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Souled Out

Congratulations to GameStation, high street and online retailers of computer games, for knowing how to spot a bargain. It seems most of us would sell our immortal souls very cheaply. And when we are talking soul, we are talking about the part of you that supposedly survives when the body dies, not the part of you that best appreciates black music (which may or may not be the same thing). Legends tell us that the Devil makes extraordinary promises to secure a typical soul, but GameStation seem to have found a canny way to get one step ahead of the hornéd one and to make a killing from his infernal stakes. 7,500 of GameStation’s customers were offered a straight choice – give up the rights to their soul or receive a £5 voucher. Almost all of them decided they would rather own one less soul in preference to owning £5 more voucher. That would suggest the typical economic valuation of a soul is worth less than negative five quid to its owner – people will literally pay a fiver to have somebody else take possession of their soul. Now I appreciate our society has become very materialistic, but this is going too far.

Of course, there is more to this story, but you would never find out if you did not keep reading. GameStation smuggled the transaction into the small print when buying an online game.

“By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from gamestation.co.uk or one of its duly authorised minions.”

It was a clever stunt to demonstrate that people do not read small print, and the story was picked up in various places, including Yahoo and Fox News. Some might think the moral of the story is that shoppers need to be more careful. I do not. The problem here is the same as in so many parts of our modern lives: too many rules. If you want to spend your life reading all that fine print, you are welcome to. You would be safer for it. But come my final moments on this Earth, I do not want a hundred thousand lines of terms and conditions to be flashing before my eyes.

To my mind, there is something wrong with an economic system that expects ordinary customers to wade through legalese just to make a simple purchase. That legalese was not written by people desperate to serve the interests of the customers reading all those horrid words, usually little in print and long on syllables. T’s and C’s are written by people paid to get one over on customers whenever push comes to shove. In the final reckoning, none of these legally-worded promises and commitments are ever open to negotiation anyway. With small print, you can either lump it or lump it. No business would ever make a special exception for just one customer, and every alternate vendor has employed pretty similar lawyers, if they were not copying the legalese from their rivals to begin with.

We live in societies that are great at keeping lawyers busy (and rich) and great at keeping ordinary people busy (and much poorer) thanks to an unhealthy obsession with contractual rigmarole. Of course, some consumers invite the misery on themselves and everyone else; there would not be such a need for exclusions and caveats if businesses were not so routinely preyed upon by the chancers, blaggers, fraudsters and malcontents of the world. Between suppliers cheating customers and customers cheating suppliers, we have felt the need to invent millions of rules to keep everything fair. In order to serve this goal, countless lawyers demonstrate how to play the game, countless judges keep score, and countless politicians debate how to make for better sport. If we were all just plain, upright and honest people, good to each other, who wanted what was fair and nothing else, we would not need all these rules. But too many of us are horrible cheats, always looking to finesse and finagle the system for our own ends. So then we make the system more complex, only to end up in perpetual hamster-wheel chase between our good selves and bad selves. One eye polices the world, stopping others from taking advantage, whilst the other is on the look out for every sneaky short cut to what we want. Inevitably we end up cross-eyed and back where we begun.

I have no idea what God would do if he came back to Earth, but we all know the Devil would be a lawyer. The easiest way to tip the scales of justice as you please is to sit yourself in the middle, and to become its arbiter. Better still, get paid a commission whenever you do. Presumably GameStation still had to consult their lawyers about playing their little lighthearted wheeze. In the realm of contracts, there is no room for good old fashioned values, like a man’s word being his bond, or trusting to a handshake. The truth is we have already sold our souls, and all we got in exchange was a lot of empty words on a hollow contract. Worst of all, we never even read it.

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