The Future of Non-Ownership Is Now

Between the time I graduated high school in 1994 and completed graduate school in 2005, the concept of ownership drastically transformed into something else. Now in 2012, I not only cling to fond stories of obsolete technologies from my youth, but also a seemingly ancient sense of what it means to truly own something. It reminds me of the first lines in the film version of The Fellowship of The Ring:

The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.

When my generation has aged and expired, it seems the concept of ownership will come to pass. No one will recall a time when an individual sought out real-world products, purchased them and physically took those products home to display them on shelves, desks and other storage centers. Media cabinets full of books, music albums and movies have already been replaced by such things and services as Kindle, Nook, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, Netflix and Hulu.

“For it shows things that were, and things that are, things that yet may be. But which it is that he sees, even the wisest cannot always tell. Do you wish to look?”

Over three years ago, the current Editor-in-Chief of The Scholarly Kitchen wrote about the Kindle and the freedom of not owning books:

Consider how many encyclopedias you’ve purchased in the past 20 years. Will you ever buy one again? Of course not. Wikipedia and Google have combined to make ownership of an encyclopedia irrelevant. The same thing is happening to atlases (Google Maps and GPS), and will soon start happening to cookbooks (Epicurious, anyone?) . . .

Ownership isn’t a panacea, especially in an age of information abundance. Will I be concerned if the Kindle dies and books I’ve read on it become inaccessible on that platform? Not really. If I want to read them again, there will be plenty of alternative ways in the future. And my bookshelves long ago stopped being my collection of known facts and resources . . .

Two of my favorite old Sherlock Holmes collections are on my Kindle — for free. A copy of “Moby Dick” typeset especially for the Kindle also held sway for a while. From classics to current bestsellers, I can wirelessly get books for free and for less.

And I don’t have to own them.

It is a common theme offered in support of the new concept of ownership – whether it be books, albums, movies or even video games. People are perfectly agreeable to not owning a product and are willing to enjoy the product for free or for less cost at their convenience. And how the new process of non-ownership will play out with tabletop roleplaying games is both unknown . . . and completely predictable.

When We Own

In discussing quirks of ownership, Jeremy Dean of PsyBlog summarized the work of Dr. Dan Areily’s book, Predictably Irrational. He summarized Dr. Areily’s list of the strange effects ownership has on individuals.

  1. Ownership increases perceived value to us: As soon as we acquire something we start to develop an attachment to it. Just the sheer fact of ownership increases how much we value it – we seem to develop a relationship with objects.
  2. We tend to focus on losses: When selling we tend to overlook the money we’ll be gaining and focus on the object we’ll be losing. Our natural aversion to feeling bad then motivates us to place a higher asking-price on the long-cherished house, car or record collection than the market will bear.
  3. We assume others share our perspective: Surely potential buyers understand how strongly we feel about our dusty old vinyl records? No, they don’t care – in fact they’re far more likely to notice how badly we’ve stored them or what poor taste in music we have.
  4. Effort increases perceived value: A table I have bought and struggled to build myself has more value to me than the same table I bought, for the same price, ready assembled. Expending our own effort means we’ve invested ourselves in an object, so it has more perceived value to us. Other people don’t recognise this (and there’s no reason why they should).
  5. Virtual ownership: We can even start feeling we own something before we actually do. Dan Ariely argues that the prices people are prepared to pay on auction sites like Ebay are often inflated by people’s imagined ownership. Once we place our first bid we start to fantasize about ownership. Consequently when other bids come in we ignore our previously stated maximum because we’re now starting to value the item more, since we’ve been thinking about owning it.
  6. Partial ownership: Marketing executives know the power of ownership so they use all kinds of tricks to encourage partial ownership because it often leads on to full ownership. We don’t usually return our furniture within the 30-day money-back guarantee period because we’ve grown attached to it – it’s ours.

Ownership changes the value we place on objects and things. It is one of the many reasons why the negativity involved in edition wars is so powerful – when a person buys a RPG system, the value attached to that game and system increases substantially. Plus, the following months and years of play – in which the players and DM create intricate plots and characters through the tools provided by the system – adds more perceived value to the RPG. It becomes like the custom-built table or old vinyl record collection referenced above; the RPG means so much to those who have decided to invest money and countless hours playing and making the game their own.

