You Are What You Play: Why The Console Wars Matter Too Much

By Richard Clark

Genesis does what Nintendon’t. What does Genesis do exactly? Edginess. Symbolized by the now absurd buzzword, “blast-processing,” Sega managed to convince its potential user base that Nintendo was a kid’s toy while the Genesis was the “cool” machine for the “mature” gamer (in those days, just as now, the mature gamer referred to the whiny adolescent who hated his parents). At the most, that meant playing as a hedgehog with an attitude rather than a fun-loving plumber. It meant your on-screen avatar would tap his foot and look out at you impatiently if you stopped playing for a bit.

But when Mortal Kombat was released to home consoles, there was one incredibly obvious difference between the two versions. The Genesis version had blood and the original brutal fatalities from the arcade version. Suddenly, it was even more obvious: Nintendo was for little kids. Genesis was for, um, slightly older kids.

"“These things ought to be a mere accessory to our lives, even if they are our greatest passion. They ought to to augment and supplement our lives, not hijack them.”"
My friend and I sneered at our Super Nintendo owning friend. “You want us to play the version of Mortal Kombat? Without blood? That’s stupid.” It was decided then and there: we would spend the summer at my friend Blake’s house. He’s the one with the Sega Genesis. The fallout from asking for the wrong system for Christmas a year ago was immediately clear for my other friend. He was officially less savvy, less popular, less cool.

Since that time, gamers have continued to argue about their favorite console while PC gamers watch from the sidelines feel self-satisfied (count me in with that last group at this stage). The most recent console life-cycle went on so long that it started to seem like the lines were blurring a bit. The competition became more of an ecosystem, and things seemed like they had, for once, settled down a bit.

After years of market change, of intense disruption by mobile and indie games, we’ve found ourselves back at it, except that the people we’re sneering at this time aren’t just our misguided peers, but the companies themselves. Xbox has us raging because of their brazen implementation of less-than-ideal DRM and their always-online requirement. Apple frustrates us because of their vague and nonsensical store guidelines. Meanwhile, Sony has taken to pointing and laughing with us, drawing attention as much as possible to Microsoft’s missteps.

The end result is an ugly kind of partisanship that’s characterized more by brand loyalty than anything else. Before either system has really even had a chance to prove itself, before the unpredictable results of these announcements have a chance to take effect, we’ve divided ourselves up into clubs and cliques. Many of us are Playstation fans now. Or we’re PC people. Or we’re hardcore Xbox fans that just want to play more Halo – and I guess enjoy watching The Price is Right while sitting in multiplayer lobbies? I dunno.

And for some reason, we take that loyalty seriously. We cheer when our side wins, and we mock the other side for losing. We don’t hesitate – not one second – to say “I told you so.”

The biggest false assumption in all of this is that in the midst of all of this sound and fury we are somehow shaping ourselves. Our individual makeup is somehow changed, we assume, by the system we support and invest in. Our sense of superiority is salvaged by our insistence on the PC’s increasing value to the game industry. We are made by our purchasing power and our strong opinions.

It’s a general problem with consumerism, sure, but an even bigger problem for people who call themselves after their hobby. We are “gamers.” We have allowed ourselves to believe that we aren’t merely people who play games. We are the embodiment of an art form, an industry, a black box in our entertainment center, a digital game store.

These things ought to be a mere accessory to our lives, even if they are our greatest passion. They ought to to augment and supplement our lives, not hijack them. If anything, our lives should be defined by the people in it and by the values we embrace, not impersonal hardware that came into the world riding a white horse in response to some nebulous cultural zeitgeist.

Our friends no longer come up to us and ask us whether a game is good or what system they should buy, because we’ve posted those opinions all over Facebook already. We might as well wear it on our t-shirts, if we don’t already. Like the staunch Republican or Democrat, we pin our hopes for the world on a singular, ineffective candidate. If Sony wins, then the world will know that consumers come first and indies matter. If PC gaming catches fire, finally people will realize that openness is the best policy. If Apple wins, finally the world will be beautiful again.

These brands change with the wind along with everyone else. The Xbox 360 was all about connection, but the Xbox One seems to be about something else entirely. The Playstation 3 seemed to be all about hubris, but the Playstation 4 seems to be all about consumer advocacy and artistic freedom. These companies shift their focus every cycle, each positive development merely a grain of sand in an ever-shifting desert.

Stop embracing consoles, and for God’s sake, stop letting hardware affect the stuff that really matters. Our friendships, our family-life and our personal time need beauty, transcendence, social interaction, empathy and understanding. We can find those things in games. All sorts of games, really. Even ones that come with crippling DRM. Even ones that don’t come with a blood mode.

Written by Richard Clark

Richard Clark is the online managing editor of Christianity Today, a co-founder of Christ and Pop Culture, a regular columnist at Unwinnable, and a former staff writer for Kill Screen. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter @deadyetliving.