Digital vs. Physical Games: What's Right For You?

With the holiday season in full swing, chances are you're buying at least a few video games for a loved one (or yourself, we won't judge). But once you've settled on which games you want, you still have to make another big decision: physical or digital?

Image: charnsitr/

Image: charnsitr/

While physical and digital games both play the same, they each have their own pros and cons when it comes to convenience or value. With that in mind, we've broken down the strengths of each format, so you can decide whether you'd rather fill up your shelf, or fill up your hard drive.

Reasons to buy digital games

They're incredibly convenient. You can buy and install digital games from your console or PC without even leaving the couch. Plus, many digital games can be "pre-loaded" once you've pre-ordered them, meaning the entire game will be downloaded and ready to go the second its release date hits. You can even buy digital games via the PlayStation and Xbox mobile apps and have them installed and waiting for you by the time you get home.

You'll never lose them. Physical media is nice and all, but it can be lost, stolen, or — if you have pets or small children — destroyed. Meanwhile, your digital games are stored safely in the cloud, and can typically be deleted and re-installed on any console or PC that your Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo or Steam account is connected to.

You get to enjoy cross-buy. Certain digital games can be bought once and played across multiple platforms, which makes ditching physical games incredibly appealing. For example, Xbox Play Anywhere titles such as Gears of War 4, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and Cuphead can be bought once and played across Xbox One and PC. Same goes for PlayStation titles such as Darkest Dungeon and Super Meat Boy, which you can enjoy across your PS4 and PS Vita.

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Reasons to buy physical games

You can sell them back. While you're stuck with digital purchases forever, physical games can be sold back to places like GameStop, Best Buy and Amazon once you're done with them. You likely won't get all of your money back, but you will get some cash to put toward that next big game on your list.

You can lend and borrow them. Want your friend to see how amazing the new Call of Duty or Assassin's Creed game is? It's a lot easier to hand over your copy than it is to go to their place and install it from the cloud. Also, believe it or not, game rental services still exist. Places like GameFly and Redbox let you try before you buy, and in some cases, keep whatever games you like for an extra fee.

Discounts are more frequent. While both digital and physical games go on sale often, you'll typically find the best discounts on physical games. Amazon Prime members get 20 percent off new physical releases, as do folks with a Best Buy Gamers Club account. Going physical also gives you the option to buy pre-owned games, which are usually at least a few bucks cheaper than new copies.

You can show off your collection. Sure, going digital saves you shelf space, but for some people, collecting physical game boxes is half the fun. If you want to have a physical collection you can pass down to a child or loved one, it sure would be a lot nicer giving them a stack of actual games instead of the login to your Xbox Live account.

You don't have to worry about internet speeds. Downloading digital games is convenient, but if you don't have a good internet connection, you could end up spending all day installing a single game. Meanwhile, physical games install from the disc (or in the case of the Nintendo Switch, don't have to install at all), so you should be able to get them on your console fairly quickly regardless of how fast your connection is.

Bottom Line

On paper, it would seem like going physical has more concrete benefits. But if you have a decent internet connection, hate dealing with actual people at stores, and want to be able to access your game from anywhere, there's a ton to love about digital games.

The truth is, many gamers do a mix of both — sometimes you'll see a physical deal you can't pass up; other times, you'll just want to download Destiny 2 without having to leave the house. There's no wrong way to enjoy games, but it's certainly worth keeping in mind the pros and cons of both options.


Michael Andronico

Mike Andronico is Senior Writer at CNNUnderscored. He was formerly Managing Editor at Tom's Guide, where he wrote extensively on gaming, as well as running the show on the news front. When not at work, you can usually catch him playing Street Fighter, devouring Twitch streams and trying to convince people that Hawkeye is the best Avenger.