When new RPGs are introduced to the gaming community or a prominent game like Dungeons & Dragons prepares a new version of the game, players obviously feel the need to defend their product. What happens when a player uses the product but barely spent any money to acquire the product? Does this change the dynamics of ownership? It would seem for the player, the time and effort invested in the RPG is enough to manifest the soaring increase in perceived value even though he or she has not spent a great deal of money on the product.

What Is An Industry To Do?

The reason I am so fascinated by the subject of ownership at the moment is my recent subscriptions to Spotify and Netflix competing with my ongoing allegiance to intellectual property. The topic applies to this blog in two ways. First, as a psychologist, the changing nature of ownership is interesting in and of itself and I believe it is a fabulous topic to explore. Second, I enjoy playing tabletop RPGs and the growing trend of non-ownership certainly pertains to the hobby. The RPG industry primarily functions (I assume) on the sales of game manuals (e.g., books) and other materials (e.g., tokens, maps). The industry must confront the same question as other forms of entertainment, “Why should RPG players buy a physical book when they can purchase the same intellectual property online – or simply download it easily through illegal means?”

Michael Bruce, a philosopher who has written for Psychology Today, discussed a similar dilemma with his consumption of online forms of entertainment in the aptly titled column, Netflix My Life: A Culture of Non-ownership:

When watching a movie, I used to ask myself, “Do I like this enough to buy it?” Buying a movie meant I wanted to invest in it—maybe because I would spend the same amount over time renting it, or because I wanted to be able to watch it any time, or because I wanted its case decorating my room. The point was that I wanted to own it.

But a few years ago I stopped buying movies. My DVD library ends at the second season of Lost. I have seen many movies, including some fantastic flicks, but I haven’t purchased one . . . Back at home, as I scroll through the thousands of seemingly free movies to watch instantly, the idea that I would buy one of these movies seems absurd.

The article goes on to explore how this new culture of non-ownership relates to the housing bubble bursting, the proliferation of Facebook, the increase in friends-with-benefits’ relationships and how youth use language. Segments of the article spoke directly to my struggles with my old preference of buying media and the new realities of media distribution.

I reached out to Mr. Bruce and he kindly agreed to spend more time discussing the subject of non-ownership (the interview will be posted in the coming days). Michael and I are not alone; individuals who previously descended upon stores like Best Buy each week to buy new releases are now getting their media elsewhere. When is the last time you were in Best Buy? Can you even find the Music Section anymore? Music is simply too easy and convenient to purchase or consume online through iTunes, Pandora or Spotify. Not to mention how easy it is to steal music through any number of physical or digital means.

Take the article from Emily White at NPR who spoke about her relationship with music:

A few days before my internship at All Songs Considered started, Bob Boilen posted an article titled “I Just Deleted All My Music” on this blog. The post is about entrusting his huge personal music library to the cloud. Though this seemed like a bold step to many people who responded to the article, to me, it didn’t seem so bold at all.

I’m almost 21, and since I first began to love music I’ve been spoiled by the Internet. I am an avid music listener, concertgoer, and college radio DJ. My world is music-centric. I’ve only bought 15 CDs in my lifetime. Yet, my entire iTunes library exceeds 11,000 songs . . . As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize the gravity of what file-sharing means to the musicians I love. I can’t support them with concert tickets and T-shirts alone. But I honestly don’t think my peers and I will ever pay for albums.

This is the sea change in ownership that is already occurring. Younger generations view ownership completely differently; it’s a matter of convenience. I realize I’m nearing the “get off my lawn” stage of my life (and this article), but I place a great deal of value on intellectual property. As someone who has written professional journal articles in the past, I know the both the value of proper attribution of another’s work and the perils of plagiarism and outright intellectual theft. Whether or not I A) buy a physical CD, B) download an album from iTunes or C) give in to the temptation of “burning” a few songs from a friend – it’s a conversation that I have with myself and something I feel guilty about if I choose Option C. However, for many people the conversation never happens.

