Critical Intel

Critical Intel
The Xbox One Would've Hurt Soldiers And Sick Kids

Robert Rath | 20 Jun 2013 16:00
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Yesterday, Microsoft got out a fork and knife and decided to eat crow. They reversed the most unpopular aspects of the Xbox One point-by-point. The console will now support used games. Gone is the online check-in system. Region lock is dead too. While lifting restrictions on used games is a benefit to all consumers, repealing check-ins and region locks benefits a very specific demographic: these features would have disproportionately affected children's hospitals and the military.

Microsoft positioned the Xbox One as a device that redefines our understanding of the game console, and to their credit, it looks to have done exactly that. While it looks like a console, the Xbox One mixes in features we associate with gaming PCs, internet-connected televisions, and an advanced motion control system to create something completely new. There are positives to this new frontier. For example, Polygon reports that cloud computing could allow 10,000-100,000 computer-controlled enemies in a single battle by offloading offscreen enemies to remote servers. In addition, the advanced Kinect could augment controller-based interfaces with gestures - like tapping your temple to switch to NVGs or leaning to dodge incoming shots.

However, it's inevitable that Microsoft's new technology, like every new technology, will leave some people behind. Rethinking and redefining the concept of the game console has raised exciting possibilities, but it also takes the Xbox One out of our traditional understanding of the game console itself. While PC gamers sometimes talk about console gamers as luddites embracing an inferior product, I would argue that consoles offer a very different playing experience than PC. Consoles are "lounge games," if you will. You can play them while sitting in a variety of places and positions. There's nothing to prevent me from playing Halo while lying down on the couch, for instance, which would be difficult to do even on a laptop. Consoles follow a fairly simple setup. No need to worry about system requirements or software compatability - you can deploy one wherever there's a TV. They are, theoretically at least, less reliant on the internet. People expect non-laptop gaming PCs to stay rooted to a single spot, whereas consoles are versatile - you just hook up, turn on and play. While Xbox One may work perfectly under controlled circumstances, Microsoft's attempt to "own the living room" may marginalize consumers who rely on consoles specifically because of their versatile and mobile nature.

"A Sin Against All Service Members"

Since the beginning of the War on Terror, games have become the entertainment of choice for U.S.troops serving overseas. Soldiers serving on dangerous deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan - some working twelve-hour shifts and taking fire every other day - often rely on a game of Madden to unwind after a patrol. Games can also break up the tedium of endless guard duty on a remote air base, or provide relief for sailors bottled up in a nuclear submarine. "It helped me a lot in coping with everything," said Sgt. Chaene Kingray, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who spoke with NBC News about how troops use games to relax. "There were many times where stress was building, but after sitting down and playing a couple of games it just reminded me of home."

People have started recognizing the military reliance on games as well. Originally consoles would come to warzones tucked in a rucksack or backpack, but in the last few years a range of organizations began sending care packages of games to men and women on deployment. Operation Supply Drop, one of the most prominent of these organizations, has distributed $300,000 in games, consoles and accessories since November 2010. Some go to far-flung units that have lost soldiers or Marines in IED attacks, while others go to the wounded at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

But that wouldn't have been possible with Xbox One's connectivity requirements. Reliable internet is hard to come by in a warzone. Most deployment locations have an MWR (morale welfare and recreation) center that provides free computer terminals and wireless, but there's usually a line out the door and sessions only last 20-30 minutes. Even then, connection speed is extremely slow - one Afghanistan vet I spoke to said that opening Gmail could take a full minute. Larger bases may have internet caf├ęs, but they charge $5-10 per hour and also have a wait. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can buy their own internet access via satellite broadband, but the plans are so expensive that they're often shared amongst a group of soldiers, sometimes at $60-100 per person, per month. That's a heavy burden for a 19 year-old private who makes less than $21,000 a year including combat pay.

But internet connectivity wasn't even the biggest issue. Under Microsoft's previous policies, Xbox One would only be available and supported in 21 countries at launch, most of which were in North America, Western Europe and the English-speaking world. "Supported" is the key word here, which meant that even if you bought an Xbox One in the United States it would cease to function if you took it to an unsupported country. Online check-ins would not have been valid from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, South Korea, the middle of the ocean and most other places we send our men and women in uniform. Even if members of the military, who are well known for their ability to overcome and adapt, could've found a workaround for that, games would've only been playable in the countries in which they were purchased. In other words, under Microsoft's previous policy, even if you could overcome all the other obstacles, the Xbox One wouldn't play games sent via care package.

All this made the Xbox One an extremely poor console for the armed services. In its originally announced version, it was unplayable in foreign countries, relied on internet that's intermittent at best and made it impossible to play games sent from home. (And that's assuming security concerns about the Kinect don't lead an on-base ban.) Last week, the Army Times even went so far as to call the console "a sin against all service members."

Those are strong words, but fair ones. After all, the same game company that trades off the military's reputation in so many of its blockbuster franchises just announced a console that's incompatible with military life. This bitter irony was especially apparent at the Xbox One's launch event, where Microsoft unveiled Call of Duty: Ghosts - a game that couldn't be played by the very people it celebrates.

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