In the classic Simpsons episode “Day of the Jackanapes,” there’s a scene where Mr. Teeny, Krusty’s trained chimp, saves the clown’s life by swinging from a rope, tearing away explosives from a brainwashed Bart, and tossing them into a room filled with network executives. There’s a loud blast, and then the executives slowly reform like the T-1000 in Terminator 2 all while declaring “We… Have… Notes!”
I was reminded of this scene while watching the presentation yesterday for the new Xbox One, the successor to the popular Xbox 360 videogame console. I imagined throughout the process some executives kept nudging with their notes: is this dudebro enough? Remember the audience!
Sure, Microsoft wants the machine to expand the new Xbox’s role as a hub for other forms of media: it will make televisions smart, allowing for simultaneous surfing, chatting, watching, and, presumably, game playing. But the preview clip of games revealed the intended audience: there was a racing simulator, some sports games, a game where cars smash and men get shot, a war game–most continuations of franchises popular with young, straight, (usually) white men. And that perspective shaded the non-games use.
The Xbox One does Skype… so you can talk to your (male) friends about the playoffs! The Xbox One has web integration… so you can keep up to date on your fantasy league! The Xbox One can switch from TV to games… so you can play Madden ‘14 in between commercial breaks of an NFL game, a league that incidentally Microsoft is partnering with! It was with this absolute focus on the core demographic that gave me a leaden feeling while watching. If this presentation were hosted by other huge tech players like Apple or Google, it’d be difficult to imagine such use cases ever being suggested.
In a way, this makes sense. Microsoft is trying to energize the base. The games landscape is broadening, with more people realizing they enjoy playing games, but on Facebook, smartphones, or tablets, not stand-alone machines. For now, that combined revenue still pales to PC and console sales, but who knows for how long? Console makers can feel the pressure to entrench and preach to the choir. So, Microsoft shared its vision of the future, even if it was a new coat of varnish on the same old story: the Xbox crowd reduced to consumers of TV, sports, and Call of Duty–not untrue, but uninteresting.
The unveiling yesterday felt a bit like sitting through a Republican stump speech. Part of the political narrative in last year’s American election was how the Republicans were on a losing course if they couldn’t find ways to broaden its base. The Democrats were doing a much better job attracting women, queers, and people of colour, which over time would provide a consistent advantage over the conservative party. Voters outside the base just didn’t connect with the Republicans on issues like women’s rights, immigration, and same-sex marriage, yet the Republican platform appeared so often to hinge on these topics.
While by no means is Microsoft the Republican party, nor its base Republicans, it is a little instructive in highlighting that this base is also generally uninterested in including other types of people into its world. As many joked, a dog has appeared as a playable character in the Call of Duty series before a female has. (Tellingly, we saw more women when The Price Is Right was briefly flipped on than any other time onscreen.) In many games, characters of colour are rarely given nuance to their roles, either embodying caricature or reduced to a mere palette swap. Queerness is just another way to create your character, like eye colour or armour choice: “well, if you want the lead to be gay, that’s your preference,” the developers appear to say.
This base remains powerful because of the massive profits it generates. It gobbles up the types of games associated with hardcore gamers. The types of games that demand relentless time and devotion. The types of games linked to masculinity, because they are speeding down a highway, scoring that winning touchdown, or shooting someone in the head–and, please, please, please, let there be a halo effect. It will collectively spend billions of dollars on these games, and to get their share the console makers will enter an arms race catering to the base.
And so nothing changes. Cars get more realistic looking. Sports games get more realistic looking. Killing gets more realistic looking. And yet, this world that these games live in isn’t very realistic at all. Governed by a very specific idea of what a gamer should look like, it looks up to the sentiment in film where men warn that boys won’t show up for a Pixar female protagonist (they did) or that men wouldn’t show for a vulgar bridal comedy (they did).
Yesterday’s presentation was very clear about who is an Xbox One owner and who is not. If you are not one of them, you must look elsewhere. There’s still the tiny outside chance that at E3, the next big games event in the calendar, the console makers will present a diverse range of games, but don’t hold your breath. It has been eight years since the Xbox 360 was released, two presidential terms. If the Xbox One is wildly successful, the mandate for the next Xbox in 2021 will be set, and I wonder if it will continue to not include me.
As someone who has played videogames for over a quarter of a century, it’s disconcerting to see myself edged out. I had been cautiously hopeful: the language that led up to the announcement of Xbox One spoke of a revolution. Instead, it appears more like running in circles.