The artist’s rights are disregarded while the owner’s preferences for convenience dominant the transaction.

In replying to Emily White’s blog entry on NPR, the former lead singer of Cracker, David Lowery, wrote a mammoth post lacing into her description of choices surrounding buying (or not buying) music. Although not everything in Mr. Lowery’s post is accurate, it’s worth reading if you missed the controversy over the summer when the two posts first surfaced. I can see both sides of the issue because I love my recent subscription to Spotify but I have no idea if it’s a fair deal for the artists.

The music industry has not figured this out either. Spotify is a wonderful tool; for approximately $11 each month, I have access to an on-demand jukebox of almost every song I’d ever want to listen to (notable exceptions so far include Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard). It is a fantastic gateway to discovering new artists. For example, when I heard Weatherman by Dead Sara on the radio months ago, I thought, “Good god, who are they!?”

Within seconds, I was able to use Spotify to listen to the entire album. I have since purchased the album on iTunes because I felt compelled to do more to support the band – they are that damn good . . . and I am that damn conscientious! I asked Dead Sara what was more beneficial to them – listening on Spotify repeatedly or buying the album? Someone from the band was kind enough to respond below. I was happy to both consume their music through Spotify and buy the album on iTunes, but I imagine my double-purchasing of music is rare, and my thoughts on protecting the artist are equally antiquated.

As a thought exercise, let’s imagine that I continue my subscription to Spotify for the next 40 years and while it will certainly increase in price per month, let’s also imagine the cost of a subscription remains around $11 each month:

40 years x 12 months x $11 = $5,280

I could realistically pay a bit over $5,000 to listen to as much music as possible for the next 40 years! That number seems like an absolute steal when you consider that albums on iTunes sell for approximately $9.99 each:

$5,280 / $9.99 = 528.5

While 529 (rounded up) albums seems like a lot of music, this is the number I could purchase over the next 40 years, which works out to just over 13 albums each year. Or to simplify it even further, just over one album each month.

When looking at the cost of physical CDs, the return on investment is even less as most new albums hover in the $11 range, which means that $5,280 would allow the purchase of 480 albums over 40 years – exactly one album per month. And I have not even factored in sales tax, which would further reduce the number of digital or physical albums I could buy.

So for $5,280, I can have unlimited access to almost ALL music for the next 40 years or use that money to buy/own approximately 500 albums in the same period of time. It doesn’t seem like much of a choice, does it? Which would you choose?

Roleplaying Game Ownership

The manner in which players own games is also changing, and there is the added dynamic of tabletop RPGs that the majority of players do not even need to buy most of the materials to play the game. A tabletop roleplaying game can function quite well with just one individual in a gaming group buying the relevant books and materials. A group does not need five copies of the Dungeon Master’s Guide – they only need one. And if that manual is easy to steal online, then the company may not even sell one copy to a particular gaming group.

I imagine these thoughts keep game designers and the like up at night.

Those who create gaming materials are artists, and if consumers are not paying to obtain the products, then those artists will be forced to do something else since they will not be financially rewarded for their efforts. Not all is hopeless, Monte Cook demonstrated that players will pay to support an intellectual property they believe will be good. The challenge is to find ways to ensure the process of purchaseing game manuals and other materials is streamlined and incredibly easy for the consumer – and the products have to be extremely well-designed. Other forms of media have relied on subscription services to fit the changing wants and needs of the new age of consumers.

I contacted staff at DriveThruRPG to interview them for the story but the logistics of setting up a time to discuss the topic fell through (I’d be happy to interview someone from DriveThruRPG or a similar site if they read this and are interested). Needless to say, there are existing models for digital distribution of tabletop roleplaying games.

Provided with permission by Rebekah Joy Plett

I am not an expert in marketing or overcoming the challenges posed by the new culture of non-ownership. However, the template has been set by other forms of media on how to possibly adapt to the next generation’s genuine indifference to owning products. It seems safe to say that exploring viable digital distribution systems is essential to the future growth – and survival – of tabletop roleplaying games. The old way of buying books, movies and music are fading away and being replaced with new means of product delivery. Without innovation to meet the demands of those who prefer non-ownership, RPGs will suffer a nasty fate for there will come a time when none now live who remember them.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

16 thoughts on “The Future of Non-Ownership Is Now”

  1. Very good article. As someone who is in their mid 40s, I have shelves in my man-cave full of games (RPG and the ‘exotic’ Euros and consims), books (my god, the old Sci-Fi/F paperbacks are so impressively tattered and yellowed now) albums and CDs – I concur 100% with the bullets you made about perceived value.

