Today's game marketplace is largely comprised of console games, mobile games, and social network games. Again and again, predictions of the death of PC gaming have circulated, but every time the PC rises up and reasserts its relevance. Bundles contribute to and extend that sentiment, first by making desirable, curated PC games available at a low cost -- but also by expanding the base of the PC movement to include Mac and Linux users.
Not all bundles impose the cross-platform requirement, but the success of the Humble Bundle, which only distributes games that work on all three OSes, has allowed supporters of underdog platforms to band together and make the case for themselves. The most recent Humble Indie Bundle sold almost 75 percent of its wares in Windows editions, but Mac and Linux split the remaining 25 percent almost evenly. Moreover, those buyers paid considerably more, with Mac users handing over 40 percent and Linux users 92 percent more than Windows users.
In addition to the cross-platform position, bundles also tend to prefer DRM-free titles. While some distribute Steam keys instead, that platform has itself established a reputation for kinder, gentler DRM compared the abusive policies of major publishers. In any case, all of the bundle providers talk about DRM in one way or another, showing that they recognize both platform availability and freedom as concerns for contemporary publishing.
This set of values corresponds with a techno-centric political position sometimes called cyber-libertarianism. Cyber-liberties advocates want to be able to choose technologies, products, and services without social, state, or economic coercion.
While cyber-libertarianism is usually associated with marketplace- rather than state-managed information networks, it also extends to the use of free and open-source software like Linux (which allows its users to customize or change a machine's operation), and anti-DRM positions (which are perceived to infringe on a buyer's right to do whatever they want with digital materials).
Humble Bundle in particular makes a point of highlighting the cross-platform and DRM-free features of its service as a primary value.
The fact that Linux users are paying more than Mac or PC users for the Humble Bundle provides some evidence that they are signaling an affinity with the products values, not just purchasing it for instrumental reasons. While there's no data to prove it, one can speculate that game bundles may also be converting some software pirates who crack products not to avoid paying, but because those products fail to provide them adequate "freedom."
We normally focus on the low end of the "pick your price" aspect of game bundles, but choosing what you pay also makes it possible to contribute far more than a game would normally cost. While the average purchase price for the Humble Indie Bundle #4 was $5.45, or a paltry 61¢ on average per game or charity, the highest price paid was $8,542, by Minecraft creator Markus Persson1. The tenth-highest contribution, at $650, came from the small software company 1up Industries.
When you go to a museum or concert hall or ballet studio -- any arts organization that relies on philanthropic contribution for its operation -- it's common to find a list of patrons who have given particularly generously. It's usually a dramatic architectural affair, names etched into stone or glass in an ostentatious way.
When the very wealthy make philanthropic contributions, they do so partly because they earnestly enjoy the arts. Some do so for influence too; patronage may offer special access to the board or directorship of an organization. But they also do it for reasons of social signaling and peacocking: "Look at me, I am a supporter of the arts."
When the bundle websites publish the top ten contributors publicly, those names act as a patron's wall for indie gaming. The bundles sites also optionally link to a Twitter account, offering top contributors exposure to the tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals who pass through the virtual space of the bundle website. Patronage demands ostentation.
In the traditional arts patronage is very costly, with contributions of hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars required to secure the top spot on a benefactor's list. Notch's $8.5k would look paltry among donors to the average symphony.
But the low cost of entry to game patronage offers access to the everyman. At $720, the sixth-highest contribution to the Humble Indie Bundle #4 came from HobbyGameDev.com, which is run by indie game developer and Georgia Tech digital media graduate student Chris Deleon. This is hardly an affair of the 1 percent.
Patronage is emerging elsewhere online, most notably at the crowdfunding service Kickstarter, where many games seek funding. That site does not publish top contributions and therefore embraces the logic of the "anonymous donor," who not only enjoys the public reaction to his or her generosity, but also the private pride of having been "humble" in declining to accept the showiness of public display.
Whether it supports ballet or video games, patronage has no necessary relationship to the product sold. Patrons may or may not care about a particular exhibition, performance, or game when they make a large contribution; instead they are buying both general support and the vanity of being seen as a supporter. Downloading the games isn't even required.
1 In choosing this figure, I'm leaving out the HumbleBrony account, which aggregates payments from individuals in order to increase the charitable contribution rate. Together, that group paid $16,005.27 for Humble Indie Bundle #4.