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Abusive privacy policies in video games a grim sign for industry

Across the Obelisk

Juana Garcia/The Cougar

The past two decades have seen an explosion in video game monetization. From microtransactions to monthly subscriptions and battle passes, gamers have had to become more and more watchful of ethically questionable and, at times, downright predatory systems intended to get them to open their wallets. 

One such strategy that has only recently reared its ugly head has been the dawn of bundling games with data-hungry programs that exist only to collect and sell the player’s private information to advertisers and other companies. Usually, the permission for these clandestine activities are tucked away in a tedious privacy policy written with the express intent of dissuading people from actually reading it. 

These policies, and the devil’s contract they contain, are usually only encountered after the player has already paid for the game — forcing consumers to either click accept and move on or undertake the arduous task of refunding a game they haven’t even had the chance to play. 

What’s worse is that these clauses are not always present at the time of purchase. Take Across the Obelisk, an indie rogue-like card game of critical acclaim, for example. In December of last year, the game shifted hands from its original publisher, Paradox Arc, to Paradox Interactive — both properties of Paradox, but with very different missions.

After the shift, many Across the Obelisk fans were perplexed to find the game now required an additional program to run the game — the Paradox Launcher. Now, aside from the typical annoyance of opening the Steam Launcher only to open yet another launcher before actually running the game, the change also brought with it an expanded privacy policy. 

In addition to standard, game-related information like hardware specs and crash reports, the game now collects your physical address, full name and an array of other personal information. According to the policy, it does so in order to “share” said information with platforms like Facebook, Google and other marketing and data agencies. 

None of this was required prior to Paradox Interactive’s acquisition of the game. In effect, many users who had already purchased the game fair and square awoke to find that it suddenly came with additional digital strings attached. Those who disagree with the new policy are free to do so, but will be unable to play the game. 

To boil this down a little: Imagine someone buys a car. They like the car, use it every day and have no issues with it. Then one day, several years after purchase, a big nasty investment firm purchases the car’s manufacturer. Now, in order to drive the same car you have to agree to let it listen to you at all times. Does that sound fair? 

This pattern doesn’t end with Paradox, either. Way back in the pre-covid days of 2016 the much-awaited Civilization VI released to unexpected controversy. The game came bundled with a program called Redshell, which users said constituted spyware. Others defended the game, stating Redshell only collected information intended to measure the effectiveness of advertising, and did not in itself serve advertisements. 

The program’s intent notwithstanding, the move was met with backlash by incensed Civilization fans who felt their loyalty was being taken advantage of. And, in 2018, the developers announced they had removed Redshell from the game’s files.

Yet, despite removing the program, the company behind the popular strategy series still sports a privacy policy that should raise some eyebrows. 

“We collect information such as your name, email address, phone number, photo, mailing address / zip code, payment or purchase information, age, gender, password,” Take-Two’s policy reads. “(We collect) Sensitive Information: Precise location information …. and contents of communications via chat features and functionality.” 

That’s the type of dossier that would make a Cold-War era CIA agent sweat, and according to their policy, Take-Two — the parent company of Civilization VI publisher 2K Games —  has one on every one of its users.

In addition, the policy states Take-Two may “interact on your behalf with the third-party platform, gaming, and social networking accounts you connect with our Services.” Now, the wording is somewhat unclear, but it almost sounds like Take-Two is saying it can post on your behalf on social media. 

Of course, were Take-Two actually making posts on behalf of their users it would likely have already been noticed. Regardless, the wording of the privacy policy and the scale of information it appears to lay claim to should be of concern to any consumer. 

The concern here is not even necessarily for new releases. As Paradox Interactive has already proven with its hostile takeover of Across the Obelisk, it is apparently completely legal for a company to swoop in, acquire the rights to a game and force users who already own it to agree to new terms in order to continue playing. 

How long before every one of your childhood favorites is taken over by such a company? Many games remain popular long after release because of the nostalgia people feel towards them. It could very soon be the case that companies, hellbent on profit, monetize that feeling by foisting new requirements onto fan-favorite titles. 

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