Robert and I wrote this comic last friday – our weekly comic-writing day – at the same time we wrote the other Xbox One comic. I drew it a few days ago and everything was good to go, but then something unusual happened.
Go read that link. Like Microsoft’s two bolded dot points, there are two distinct things here that I wanna talk about.
First of all: what’s on that page is interesting, but so is what’s not on it. On paper (screen?) these changes read like a wave of relief, but what’s really different? The Kinect didn’t get a mention, so – maybe it’ll still be “always on”? Absence of denial is not confirmation of accusation, but given the amount of bad press the Kinect got, you’d think it would at least get a look-in if they were altering it. Not having to connect to the internet every 24 hours – if only they hadn’t mentioned that, then the comic would still be topical! – doesn’t mean you won’t ever connect to the internet with your Xbox One. If you want to download games or play online multiplayer, you’re gonna be switching your internet connection on. I remember the controversy when Apple was revealed to be collecting iPhone users’ GPS tracking data. You could stop them getting it by turning off your GPS settings, but as soon as you switched it back on, they’re back up to speed. And ethical quandaries about the nature of control tend to get discarded pretty quickly when you’re late for something and need to know where you’re driving.
Secondly, at the end of the day, what people demanded was that things stay exactly the same as they are now. And my mild doom-prophesying above aside, that confirmation which is making everybody happy right now might not actually be a good thing in the long term.
The gamers who opposed the Xbox One’s digital sharing (or lack thereof) and draconian security tended to just oppose it, without consideration for the different reasons behind what Microsoft might have been trying to do. It’s easier to stay mad at somebody if you relegate them to the realms of 1984 than if you carefully sort through their viewpoint and discern which elements you may agree or disagree with. It’s why Godwin’s Law is such a commonly cited criticism. Incidentally, this isn’t meant to be an “in defence of Microsoft’s shitty decisions” post, because I don’t agree with their shitty decisions. In fact I think those decisions were shitty. But I also think there might have been a kernel of a good idea in there. What went wrong was that idea-kernel rolled down the hill of actually-being-realised picking up bits of shit along the way, and when it reached the bottom and trundled out from behind the curtain at E3 was basically lost in a giant shitball.
That kernel, though, is how we think about “ownership” in this increasingly digital age.
In primary school, my friend and I played through Donkey Kong 64 on the N64, but we used his cartridge. So even though I beat that game almost to 100%, if I go and plug in my N64 and pop my own Donkey Kong 64 cartridge in, I’ve only got about 6% completion (and yes I actually went and checked). In high school, we played through Super Smash Bros. Melee on his GameCube the same way, but he was able to copy the data from his memory card onto mine, and so I still have all the in-game trophies. We thought that was pretty cool. But whose data was it? We both worked to get it, but was it his, since it was on his memory card? Wait, now it’s on mine too. So whose is it? With the N64 cartridge it would have been a similar quandary, except that it was literally impossible to pose that debate. It was his cartridge so he owned it. Simple as that.
Fast forward to the present day. Imagine being a kid and trying to sort that shit out now! As a teenager I remember when the concept of the Cloud was new, and trying to wrap my head around what exactly it was. Nowadays one look at Adobe makes it clear to me that nobody really knows. We used to own discs and cartridges, but nowadays it’s a question of who owns ideas and the intellectual effort involved in making them… I was going to say tangible, except that’s clearly the wrong word. But I guess that’s my point. Technology is moving so fast that the way we think can hardly keep up. (As a digital immigrant, I am so excited to see what kinds of things the digital natives are going to start coming up with.)
In one sense, Microsoft’s reversion to discs in response to people’s complaints – or let’s be honest, their wallets – is a victory for social media and the power of the consumer. But in another sense, it’s an inevitably futile resistance to change (and how perfect is that image in this context). Sony’s biggest marketing win at E3 was their understanding that, although the technology is ready to go, perhaps the people using it aren’t.
This is a conversation that needs to be had as we are starting to “own” more and more digital media. I had to re-buy Angry Birds when I swapped from an iPhone to a Galaxy, and arguably that’s no different from wanting to own a game on both the Xbox and the PS2. But we now live in an age of iTunes and Steam; is that type of distinction even important or valid any more? I feel like Microsoft thought about this with the Xbox One and tried to do something about it. What they got wrong was that it needs to be a debate, and what they delivered was a lecture.