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Physical vs. Digital Games: The Definitive-ish Answer

While it may not inspire the same fervor as the console wars, the debate over whether it’s better to buy video games as an actual physical item or to simply download digital copies of them still inspires a huge amount of passion among gamers. Similar to how the introduction of Kindles and other e-readers supposedly heralded the demise of the printed book, I’ve listened to many gamers express their fears that digital games will ruin video games as we know them. Conversely I’ve heard other gamers claim that video games will die if they can’t evolve with the times. Who is right? And does it really matter?

To find out the answer, I conducted a super scientific Twitter poll and received 1,789 votes. Is this a statistically valid sample size? No freaking clue, but I’m going to roll with it anyways.

Of those 1,789 people, 64% said they prefer physical copies, 23% said they prefer digital copies, and the remaining 13% chose, “Doesn’t matter to me.” You might look at those results and say the debate is over. Physical games won by a landslide, so we should all start purging our hard drives of digital downloads and then head over to Game Stop.

But it’s not as simple as that. I also received 218 comments on the poll, and those answers are what really make things interesting. Because contained therein is basically a comprehensive guide to the pros and cons for both sides of the issue, and it’s not nearly so black and white as preserving video game history vs. the inevitability of progress.

Let’s wade into this great big gray middle ground, shall we? Here’s how physical games and digital games score on a head-to-head comparison.

1. Sharing is Caring

“Since I am a big fan of home sharing over 2 Xboxes and a PC, I buy digital as this allows game sharing.” – @D1PDIPOTATOCHIP

“We begun to buy coop games digital, because it literally cut the price in half to play. But we hate that, there should be a way to share A PHYSICAL GAME between 2 console.” – @x8Finity

“Typically I buy multiplayer games digitally because it’s much easier to access… Especially with the switch. Single player games I almost always go physical because I like sharing my games with friends and typically. can leave a game in the slot for long periods of time.” – @Kylzavara

In making their vote, many people wrote to clarify that their answer was dependent of whether or not they could share the game with others. Digital games have the advantage when it comes to multiplayer or sharing across multiple devices, while physical games can be actually loaned out to your friends (after a background check, security deposit, and soul-binding contract signed in blood, of course). So while this concern was high on the lists of many, it turns out both physical and digital have winning points here.

Score: Physical – 1, Digital – 1

pc gamer

Via techradar.com

2. Format Foibles

“As mainly a PC gamer now, modern physical editions kinda suck. Here is a empty box with a code inside! I mean usually no disc, manual, map just a code not even internal art or a reversible cover….. RAGE!!!!!” – @KnoxSe7eN

“I’ve been converted to digital since owning the Nintendo switch it just makes so much more sense to me it fits the system so well. That being said I do like to see a physical collection so for me it’s 50/50.” – @azardman1

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“This may sound weird but I almost only buy digital on Xbox One, but on PS4 and Nintendo Switch it is almost as if I feel obligated to buy game physically. Not sure why that is.” – @Griffin_Gaming

When it comes to buying physical vs. digital, many people again wanted to clarify that, well, it depends. Almost all PC gamers who commented on the poll prefer digital games, but among the other platforms, people were generally split. It came down to personal preference based on usage, how much trust they had in the company, the quality and frequency of the sales, etc.

Score: Physical – 2, Digital – 2

3. Cost Conundrum

“Mainly physical. Sometimes on PSN it’s possible to pick up a game with all the DLC for rock bottom prices. Would buy impossible to find games or ridiculously priced holy grails on digital rather than lose my shirt. Vita is decent for that. I would buy twice if physical was cheap.” – @Justonemorego

“Physical mainly for me as they are hugely cheaper then digital copies on release, I don’t understand the reason why a digital copy is so expensive.” – @matthew_goss

“I buy always digital, it’s simply too convenient, frequent sales helps a lot, is a cheaper choice and I dont really like to take room in my house for game boxes, the lack of trading option for digital games is not a problem cause I always pay less than what I could get from trade.” – @wyer__

This was a weird one. Lots of people commented that they preferred either physical or digital for cost reasons, but each side felt that their choice format was far cheaper than the other. However, I think what was not said were the individual circumstances surrounding the sale: whether they pre-ordered all their games or didn’t mind waiting for a the price to come down, whether they had specific titles in mind or they were more of a browser.

Anecdotally it seems to me that if you need the game right when it releases, physical is cheaper, but digital sales are by far more cost effective as long as you have an open mind to the titles available.

Score: Physical – 3, Digital – 3

nintendo switch game

Via theverge.com

4. Giving Back

“EB games/GameStop in Canada also has a 7 day return policy you can return the game, for another game once per purchase, even if you just didn’t like it so it takes a lot of pressure off if I’m on the fence about the game.” – @TheDreamGSG

“I like physical copies because…. well I like having the physical ‘thing’ to look at and hold. Much the same reason I like books over digital editions. It’s also easier to lend and borrow that way!” – @TheAmbiGamer

“I typically only buy physical if possible just because once I’m done with a game/console i can sell the physical copy. That gives me a bit of money back and someone else the chance to enjoy a game I’d just have had on a shelf.” – @KaraTooSweet

Finally, a category with a clear cut winner! When it comes to resales, trades, and returns, digital just can’t compete with physical. If you have buyer’s remorse five minutes after installing your new digital game, that’s just too bad. There is no grace period. On the other hand, physical games at the very least provide an actual item to barter or trade. If you absolutely hated the game, you may not be able to return it for the full price you paid, but you can usually get some money back or perhaps exchange it for another game you might like better. Physical wins here, hands down.

