At around the 52-55 minute mark, the latest Bombcast (Nov. 17 2020) discussed the Activity bar of the new Playstation 5, and how it “changes things” – specifically how it changes the ways we can interact with games.
In summary, pushing a single button to get to the Activity bar reveals cards containing information such as your friends beating your speedrun times, maybe letting you know there is a quest you haven’t finished yet, or a timed activity that will soon expire. Clicking on these cards allows a player to immediately jump into the game, bypassing not only the load screens, but also the games themselves.
For instance, rather than loading into an area of Astro’s Playroom, clicking through menus or navigating the world to get to the CPU Plaza Hub level, walking up to the relevant console and starting your speedrun (phew..!), clicking through the card on the Activity bar instead allows you to immediately start your run, regardless of where you left off in the game.
I think this is wild.
But also, it is making me again think about machine elves and their ever-relevant message to us – Don’t give in to astonishment.
Technically, this is an incredible achievement and I am sure that if I experience it myself, I will indeed be astonished – at how fast things load, at how easily you can not only just be in the game, but do in the game.
But the machine elves are correct. What does this type of interaction encourage in the player, how can it change our relationship with games? What does it mean for game design? If we look past the pulsating multi-coloured swooshing lines that undoubtedly wrap around our entire field of view toward a minuscule black point at the centre while we momentarily experience these fast load times, what can we see?
I think we see evidence of an ongoing pattern of alienation of players from games as distinct wholes that yearn for your undivided attention. I think we see the continuation of the pattern through which games as distinct wholes are de-valued through the Game Pass model and its equivalents providing you with a frankly irresponsible amount of “free” games at your fingertips. This fundamentally changes how players perceive games – not necessarily only for the better or for the worse, just different.
At the same time, significantly different, as millions of players already purchased a Game Pass subscription. Millions more will follow with the service now being ever-present on the Xbox platform and integral to Microsoft strategy for years to come.
Sony’s Activity bar, an ever-present and integral part of the other major platform that defines how we interact with games, encourages the player to engage in a different type of interaction – bite-sized, quick, anti-deliberate – with the games you have already installed. Sony wants to remind you that you haven’t finished that thing you were doing. Sony wants you to know that there are other things that you can be doing. Sony wants you to do the things.
Aside from the rather obvious potential negative effects on the mental health of players who just want to sit down and relax instead of constantly being bombarded with reminders that they failed to accomplish or finish something, this mode of interaction prioritises impulsiveness.
This is not a condemnation – plenty of players, myself included, act on impulse at times when it comes to the games we choose to play, and the things we choose to do in these games. If I was still playing Warframe regularly, for example, it would be great if a card on the Activity bar would show me that a timed mission for a valuable resource I missed is about to expire, so I can quickly get in and out.
That being said – will the cards also inform players that there is a discount on Warframe’s paid currency, or that Fortnite just got a new set of skins? Can Genshin Impact use the cards to lure players with poor impulse control, making it harder for those recovering from addiction to isolate themselves from the gacha mechanics that can and do destroy lives?
There are plenty of games out there that do not, and will not, fit into this mode of interaction. Not every game is built with this anti-deliberateness in mind – my favourite recent games like Nier: Automata, Hades, ECHO or Control were most likely built very specifically to ensure the player interacts with them deliberately and thoughtfully. These games want you to explore their worlds, learn and unlearn them, be patient as you move across their spaces. As you load into their levels and worlds, you wait, you breathe. These games restrict players, and they shine when players grow to understand these restrictions, when they move with them and appreciate them.
My worry both with Game Pass and with the Activity bar comes down, as it usually does, to the logics of neo-liberal capitalism that seek to commodify all and create markets on top of markets. I have no doubt that these more deliberate games will continue to be designed. But how far does a core platform feature like the Activity bar push developers into changing the design of their games? Will the consideration of the ways in which their games can take advantage of the cards have a significant impact on game design? If so, how will this consideration affect design?
There is no one mode of interaction with videogames. Somehow we have an enormous diversity of them, from big to small. The way we interact with games, and in games, has always changed, and will always be changing – and that’s fine.
On the other hand, this diversity does not apply to platforms. Currently, Apple is rightly being applauded that it is significantly reducing its profit share on the App Store for developers who make less than one million dollars. Jeff Bezos’ Twitch, on the other hand, is rightly being criticised for caving in to the music industry and telling streamers that they should give Jeff Bezos money to unlock the ability to earn on the platform.
The point is not that Apple is good and Twitch is bad. They are both bad because the wield near absolute power over their platforms. The livelihoods of countless developers, streamers and etc. are one profit-motivated, impulsive decision away from ruin. We need to be always aware of the material conditions within which games are made, distributed and consumed.
Corporate digital platforms, whether controlled by Apple and Jeff Bezos, or Microsoft and Sony, dictate the rules for developers. And so often, not only are the ways we interact with the games, but also the livelihoods of those who make them, are at their mercy. We are better than the astonishment they seek to engender in us – listen to the machine elves and look beyond it.
All images by Anni Roenkae