Earlier this week, Gabe Newell of Valve suggested that video games are destined to flourish in the world of Linux. Standing before a room full of Linux users at this year’s LinuxCon, he likened his keynote speech to “teaching Catholicism to the Pope.” But is this really the case? Is it really that obvious? Linux offers a number of attractive features to gaming, but at the same time there’re many aspects, philosophically at least, that could come into conflict with the current shape of the gaming industry. Newell’s speech should be intriguing to anyone passionate about gaming or computing. Without a doubt, he and Valve are onto something that will certainly have an affect on the gaming industry and culture.
Control and customization are perhaps the greatest advantages to a Linux based system for gaming. What truly separates PC gamers from Console gamers is that PC gamers are invested in the design of their machine. This is an obvious and clear fact. While there are bound to be exceptions, the desire to play an active role in the build and design of your gaming rig is often what drives people to PC games. While this is often to get the most power out of a machine, this also extends to the customization of the games themselves; the very existence of Counter-Strike is a good example, as well as the countless mods available for various other titles. There are entire communities built upon that spirit of tinkering with code and sharing your results. So with the freedom that Linux grants, it makes sense that it is a very attractive platform for gaming.
But issues begin to arise when we start looking at the support. Whether it’s someone having technical issues that they need addressed and don’t have the skills to troubleshoot on their own, or concerns about having the drivers available for various components, there is a degree of uncertainty about coming to rely solely on Linux. And while it’s one thing for a single—though certainly influential—company such as Valve to start moving towards this future of gaming on Linux, it’s another to expect others to follow. Comfort in the status quo is a challenge far greater than ensuring that users can get the latest drivers and updates.
Throughout it’s many distributions, what makes Linux so unique is the vast community of users that work to make the operating systems and software perform better and evolve. While Newell and others express their discomfort with the recent directions that Microsoft has taken with Windows—something shared by many gamers as well—it’s worth it to note that Linux is not a move back to when things were “better,” but a move into a different direction—one that encompasses an entirely different perspective of the role of computers and technology in our lives. The philosophy behind Linux, how it fits into gaming, and whether games will change at all in this environment is worth serious thought.
“Free software” shouldn’t be thought of as the equivalent of “free beer.” Richard Stallman, creator of the GNU operating system, has often said that it should be seen as “free speech.” There are a number of slightly differing opinions on what this means exactly. For some it’s a greater emphasis on open-source technology (though Stallman would starkly disagree on that point) for others, it’s a desire to see computers and software of having no strings attached between the developers and the users—that it’s yours to use how you see fit and the creators have no right to control or spy on how your using it and what you’re using it for.
Like many philosophies in general, there are varying and sometimes conflicting opinions on what is the most “ethical” way for a computer to function and Linux tends to be the battleground over which these ideologies are fought and put into practice. But the common thread often includes greater freedom and usually a utilitarian perspective of software; for word processors, spreadsheet software, and perhaps even video and audio editing software, this makes more sense. For games though, it’s difficult to say.
Aside from journalists and those who make money in competitive gaming, the majority of gamers do not make a living with their games. To most of us, video games are entertainment or art and it’s difficult to comprehend how this fits into a free software philosophy; this is especially the case as we’re seeing more DRM policies and micro-transactions play a larger role in the landscape of gaming. This is will likely be a point of conflict as games further mend with Linux, open-source, and free software.
As someone who’s had experience using a Linux platform as my primary computer for a few years, I can say there is a unique joy in working with such an operating system and its software. There’s a level of independence and confidence that I’ve never felt with either Windows or Mac OS. The different distros available, such as Ubuntu, offer easy ways to transition while learning at the same time. Once more people come to experience this type of freedom and the ability to truly own your machine, it is difficult to return to the bars and windows (pun intended) that are found in proprietary software. Though I had to switch to a proprietary system due to software requirements, the thought of putting a Linux machine together again is a tempting and exciting one; with Steam now available on Linux, it’s even more attractive.
It’s safe to say that Newell is at least partly right about gaming on Linux; it may not be the sole future of gaming, but it’s certainly going to play an intricate role as we continue forward. If more gamers who do invest the time in building PCs are curious about Linux for gaming, and try it out given that the operating system is free and that Steam is now available, we may very well start seeing a rapid growth of people who remain there and begin to take advantage of what that mysterious operating system has to offer.