In the age of smartphones and tablets, can new versions of the Xbox and PlayStation dominate the living room like their predecessors, asks Tom Chatfield.

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.

Virtual unreality

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.

To put a games console at the heart of your house is to create a magic circle into which you can step with total attention – and which in return grants access to digital realms crafted to enthral, engage and amaze. As many have pointed out, the $50-plus price point of “triple-A” console games looks like an anachronism at a time when top-notch apps can be had for a dollar, while soaring budgets are a major issue for developers. At its best, though, the bargain remains unique: enter an adventure at the cutting edge of unreality, and for a moment leave your life behind.  

It’s an impulse that can quite reasonably be called adolescent, regressive and escapist. Games consoles have never been for everyone. They’re a playground for those who – like my teenage self – want not simply to be served by technology, but to be transported by it. Hence the success of perhaps the most remarkable accessory to grace consumer electronics, Microsoft’s Kinect: a sensor array able to track, and to model onscreen, users’ every movement via stereoscopic cameras.

An upgraded version of Kinect is one of the centrepieces of Xbox One, and rightly so – because what seems gimmicky when you’re waving at it to change TV channels can become, in the middle of play, little less than a miracle. Kinect is not just about controlling a machine with your body: it’s about becoming an active, physical presence within the screen itself. Like deities descending from a higher plane, it’s the closest we’ve yet come to incarnating ourselves within virtual worlds.

If this sounds grandiose, that’s because it is. It’s far too early fully to judge Microsoft’s latest creation, of course, let alone to back winners in its combat with Sony’s forthcoming PlayStation 4. Despite the ferocious competition for attention and dollars, though, there’s something at the heart of console gaming that isn’t going away: the passionate desire to meld play and technology into something entirely apart from everyday life.

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