When it comes to buying and owning digital games, several issues come to mind. Do we actually own the games we buy digitally? What happens if a service shuts down? What happens if a game’s license expires? If retail spaces go away, what happens to digital game prices? These and more are all questions we as a community and industry are working to answer definitively or come up with better answers for. Matters like download speeds, internet penetration, and bandwidth limits are also major concerns. But there’s something else, something many of us may not have thought about yet. It’s a long-term issue, but one that doesn’t affect any of us directly. What happens to our games after we die?
No, this isn’t a goofy existential question. Take it at face value: if you die, what happens to that massive Steam library you built up over the past several years? What happens to all that money you spent, all the value sitting in that account you’ll never access again? If you have physical stuff and the foresight or ability to get your affairs in order before you pass away, you can decide what happens to it. Your material possessions can be legally given to whoever you want in most cases. Even if you don’t have a will prepared, states generally have systems in place to pass your belongings to your closest relatives.
Digital goods are another matter entirely. Digital content in general, really. In recent years, platforms like Facebook have given users the ability to set people up to have access to their profiles in the event they cannot anymore. In Memoriam-style pages are also a thing now. But with digital goods, such as video games, we’re dealing with license purchases. These are generally intended to be used by only the purchaser, and further distribution can be legally considered something akin to piracy. There’s no way getting around things like people sharing the Netflix password with friends and whatnot, and how companies enforce sharing practices varies.
In the specific case of Steam, Valve does have a few lines in place within its terms of service agreement to address this kind of situation. And it isn’t in the favor of the customer, to say the least. As shown in a video released by Eurogamer, Valve’s agreement form states that a Steam account and everything involved with having a Steam account is “strictly personal.” A lot of the subsequent language is Valve trying to protect itself from people selling their Steam accounts, but it also says transferring account or subscription information is not allowed. At the end is the caveat, “or as otherwise specifically permitted by Valve.”
What this means is that, unless you go through the route of reaching out to Valve and trying to request it, which may or may not work out, by default a person cannot have their account transferred over to another person. So while, in advance, you could probably share your credentials with another family member, if something unanticipated happens, there isn’t an easy way to move things over. The report from Eurogamer also has additional confirmation from a lawyer that most digital content rights act in a similar manner. And there isn’t much legal precedent for the issue coming up in court, so this language is likely antiquated and unchallenged.
It makes a bit of sense that these rules are in place. As we’ve seen with much more popular and information-heavy platforms like Facebook, they’re still figuring out how to account for the death of their users. In a largely young tech world, it’s likely many platform developers ten or more years ago didn’t really take an issue like that into consideration. As time goes on, the matter may become more and more relevant, and we could see a change in the legal language and some kind of specific, official policy on transferring accounts upon a user passing away. After all, it did take a while, but Steam users can share their games with family members of the same machine. Perhaps all it could take is a tweak on that feature to future-proof an account, so all that value doesn’t simply cease to exist. It may not be the biggest deal, but some forward-thinking policy language could be a big goodwill win for digital service-providers in the near future.