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It's All Geek To Me: Crowdfunding Is the Wild Wild West

04/09/2014 12:47 EDT | Updated 06/09/2014 05:59 EDT

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Let's get this out of the way: Video games are an art form. From games made by a single developer in charge of every aspect of the final product (graphics, music, programming) to those made by teams numbering in the hundreds and spread across the globe, they're massive undertakings capable of emotional, aesthetic, and narrative investment -- just like any other art form. What other word could there be for something that often takes multiple artists to create, fusing together like some sort of Art Megazord?

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Like any relatively young art form, the public perception of video games has shifted over time. Once seen as a pariah's hobby, we're pretty much all gamers nowadays. From a business perspective, games have gone from programs that could be created and shipped in plastic bags from the comfort of a basement to billion-dollar franchises that generate stacks of cash for their publishers. With this increased definition of what a game can be comes new and innovative ways to fund them: not every game can be published by a billionaire multinational corporation, and not every game (or piece of gaming technology) needs to be.

Enter Kickstarter.

I love crowdfunding, because it's like watching money have a wrestling match with ideas. It's capitalism in microcosm, and a very visceral way to make someone's dreams (of money) come true (via money).

That being said, I think that the main sticking point for a lot of Kickstarter donors is the very idea of what to expect from the service, because the site (and by extension, crowdfunding in general) can represent many things to many people. Fun fact: Kickstarter as an organization has no obligation to ensure a successfully funded project actually delivers on what it promised its backers.

A webcomic artist -- for instance, John Campbell of Pictures For Sad Children -- could start a campaign to raise funds for a printed edition of his comic, only to stop sending out books once the costs of postage upset him. And then he could burn one of his books every time someone asks for the thing they rightfully purchased from him.

Yes, this really happened.

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As the founders of the site made a point of saying in 2012, Kickstarter is not a store. But it's not an investment platform either (even if it really seems like one), because investors share in a project's ongoing financial success after initially supporting it. While a key appeal of Kickstarter may be its pay-what-you-can approach to financial support (it's hard to imagine a similar system working if I wanted to buy some Microsoft stock), it also means that any future gains or choices made by a Kickstarter-supported company will never benefit the backers that arguably put them in that position to begin with.

And that brings us to the Oculus Rift.

The Oculus Rift was billed as a virtual reality device that actually worked, and it started to live up to its reputation, both by word-of-mouth testimonials from people in the tech development community and through the eventual release of heartwarming videos like this one:

And through the novel approach of making a product that pushed society towards the hoverboards-and-jetpacks future we've all yearned for (and then letting people play with it), the good folks at Oculus gained more capital for themselves through a very successful Kickstarter campaign. The Kickstarter offered development kits for people wishing to develop software for the Rift, and to their credit, Oculus delivered on all of their funding promises.

But when Oculus was purchased by Facebook for $2-billion a scant year-and-a-half after the conclusion of its Kickstarter campaign, reactions were mixed, to say the least. When the founder of Oculus took to Reddit to address critics of the deal, it was a clear sign that people felt cheated on some level. On one hand, billions of dollars can go a long way towards the future of what is, on many levels, a very exciting and important piece of technology. On the other hand, there is literally an Academy Award-winning film solely about the questionable business practices and ethics of Mark Zuckerberg.

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Amidst all of the conspiracy theories and endless virtual FarmVille jokes, it's important to not lose sight of the lesson here: Crowdfunding websites are not responsible for anything that happens once you've contributed. You are not entering into a contract, and you are not purchasing from a store; you are leaving your money on the table, walking away, and hoping for the best. Here is the exact notification Kickstarter creators see before starting a project; notice how there is no threat of legal action from Kickstarter itself if they bail on their promises.

Indiegogo relies on "the democratic nature of crowdfunding" to suss out fraudulent campaigns while insisting all contributions are non-refundable. This is all happening while Pando Daily expertly continues to cover the fact that a $1-million Indiegogo campaign for a Russian calorie counter is almost certainly a scam. And Kickstarter has no words for Oculus Rift backers (like Marcus "Notch" Persson, creator of Minecraft) who felt they spent their hard-earned money to fund someone else's initial offering to Facebook.

Great things can come from crowdfunding, and it continues to be a godsend for small-scale products and artistic projects. I wouldn't wish it away for the world, but I cannot stress enough how there is no recourse or safety net if things don't go as planned. So please: protect your neck, or become someone else's cautionary tale.

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It's All Geek To Me is a weekly column about geek culture, and how it's secretly all around you, influencing everything you do, forever. Mike Sholars is a writer, editor, Twitter guy, and has believes Wu-Tang is for the children.