It’s been over a week since the official announcement of the PS4 and I already think my analysis of the event is a little late to the party, such is the internet. But while watching the stream of the “Playstation Meeting 2013” I noticed a lot of things that troubled me. Things that seem, as far as I’ve read, to have gone largely uncommented on critically. These fears largely spring from Sony’s extensive plans for the social integration of their new console.
First I’d like to say that, despite what will follow, I was impressed with what I saw from the stream. I appreciate the development personalities that Sony managed to bring to the table and some of the games certainly piqued my interest (WATCH_DOGS, The Witness and Knack if you’re wondering). The fact that games were present at all at an event like this is deserving of praise, all the more if a few of them appeared genuinely interesting. I’d also like to say that I’m aware of writers like John Teti’s well reasoned critique of Sony’s apparent message that “more technology necessarily produces innovative artistry” and I agree with his dismissal of this claim. I’m also aware of the potential of demand for higher graphical fidelity ballooning the cost of both producing and consuming video-games, but these things have been discussed very well elsewhere. My issues with what was shown do not stem from the games themselves but largely from Sony’s grander claims for the way consumers will engage with its devices and its plans for, as Andrew House called it, the “evolving sense of play.” I am now going to explain why this evolution appeared to me to be taking the experience of a wonderful, important art form and warping it through extensive surveillance and destructive levels of social integration.
Andrew House, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, first took the stage to explain what Sony knew they needed to do to compete in the next generation. Their task was “reconceptualising how the next-generation gamer would want to play”, which sounded suspiciously like Sony wanting to make that decision for us. Although House explicitly denied this in his next sentence, saying that while Sony used to define the gaming experience “now the consumer was changing us.” This statement rang a little hollow, however, given the control over consumers’ purchasing choices that Sony appeared to wish to exercise. Aggressively targeted advertising and a console that predicatively downloads products it thinks you may want to buy in the future are surely signs of Sony giving themselves the ability to shepherd players’ purchasing decisions. For example, if the Playstation Network has detected through my previous playing habits that I like Japanese RPG’s, it still has a large breadth of choice as to which specific products it’s going to recommend to me – and I would put money on the fact that Sony would much more readily push a flagship franchise that it was counting on to sell large numbers, a Final Fantasy for instance, rather than a smaller game that I might not discover otherwise. The system is set up to allow Sony to influence consumer behaviour, not the other way around. PS4 system architect Mark Cerny’s claim during his presentation that “the system can get to know you” and the idea that the system will be running downloads of products in the background and without your awareness is uncomfortably Orwellian. The system knows what’s best for you even if you don’t. Let the system do its work. Don’t worry about it. Saying nothing of the fact that overly targeted advertising and selective product suggestions decreases the chance for serendipitous discovery or for moving out of your gaming comfort zone.
But Sony now intends to extend this emphasis on player monitoring and control outside of the shopping elements of the Playstation network and into the actual playing of the games themselves. I want to make the case here that, in overly integrating the gameplay experiences on the PS4 into social networks, Sony is fundamentally disrupting a key type of engagement with games.
I first have to praise Mark Cerny for delivering what was clearly a genuinely passionate presentation, and also for giving a clear and understandable (especially for the non-technical) dissection of what was inside the box. Some of the things he discussed however had some unsettling implications. He talked about the consoles “dedicated, always on compression and decompression systems” which would allow the users of the Playstation 4 to “browse live video of what [their] friends are doing at that exact moment.” So when we are playing on the new console the play session is always broadcasting. Always available to view by those on your friends list and, crucially, always passing through Sony’s Playstation network. Immediately after revealing this feature, Cerny highlighted the fact that player anonymity was being de-emphasised on the PS4 “Most of the new social dimension to Playstation 4 will be interacting with real friends using real names and profile pictures” he said. “This social network will not only be visible from within the UI. Playstation 4 is designed to be a highly integrated platform, seamlessly integrated across the network to the full Playstation ecosystem as well as to key third party devices and services.” Facebook and UStream were mentioned later in the presentation as key partners, so it seems that Sony will be spreading our explicitly un-anonymised data around as well.
