By now I’m going to assume that everyone with even the faintest interest in doing so has either watched or at least gleaned the bullet-points from this past Tuesday’s reveal of the XBox One; a new digital delivery system for Star Trek trailers, Steven Spielberg television vehicles and American Football broadcasts which may or may not also one day be able to play videogames. Curiously, said unveiling took place during what appeared to be a live conceptual theater piece based Mike Judge’s 2006 cult film Idiocracy, but perhaps I am once more failing to grasp the evolving subtleties of the New Media.
All kidding aside, the cacophony of “Are you kidding me’s?!” engendered by Microsoft’s lime green laser show (who did decide that the XBox’s primary color scheme would be the hues used by early 90’s horror films to denote “nuclear toxin,” anyway?) have already been well covered by folks more qualified to do so than me. To be frank, it’s hard for me to avoid regarding the whole scenario with the weary schadenfreude of a doomsday prepper the day after The Big One drops. Oh dear, gamer community, are you feeling that Microsoft has abandoned you for the lucrative pastures of streaming television and NFL partnerships? Well, gaming culture kicked me to the curb around the time Ryu Hayabusa started dressing like a leather club bouncer from Planet Mongo – welcome to Orphan Alley.
I have, to be sure, all the same concerns, complaints and fears about The One rehashed in a dozen other pieces, but the one that sticks out most in my mind is the one with implications far beyond gaming. I got used to the idea that gaming not only doesn’t want my business but rather seems to actively resent my presence among its consumer base as a relic of an age it is now ashamed of a generation ago, fine. But the gumption with which Microsoft has embraced the re-definition of the media itself, the Orwellian wordscape wherein the term “product” is subsumed by “service” and consumers are granted “permission” rather than “ownership,” that development chills me to my bone.
My relationship to technology has always carried a hint of schizophrenia. I am by disposition a futurist; I prefer barreling forward in scientific and human advancement in open defiance of all inertia. Let’s settle outer space! Let’s rewrite the gene code! Let’s cure death, clone Tyrannosaurs, teach hamsters to fly fighter jets, solve overpopulation with a Martian Colony and end world hunger with burrito trees and pumpkins the size of houses! But I am also loathe to throw anything useful or well loved away when it can yet be repaired or re-purposed. I tend to view technological upgrades less in terms of replacement than compliment, particularly when it comes to electronic entertainment. My Gameboy Advance (SP, the model painted to look like an NES) sits, charged and functional, next to my 3DS as we speak.
As such, while I am a well entrenched user of streaming and download services for music, movies and games, said services haven’t replaced physical media ownership for me – not by a longshot. TV shows and movies I plan to view more than once I buy physical copies of, and few things bring me down more than learning something I just discovered and loved via streaming cannot be acquired physically. I back up and store data semi-obsessively for the expressed purpose of preservation. The idea of a book, movie or game existing only as an amorphous line of code in a “cloud” for only so long as the device and service used to access it function feels to me like tempting fate.
At the root of all this is ownership: the ancient but by no means eternal concept that my possessions, when acquired justly, are mine to do with as I please. That my relationship with the maker of this or that product begins and ends with a successful purchase. Granted, the waters have been muddied in recent decades by warranties, contracts and end user license agreements, but at the end of the day a fundamental truth remains – I bought it, and it’s mine until I no longer wish it to be.
But more and more, media companies are working to subtly chip away at the very concept of ownership – not in the name of some utopian Marxist redistribution ideal but in the name of clever Capitalism. In a world where products that only ever existed in digital form are built to be altered and augmented even when you’re not presently using them, it’s not much of a leap to redefine a product to be purchased into a service you merely pay for access to. And the XBox One, which is said to require unique installation codes to install even physically purchased games exclusively one console (effectively ending the world of used, rental and borrowed gaming as we know it) represents the most prominent attempt yet to make this radical redefinition of the consumer relationship the norm.
It wasn’t long ago that one of my Big Picture episodes found me lamenting the passing of Nintendo Power magazine and reconsidering, with the benefit of hindsight, the worries of a bygone era that the heavily commercialized childhoods experienced by my generation would turn us into a nation of submissive consumer zombies obedient to the brand name icons we’d grown up with. Then and now, I find that particular concern overblown since growing up with He-Man as a hero failed to turn me or anyone else I know into the willing slave of Mattel or its shareholders.
But the reason for that, I believe, is largely because ownership was still a tangible factor. One can quibble over whether or not it was culturally healthy for the hero figures of my generation to so often be mascots for toylines, but at the end of the day your He-Man (or Optimus Prime, or Barbie, or whatever) was just that: yours. And however insidiously their makers could encourage brand loyalty, once you’d acquired the desired object you were under no further obligation of support. Had Hasbro filed for bankruptcy in the late 80’s, no one would’ve woken up to find their toy chest suddenly devoid of Transformers.
Likewise, while it seems I’m fated to spend another console generation in fear of Nintendo calling it quits and closing the book on Mario and company once and for all, if and when that happens I can rest assured that my still working NES, SNES and collection of games for both will not suddenly blink out of existence. In terms of games I have already bought and paid for, I owe neither them nor any other corporation any further allegiance.
But the “games as services” model embodied by the XBox One and much of its industry would fundamentally eliminate that vital separation. The goal is to make the customer dependant on the company, not the other way around. In the future envisioned through these practices, your ability to not only continue playing new games but indeed keeping the ones you already have could easily be tied directly to the fate of the company you bought it from. This would effectively turn digital entertainment into the equivalent of a pet hamster that’s been genetically engineered to only survive on food available from one specific store (and don’t you dare think that PetSmart aren’t dumping money into research for exactly that right now) .
The endgame? A world where what used to be only the most extreme form of fanboyism becomes something like a survival skill. I must support (nay, evangelize for!!!) this company, even if it’s not giving me the best service or otherwise behaving in a manner I want to be associated with, because if I don’t they might fold and who knows how many games, movies and books that I love will vanish with them – blinked out of The Cloud like tears in the rain.
I am not a paranoid man. I don’t see the word “corporate” as inherently evil, I don’t live in fear of my social security number one day being used to decide the location of my concentration camp bunk, I have never woken up in a cold sweat from the thought of black helicopters. But I know what too far looks like, in terms of tying my fate to that of a corporation simply because I at one point wished to use their product. And turning videogames into “services” because of a false choice between quality and freedom of use is the beginning of too far.
And I do not expect that I am alone.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.