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Where do your Steam games go when you die?

Where do your Steam games go when you die?


You’re going to die one day. We all will. But what happens to your library of digital games when you do? It might not be the first order of business for your family or friends, but digital assets do have value — some people spend thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetime on video games, plenty of which are likely digital, through a storefront like Valve Corp.’s Steam.

A ResetEra forum user, delete12345, reached out to Steam customer support in May to ask: Can I put my Steam library in my will? You can, technically, if you pass along your login information — don’t forget two-factor authentication! — but the games you’ve purchased aren’t actually transferable to another person. The answer delete12345 got was effectively, We’re sorry, but no. (Polygon has reached out to Valve for clarification.)

It seems pretty preposterous that you can’t pass down something that you own, but the thing is, you don’t own the games in your Steam library. The same goes for games purchased from other digital stores, like Microsoft’s and Sony’s online storefronts. Digital games are merely licensed digital assets. Valve states this clearly in the Steam user agreement: “The Content and Services are licensed, not sold.” You can argue that physical discs are glorified license keys, but the important detail there is that those licenses are transferable: You can legally lend your game to a friend for them to play, or sell it off entirely.

It’s an issue that’s not unique to video games, according to Texas Tech University School of Law professor Gerry W. Beyer and fiduciary officer Kerri G. Nipp. Beyer and Nipp wrote in Estate Planning Journal about an ultimately erroneous report that actor Bruce Willis wanted to sue Apple over his iTunes music library, which he wanted to leave to his children. Regardless of the veracity of the original claim, it brought the issue to the mainstream: The user agreement you click through when purchasing digital assets, like games, means you’ve agreed to the platform’s licensing deal. Some digital storefronts have rules, too, regarding account ownership and password sharing, which puts another wrinkle into the transaction. Steam’s terms of service, for instance, forbid account sharing. Some states have laws regarding digital assets, but they largely apply to virtual currency — and, again, the licensing thing complicates the matter.

Lawyer Claudine Wong wrote in the Santa Clara High Technology Law Journal in 2013 that “digital content is transferable to a deceased user’s survivors if legal copies of that content are located on physical devices, such as iPods or Kindle e-readers.” That presumably extends to your laptop, meaning that a laptop loaded with games could be added to a will and passed on. “So far there is no dispute that the devices, and the works fixed to them, can be passed on,” Wong wrote. But it’s less clear when it comes to the digital content itself being accessed elsewhere. Regardless of the legality of it all, Wong suggested that you put your full wishes into your will anyway. “[An] estate plan is an expression of what he desires should happen after his death, and knowing what he wanted provides his family with compelling arguments against the service providers,” Wong said.

What’s clear is that video game preservation in our increasingly digital world continues to present issues for users. As more games go online or digital-only, access is largely controlled by a publisher. This has been a challenge, historically, for video game preservationists, but it seems to be a looming issue as we all age, too.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that Polygon has reached out to Valve for comment.


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