Also note here that the buzzwords have come out. “Integrated” and “Immersion” were the two that kept being repeated throughout the conference but Sony appeared to twist the meaning of these words slightly over the course of the event, especially the second one. It strikes me that the new emphasis on the integration of the Playstation 4 into existing and new devices and social networks is actually denying the player the immersion that so many gamers consider central to the enjoyment of the medium.
One of the great joys in experiencing any form of art is the forced focus that comes from immersion. During the experience you are focused on just one thing, the art that you are sitting in front of. You aren’t worrying about your bank balance, what you’re going to cook for dinner or how many likes your last status update on Facebook has received. You aren’t distracted. To live in the world now means to be constantly encouraged to increase your speed, to multi-task, to stay connected to everything all the time. The periods of intense focus that come from playing a video-game, going to the cinema or reading a book can actually be pretty difficult for a lot of people to achieve now (I’ve found myself, for example, getting agitated when having to sit in a cinema for ninety minutes just watching one film, even if it’s one I end up really liking) but when they are achieved they are extremely satisfying and can actually feel quite restful. A rejuvenating break from the shallow busyness of modern culture. Sony’s direction for its new console not only does not encourage but almost does not allow for this kind of focus.
During quite a number of the demos shown at the event, play would be abruptly halted for the user to upload a game play snippet, answer a message, or show off some other part of the console’s social functionality. Breaking the immersion of the experience. Surely the “share button” on the controller will be one of the worst offenders for this? The parts of the game that a player would think to share are its most intense moments, or its moments of un-designed, emergent humour or pathos – these are the moments when one feels most personally connected to a specific game world. If the minute one of these moments occurs you feel the pull of the social networks, then you are jolted out of a true, unfiltered experience. Think of how many people go to parties/on holiday/out for a meal and are constantly trying to get a good photo for Facebook to show their life off to their friends, often at the expense of enjoying what they are actually doing. Life ceases to become lived fully and becomes an elaborate pose for the people you imagine are spying on you through these networks. The constant connection to the social network distracts you from experience. Art is a place to go to escape from that kind of distraction but Sony is inviting it onto its new console.
It seems that, flying in the face of what the buzzwords tell us, Sony is actually focusing on integration at the expense of real immersion. Or at least at the expense of what we typically mean when we use that word. Like I said the idea becomes warped in a way demonstrated by Gaikai Co-founder and Earthworm Jim designer David Perry’s summary of the consoles goals, “everything everywhere.” At the presentation this idea was constantly repeated and conflated with the idea of immersion, changing the definition of that word. Sony no longer described an “immersive” game as one that inspired intense, pleasurable focus during the play session, but rather an “immersive” game became one that occupied the low-level background chatter inside your brain when you were away from the console. Harmonix Music Systems CEO Alex Rigopulos summed this up well in his sound bite, “Historically console games have been very much lived in a tower. You go to your living room, you have that experience there and that’s where it happens. You leave your living room and then you have the rest of your life. Looking ahead, integrated gaming experiences will follow you everywhere that you go.” Now I don’t know about you but that final sentence is pretty nakedly terrifying to me – especially coupled with the visuals that accompanied it. We began with a cartoon man playing on his PS4 in his living room. He put down the controller and got up, picking up his smart phone as he did so. The room then transformed into a bus on which the cartoon man was the only passenger, still looking at his phone. The bus then morphed into a city street filled with other cartoon people walking around, all on their own, all staring at their tablets or smart phones and experiencing their seamlessly integrated games. Interestingly (and unusually for PR of this kind) none of these cartoon people were smiling or displaying any other outward sign of emotion.
