game and then (completely legally) download a fan translation and apply it using emulation or a system like the Polymega, none of the money spent to do so is going towards the creators.

While I fully accept that it is legally wrong, the process of jumping through several hoops in order to experience a game in a legal gray area like this, that will seemingly never be re-released, let alone in English, is both expensive and unnecessary. The alternative, however, is much simpler and doesn’t necessarily harm the industry. This though, is on the pretense that players will support an official release if it becomes available.

The players’ disposition to support the industry, is, in my opinion, the most important factor when it comes to deciding the morality of emulating old games that no longer make money for the creators. If emulation is used as a substitute for supporting the industry when the products are readily available for purchase and making money for the creators then it is an act of piracy. However, if emulation is used as a means to continue enjoying old games that are still making money for their creators then it becomes an act of piracy that’s harming the industry.

Final Word

In conclusion, I think emulating a game when you own all the component parts is morally fine regardless of the legal gray area. I also feel that while legally wrong, emulating an old game that nobody is making money off anymore can be acceptable, so long as you are willing to support an official release. The best uses of emulation come from preserving and glorifying gaming history, so if companies were to provide more services such as the Virtual Console then the moral ambiguity of emulation could become nonexistent. After all, if it was always possible to officially buy any game on modern hardware we’d likely be having a different discussion.