A few but growing number of game publishers use international standard book numbers (ISBNs) on their non-book game products.

The vast majority of retailers will only accept products with standardized product codes; accounting and inventory are simply impossible without them. Games, one would assume, should have universal product codes (UPC/EAN-13s) rather than ISBNs (ISBNs are, in fact, a subset of EAN-13s). If you want UPCs (or ISBNs, for that matter), there is only one place to get them; they are divvied out by cartels that set whatever prices they want, but without them you can’t distribute your product.

The benefits of using ISBNs rather than UPC/EAN-13s are many:

  • UPC/EAN-13s cost considerably more than ISBNs. A block of 100 ISBNs costs $575 in the US; in some countries, the prices are heavily subsidized. UPCs, by contrast, cost between $750 and several thousand dollars (depending on company size) for registration with an annual fee of $150 or more. These prices don’t include the bar codes.
  • If you’re a publisher who also publishes books (such as RPG manuals), you’ve already got a block of ISBNs sitting around.
  • Having an ISBN automatically gets your product listed in hundreds or thousands of stores that normally only sell books, such as The Book Depository, an online store that ships books for free internationally. There be many games in thar.

Says one company:

[our company] has used ISBN’s for our games for 15 years and so has most other game publishers, it is nothing new. ISBN’s are simply unique numbers that can be converted into reliable barcode scans.  It is the numbering standard most prevalent in the book market, but it is used for a variety of products. Another option is UPC barcodes, but they are more expensive to get (prohibitively so for small publishers) which is why game publishers tend not to use UPC’s.

Says another company:

Actually not all of our games have ISBN’s, but those that have some potential in the book channels do. The most important market for our games is still hobby games stores  and that is where we sell the majority of our titles. However, some of our games such as [popular game] and [popular game] have created consumer demand in wider markets, including general toy stores and book stores. It’s difficult to put a specific percentage on sales that go through book stores, other than to say it is a growing segment as [our company] become more popular among a broader audience.

This is good for publishers. However, the ISBN organization thinks otherwise.

Using an ISBN for non-book items can surprise libraries and bookstores that order a block of what they thought were books only to end up with games that they are ill-equipped to stock or sell.

Furthermore, the practice violates the letter and spirit of the standard, which specifically prohibits ISBNs for games:

In practice, bookstores are violating the standard by assigning ISBNs to products that have no business being assigned ISBNs. – Louise Timko, US ISBN

But mostly:

When we needed to incorporate the ISBN into the UPC/EAN barcode, we had to agree a contract with them that provided for the 978 and 979 prefixes [1] to be added to the then 10-digit ISBN in order to create barcodes. This contract specified that these 978 and 979-prefixed numbers should only be used for books. Their own system is available for numbering other products. – Brian Green, International ISBN

[1] 978 and 979 are the EAN “country codes” for Bookland, a fake country used to indicate all books published everywhere, and specifically created to allow ISBNs to be a subset of EANs.