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Score: Physical – 4, Digital – 3

5. Collect ‘Em All

“I’m from an era when the ‘physical product’ was the norm and the event of opening a new game meant something… reading the box and leafing through the often sizeable manuals. I still prefer that experience.” – @richardtroupe

“Definitely prefer physical copies, though starting to veer toward digital. Grew up loving to browse bookcases or shelves of games, so there’s something comforting about doing that today. I also love collector’s editions and box art, which are tough to admire digitally! :)” – @the3rdplayer

“Physical, always, where the option exists. I love having my ‘library’ on display. Not only does it remind me what I own, its also a cool conversation piece for visitors as it’s proudly shown in my living room.” – @MoeGamer

I have yet to meet anybody who collects digital games. Now there are a lot of people in this great, big world, and I’m sure there’s somebody out there who does just that, but every single collector who responded to my poll loves physical games specifically for the collectibility factor. Also important is the nostalgic ritual involved in buying the game, opening the box, and reading the included materials.

Many of these collectors feel very seriously about preserving games for the future, thus there is historical value in the physical item. To be completely fair, however, digitizing is an important aspect in preservation. Just look at early film for an example. Many were lost when the physical film deteriorated or was destroyed, but being able to digitize them has saved countless films from extinction.

So who is the winner here? While digitizing has its place in preservation, when it comes to pure collecting, physical games again win the day.

Score: Physical – 5, Digital – 3

6. Convenience is Key

“I used to love only physical copies but with me travelling quite a bit + with cloud storage, having digital versions helps me a lot so now its both for me.” – @bobbydazzler500

“Digital. You expect me to change discs every time I change game like it’s 2004??” – @jisoti

“Digital is just so easy in every way. Play it at release, no need to wait for post or go to shops. No need to put disc into console, or find disc if in a different case. Can’t scratch a digital copy like a physical copy. It goes on and on.” – @Mr_IanChamelion

While I know many people mourn the death of Blockbuster and other such places, it’s hard to argue that digital entertainment is a heck of a lot more convenient. We stream music, movies, and TV, so it just makes sense that video games should join in that category. From the advantages of having your games available wherever you may be to those people who simply can’t be bothered to switch discs (what’s next–going to pick up your own pizza?!), digital games are the king of convenience.

Score: Physical – 5, Digital – 4

game shelves

Via tom rabett on flickr.com

7. Space Age

“I prefer physical wherever possible because I’m paranoid about running out of digital space vs real space.” – @theWellRedMage

“I get digital out of convenience. I’d love to have shelves full of games but I don’t have the room or space to hook up all the systems. I have tons on Wii U, 360 and PS3. Less space and all HDMI compatible. Downside 360 has to have an internet connection, but Wii U and PS3 don’t.” – @NorrinRadd3rd

“I go digital simply because it saves space. As an adult with children, in a house shared with another person, space can be limited so an 8TB hard drive hooked up to a modern console, filled with games is a godsend.” – @GamerThumbTV

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For some people, the actual space necessary to keep physical games is just not an option, so in their comments, they told me they voted digital…with a caveat. Others prefer keeping physical games because it reduces the demands and complexities of their set-up. Of course, this varies greatly based on whether you’re dealing with modern vs. retro games, how much DLC there is, etc. But the good news is, whatever your space concerns, there are options available.

Score: Physical – 6, Digital – 5

8. Playing for Keeps

“I favor physicality. I feel as if I truly own something, rather than leasing it. I actually get what I paid for. It’s much the same reason I still buy movies. Also and it may be an unfounded fear, I recall the games lost to time exclusive to the Satellaview and the Sega Channel.” – @DoctorNerdly

“I rather have my physical game i love to see my collection on display and the artwork and Disc..I don’t trust digital that much because when they end the service on whatever console that you’re on you can lose it or if you’re not a member you can’t play the game you bought.” – @GeekyZombieKing

“I don’t buy digital games, air neither.” – @Timy_Walker

To be fair, physical games don’t last forever. They are susceptible to disc rot, oxidization, scratches, and a whole host of other ills if not stored at the proper temperature and humidity level. And even if they are, entropy cannot be stopped. At some point, they will break down.

But those worries come in a major second to the very real, first hand experience many people have had with losing access to digital games they at one time purchased. In reality, all digital games are simply leased to the player by the company. You “own” it only so far as the company continues to allow you to access their servers and networks to play it. If the company goes away, your “purchase” goes with them.

Score: Physical – 7, Digital – 5

9. When This Happens

“Used to be physical. But then I had a child… and he learned where the eject sensor is on the PS4. So, digital. In everything.” – @Tpeck2

Score: Physical – 7, Digital – 6

Conclusion

So what are we left with, here at the end of everything? Considering that physical games narrowly beat out digital games seven to six in this head-to-head competition (as well as won the popular vote in the poll), it would seem that they are the winners. Huzzah! *cue Mario Kart trophy cutscene*

But, in my opinion, to debate whether physical or digital games are better is to ask the wrong question. Sure, we could say, “It doesn’t matter how you play games as long as you’re part of this awesome gaming community!” And that’s 100% true, but it’s not exactly the point I’m after either.

Many of the people who commented on my poll had a clear preference for physical or digital, but life circumstances (kids, travel, space, etc.) had forced them to their second choice. And that IS my point: We have choices!

Because both physical and digital games exist, we can keep on gaming whatever circumstances life throws at us. And in the end, that’s all we really care about, isn’t it?