    However I am evolving to some extent: the last time I was in a Best Buy? Recently, to buy a tablet so I could make portable my RPG PDFs (almost all of which I have paid for).

  2. Great article, as always, Insightful and well-researched. It is a fascinating time for accountants and economists facing two concurrent (and closely interrelated) revolutions: post-ownership and post-scarcity. In a way I can’t go into without getting long-winded and highly technical. we are being forced to – for the first time – actually try and put an accurate price tag on a creative endeavor absent any materials or reproduction costs.

    But I mainly wanted to comment on the quote from Rebekah Joy Plett you used at the end, because I think there is a sad bit of prejudice inherent in it. There is an implication that artists who work for publishers, producers, or other large companies do not put their heart and soul into their creative endeavors and that working for a large company somehow insures them against financial hardships. Some artists and creators care only for the money and get no joy from the creation, whether they are independent or not. Some love the act of creation and the money is just a happy accident, independent or not. There are independents who do well enough in every field to have their status as “independent” called into question (in the video game field, Notch and Rovio come immediately to mind) and there are corporate artists who struggle every day to bring home enough money to feed their children.

    The idea of putting a value judgment on an artist based on how they fund their creativity rankles me, because it cheapens the act of creation and it disrespects many artists who love what they create. I do not believe, for one moment, that Stephen Spielberg puts any less of himself into most of his film projects than, say, Edgar Wright put into Scott Pilgrim. And I don’t believe that Spielberg has fewer sleepless nights thinking about how to handle this scene or that production problem. I don’t believe his writers have any fewer discarded drafts than anyone else.

    So, perhaps it would be best to say: “when you buy a creative work, you are buying a piece of someone’s heart and soul” and just leave it there.

  3. This is an interesting post…content really has been devalued-i mean 11000 songs…does anyone seriously like 11000 songs. the same sorts of dynamics are present in all media…i love comic books for instance, and i have hundreds that are unread on my hard drive. if i had physically purchased them…i would have read them ten times over(at least :D). now it’s more of a drive to acquire versus a desire to read/consume.

    on the plus side we are seeing great platforms for indie creators…on the downside for creators-how does one remain relevant while floating in an ocean of content and consumers who really are more into acquisition than consumption?

  4. Regarding the perception of an item’s worth… I’ve been doing digital publishing in one way or another – from video games to alternate reality games to D&D materials – for well over ten years. But nothing makes me feel as good as physically seeing my product. Whether it’s point at Deneba’s Canvas 6 sitting on the shelf at Computer City and saying “I wrote part of that!”, or paying for something I wrote three times what it would normally be worth just so I can hold a color proof of it (I’ve done that three times for my upcoming “Revenge of the Kobolds”, spending over $60 before it’s even done), the feeling of having it there within arm’s reach and being able to hold it is indescribable.

    I’ve made my fair share of money selling digital products online… It all means nothing compared to the feeling that someone out there has one of my products on their shelf.

  5. Loved this article – the work of an artist is unique, as it’s often harder to quantify or compared to many “office jobs” or physical labor, for example. The “Invest in Artists” image perfectly sums up the reality of the artist’s life. Which reminds me – read the Artist’s Way if you haven’t yet!

    I feel guilty about “burning” songs too myself, just like you – honestly, I don’t do it. Because… well, I already know what went into it, and it’s just not fair to them. But you’re right on about the convenience – that’s what most people value about the artist’s work. I have some friends who don’t even think twice though. It sucks for the artists – I hate that!

    Finally, thanks for the intro to Dead Sara – I’ve always been a hard rock (and related) guy myself, so yeah, that song was awesome! Loved the singer’s energy and passion – off the charts! THAT’S a true artist right there!

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