My first taste of technological tribalism came courtesy of video games. Born at the start of the 1980s, I entered my teens at a time when the most central badge of belonging to many geeks my age was the answer to a single question – Sega or Nintendo?
In my case, it was Nintendo all the way. To be precise, it was the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES to its friends). From the outside the SNES looked like an undistinguished grey lump of plastic while its rival, Sega’s Genesis/Mega Drive (the former name used only in North America), was black and seductively sleek. But beneath the shell, as I never tired of explaining, mine was a superior machine, with its 32,768 colours, Mode 7 graphical scaling, and a stable of iconic games: Zelda; Metroid; Unirally; and the criminally addictive Mario Kart.
Owning or endorsing both brands was unthinkable. At the time, games consoles were the apogee of electronic achievement, and their rise or fall was the single most important question in my digital world.
Two decades and four generations of consoles later, dedicated gaming machines still fuel passionate debate. Today, though, it’s not so much about winning the console war as fighting for survival.
Witness Microsoft’s announcement this May of its new console, the Xbox One: successor to the seven-year-old Xbox 360. Despite the corporate rhetoric and razzmatazz, much of the speculation that accompanied its unveiling centred on whether this product was aimed at “a customer which arguably no longer exists” – someone willing to hook up a clever, expensive box to a huge television set and put digital games at the centre of their household.
In an age of smartphones and tablets, it’s easy to see why warring to dominate the living room looks like an anachronism. Microsoft has made several concessions to evolving technologies, emphasising the Xbox One’s integration with TV and social media – an emphasis that bred its own brand of contempt from critics underwhelmed by “the world's most expensive TV remote.” But, as games industry expert Nicholas Lovell argued on his website following Microsoft’s event, “The future battle is not for the control of the living room: it is for control of the direct relationship between creator and consumer via this personal screen. It’s like Microsoft is fighting to be the person who controls the fixed line phone in an age of mobile telephony.”
When the last generation of games consoles appeared, there was no such thing as an iPhone. Today, there are more smartphones in the world than consoles have been sold in history. Digital play has been democratised in a way unthinkable a decade ago, while – as Lovell notes – personal, portable screens are rapidly overtaking monitors and televisions in every aspect of our lives. Even at home, the big screen on the wall plays second fiddle to the small ones clasped in our hands.
It’s a different world even to that of 2008, when Nintendo’s then latest consoles – the Wii and DS – helped it to become the world’s most profitable company per capita. Five years later, the company posted its first ever annual loss, while sales of its new Wii U have been disappointing since its release in November last year.
Yet there remains something in games consoles that still feels significant to me. Like play itself, it’s as much emotional and symbolic as it is pragmatic, and it rests on a distinctly old-fashioned vision of computing: of technology not as an efficient facilitator, but as a conjurer of other worlds.