I should point out here that I have no problem with thinking about games when you aren’t playing them, thinking over and discussing art with friends is – in my opinion – one of the great pleasures in life. My worry is that the social dimension that Sony is stressing for its new console does not encourage pleasurable reflection on one’s experience or the creation of vibrant fan communities (over the years we’ve surely demonstrated we do not need corporate help to do this) but that it promotes a constant low-level anxiety that comes from thinking you aren’t “doing your duty” as a consumer, or aren’t “playing the game right” if you aren’t constantly engaging with the product in some way. As Mark Cerny said, the new system “allows you to keep in touch with the evolving world of your game, regardless of your location.” My immediate fear about this is that it doesn’t take long with these kinds of systems (and Facebook is an obvious case in point) for that word “allows” to become the word “obligates.”
This anxiety also manifested itself in Sony’s unveiling of the ability to suspend a play session at any point. The ability to hit a single button and have the console power down with the exact moment the player had got to preserved in RAM. All the player needs to do is hit the power button again to immediately resume play from where they left off. The lack of the boot or shutdown process means that a player never fully disengages from the play session, they simply “suspend” it (this was the word used during the conference). As the player goes about the rest of their life this play session is still with them, they are never released from the obligation to continue and aren’t given a clear end-point to disengage from the world of Sony’s console. I would argue that this also damages the player’s ability to enjoy the medium. Think of the opening title and credit sequences of a TV show. During opening titles there’s a kind of mental preparation that goes on that allows the viewer to momentarily leave the thoughts and troubles of their day-to-day life in order to engage with the art, the credit sequence likewise allows them to mentally draw a line under the experience in order to go back into the world and also to reflect on the experience itself – the system of suspended play sessions denies the player the ability to draw this line. It gives the player the sense that the game is somehow still continuing without them and they need to constantly plug back into Sony’s data stream – which will doubtlessly be monitored and organised to serve its interests as a corporation – or otherwise be left behind as the “real fans” continue to engage.
It was ironic that two of the games that were shown during the conference, Sucker Punch’s Infamous: Second Son and Ubisoft Montreal’s WATCH_DOGS, were critical in their narratives of both of the things I’ve criticised Sony for here. Extensive surveillance and paralysing over-connectedness. It seemed strange for Nate Fox’s Infamous presentation to criticise the US Governments seizing of citizens’ personal cell phone records when the game he was presenting was to be released on a console in which Sony would collect information about every players purchasing and playing habits, encourage them to constantly broadcast a live feed of every play session, and where this “experience” would “follow you everywhere that you go”. The WATCH_DOGS tagline, “Everything is connected. Connection is power.” was a macabre take on Sony’s overall rhetoric. The game’s vision is a dystopic future in which the interconnectedness of every system and person in the city allows for whoever has control of these connections to “invade anyone’s privacy without them knowing.” Jonathan Morin, who led the WATCH_DOGS presentation, went on to say “when you can tap into anyone’s lives anything can happen.” So if connection is power and every connection will be routed through Sony on its new console are we as players willingly handing over our power to Sony?
The presence of these games tells me that, as a culture, we are aware of these issues and want to use art as a place to explore the ideas surrounding them. Issues of our own privacy and the level of surveillance placed on us are things that we think about and are concerned for. I wonder, however, if at this point in time Sony would be less welcoming of both WATCH_DOGS and Infamous: Second Son had their stories centred on corporate, rather than state, surveillance. The cynic in me says they probably would be.
Taking all this at once – the enticement to connect, to broadcast, to “share our experiences” with the logging of personal information, the targeted advertising and the mantra of “everything everywhere” – we see quite a startling image. We see Sony attempting to fool us into thinking we are operating in a social space, a community space, a public space, when in fact we are operating in a decidedly corporate space. One that now wishes to occupy not only our online shopping spaces, but every part of our social and leisure time – and perhaps more besides. I, for one, don’t think we should be okay with that.
Further Reading: On Avatars: Creating an Other Self (Medium Difficulty)