By Pat Kane, the author of ‘The Play Ethic: a Manifesto for a Different Way of Living, and half of Hue and Cry’ (THE GUARDIAN, 09/11/06):
As the tidal wave of eco-puritanism swells darkly on the horizon, it may not be the best time to launch your latest non-recyclable chunk of plastic and silicon. And Sony’s new computer-game console, PlayStation3 – launched in Japan this weekend, North America next week and Britain in the spring – hardly covers itself in glory.If the aim of this machine, in the words of the technology critic Neil Postman, is “to amuse ourselves to death”, it could hardly be better fashioned. As well as supplanting your DVD player with its Blu-Ray technology, the PS3 will bring “the power of a supercomputer to your living room”. Yet this power is harnessed to the most mediocre of ends – the hyperrealism of its images.
The opening titles for the PS3 remind us how strangely we comport ourselves before our computer games. While WW2 squadrons dive-bomb, Tiger Woods thwacks it into the rough, and Genji swishes his blade liberally and lethally, we sit tautly on our couches, holding our controls like a votive offering.
We call computer games interactive media, but we should more accurately call them “interpassive”. Self-confined to our homes and hearths, we surrender our personal adventurousness to these virtual proxies on screen.
The dominance of military values in computer games – an industry bigger than Hollywood – seems just too appropriate to an age of pre-emptive warfare. These war games are like an “opium of the people”, in that old-fashioned sense: they provide an intoxicating experience of power and mastery, where the legitimacy of war goes unquestioned.
If its dazzling capacity for verisimilitude is properly exploited – and the US army has invested heavily in the games industry – the PS3 could easily be the ultimate weapon of mass distraction. Yet there are rumblings in the industry that the PS3 might not be the success Sony expects. And that’s partly because other manufacturers have decided that there might be a demand for a bit more, well, playfulness in these play machines, beyond the Sturm und Drang
Nintendo’s competitor to PS3, the Wii (say it out loud, and yes, you may snigger), encourages happy families to wave the controller about at a screen, pretending to play table tennis or stroke virtual pets. Their handheld games, such as Brain Age, are used by senior citizens to maintain mental sharpness. Sony has a few family-friendly applications – notably SingStar, a karaoke-style game – but in general, it’s warriors and athletes who get to perform at the PlayStation.
What’s also disappointing is that Sony seems to have ignored the huge debate around “serious” games – the pressure from those in government, activism, education and the arts to open up these platforms to different narratives.
At last week’s Serious Games Summit in Washington, games such as the UN’s Food Force (where you compete to provide the best aid strategy) show the possibilities. But these organisations can’t afford the cost of producing games for the PlayStation or Microsoft’s Xbox.
With such an image problem, the games industry should think of ways to support initiatives that show gaming as the coming literacy, not as a pervasive pathology. Indeed, where is the game that does for environmental consciousness what Will Wright’s SimCity did for aspirant architects and urban planners?
Even so, you might not choose to play such an eco-game on the PS3. Reports are that its demands on electrical power are more than twice that of its immediate rivals, and eight times that of its predecessor. This seems like a fitting technical fact for an industry and art form that need to address their corpulence, perhaps even decadence.