You wouldn’t steal a car (and MW2 – who needs topicality?)
An analogy that works simplifies issues for people by letting them transfer their pre-formed opinion of one thing to another. An analogy that doesn’t can backfire to the point of leaving people suspicious that they are being deceived. The car theft analogy is a popular one in discussions of behaviour of which you disapprove. I’m sure everyone reading this is familiar with the You Wouldn’t Steal a Car videos on DVDs and movies in cinemas – the message is that you wouldn’t download a movie either (I think it’s pretty clear that you wouldn’t – you’ve paid to see the You Wouldn’t Steal a Car videos after all). The IT Crowd satires this (YouTube.com) pretty well.
I suspect that car theft is used because it is so morally unambiguous, a lot of people wouldn’t say that stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family is wrong at all so “you wouldn’t steal a loaf of bread” has never caught on whereas car theft is harder to defend and so it gets compared to anything and everything that’s not liked.
The problem with the analogy is that it’s too simple and broadly used. Things can be bad without being like car theft. If something is not like car theft then comparing it to car theft will not help your argument. The main issue is car theft involves someone losing something (a car) and file sharing doesn’t involve someone losing any asset – the analogy is so ill fitting a rejoinder of “I wouldn’t steal a car, but I’d download one if I could” has sprung up in some quarters.
A very clear misuse of the car theft analogy came in the Modern Warfare 2 “Javelin Glitch” – you could juggle your weapons in such a way that that the game would forget about your grenade until you were killed and then it would get so confused you’d explode. It’d often have the effect of killing people near your character (like your killer). Some people hated it and other people loved it (Penny Arcade decided it was the only way to beat the over-powered dual shotgun game-play style).
What I am describing, of course, is a sneaky way of playing a video game in which you pretend to be a soldier and shoot people. Microsoft reacted by banning the Xbox Live accounts of those using it and rushing a patch out uncharacteristically quickly. There was a fair amount of discussion at the time if using any particular mistake caused by a developer was worse than another and if it merited locking you out of an online gaming system you had paid to access. There’s apparently some provisions in the terms and conditions to allow cheaters to be banned so it seems on the face of it to be all right since they didn’t just decide to do it out of the blue.
The head of Xbox Live policy on this issue reacted to the controversy by posting this message on Twitter:
“Wow some of you think cheating a glitch is ok.um.If I install my car stereo wrong and it disables my door locks it’s not ok to STEAL MY CAR”
I must confess I am naturally put off this guy because of that “um” but regardless here the senior Microsoft employee whose policy banned everyone compares cheating at a video game to car theft. They’re different types of problem – ask any 5 year old. I know I don’t like car theft but it does nothing to help his case on banning cheaters.
The problem of the analogy for its user- I’ve discussed it from the perspective of listeners before – as the thing that persuades someone is that it needs to be a good one or it backfires and if it’s all you have your argument falls. Cheating in games can be annoying and it can spoil it for other people but it’s not like stealing a car. If someone asks you “did you just compare health reform to the Holocaust?” they’re not buying your argument.