By now, everyone and their grandmother has heard about the announcement of the PS4. While much of what was talked about was already rumored (a “share” button for instant video/screenshot uploads to popular social media outlets), speculated (a bundled-in PlayStation Eye with improved functionality), or downright obvious (Say what? Killzone and inFAMOUS are still franchises that are in production? Who knew?!?), the PS4 still had a few surprises in store as far as Sony’s approach to the next generation of consoles. From what was discussed, it’s become apparent that the central focus of the PS4 stands firmly fixed within the realm of social connectivity. But is that really what gamers want? Does the future of gaming really have to be all about inter-connectivity with friends, “friends”, and strangers? In this installment of TL;DR, we’ll take a look at why the industry seems so obsessed with keeping gamers socially networked at all times, and the potential pitfalls of doing so.
To get a sense of where the industry is heading, let’s briefly recap all of the new social features the PS4 is implementing as part of the console’s core infrastructure. For starters, consider the DualShock 4’s new “share” button. At any point during gameplay, the player can simply press this button and a screen will pop up, allowing the choice to either select a few screenshots or a brief snippet of gameplay footage. Once you’ve captured the content you want, it can then be sent out through various social networks for the enjoyment of your friends and gaming peers. A pretty neat idea, especially for those epic moments during online play when you manage to pull off an amazing kill streak or lucky headshot. We also know that Activision recently partnered with Twitch to allow Call of Duty elite subscribers to live-stream their gaming sessions, meaning that even developers are convinced there is a certain emphasis being placed on sharing content.
Another new social feature being implemented next generation is the advent of built-in social communities. These specific message boards, tied to particular games, allow players to share content, post tips, and partake in general discussions at any time, even during gameplay. Having a hard time getting past a particular level or boss? Simply call up the discussion feed and ask for help, or search previously posted comments and discover the answer on your own. So far, both of these features can already be found on the Wii U, albeit in a somewhat limited capacity. The PS4 is taking these communities one step further by allowing friends or fellow players to step in and physically take remote control over your game-in-progress to help you through whatever part you’re having difficulty with. But no matter how these ideas are being put into action, what’s important to note is that both Nintendo and Sony believe that social connectivity is the next stage in interactive entertainment; and you can bet your replica Bat-cowl that everyone knows you wear at night that Microsoft has the same idea in mind for the Next Xbox.
During the presentation for Ubisoft’s upcoming next-gen title Watch Dogs, a live demo was shown that included, for those who were watching attentively, our first glimpse of next generation multiplayer. Towards the end of the trailer, protagonist Aiden Pearce is being watched by a recently-hacked security camera. The viewing angle pans to reveal that whoever is in control of the camera, a secondary player invading the main player’s world, is attempting to run an identity scan on Pearce. The demo ends with Aiden successfully discovering and subsequently terminating the potential scan. But what if he hadn’t? Clearly, Ubisoft is attempting to create a living, breathing, always-on experience with Watch Dogs, one where the player has to be wary of not only the targets he’s hunting, but of unpredictable, real-life outside influences as well.
And what about Bungie’s upcoming next-gen offering, Destiny? While we still know very little at this point, from what’s been described the team is developing an experience that hinges on player inter-connectivity. By all accounts, it would appear that Bungie is crafting a first-person shooter MMO, although they’ve yet to label the project as such. While the game may not feature a single-player world that can be influenced by outside, secondary player actions, it’s obvious that Destiny is positioned as an experience that is more fun with friends and in a group. Whether or not the game will require an always-on internet connection to be played remains to be seen, which in and of itself is a sign of the changing tides of this industry.
So what does this all mean for the gamers? It means the landscape of this industry is shifting, and the next console generation plans on ushering in a new age for our culture. No longer will games be single-player experiences, even if the game itself is single-player. We’ve seen this emerging trend with the explosion in popularity of smartphones, this idea of being “alone together”, and it seems the gaming industry would like to capitalize on, if not entirely nurture, this mentality. If you haven’t heard about this concept, I’ll provide an example. Have you gone to a friend’s house recently and spent a few hours together in a small group? Not doing anything in particular or having decided upon some kind of plan for the day, just a couple close friends hanging out for the afternoon. You ever notice that one point in the day where everyone stops talking to each other, eyes locked onto their phones/tablets/laptops/gadgets of any kind? Or that point when you call over to someone, intent on starting a conversation, only to be ignored because the other person is so immersed in whatever they’re doing on their device that you have to repeat yourself? It’s this idea that we’re so becoming so dependent on other people’s validation of us that we’re losing our sense of autonomy.
Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and author of the book Alone Together, spoke to Fast Company about this idea, and I’d like to share a couple of her responses in particular. When questioned about the origin of her book’s title, Turkle responds, ” I make a statement in the book, that if you don’t learn how to be alone, you’ll always be lonely, that loneliness is failed solitude. We’re raising a generation that has grown up with constant connection, and only knows how to be lonely when not connected. This capacity for generative solitude is very important for the creative process, but if you grow up thinking it’s your right and due to be tweeted and retweeted, to have thumbs up on Facebook…we’re losing a capacity for autonomy both intellectual and emotional.”
One of Turkle’s fears is that we’re growing up in a generation that feels just as emotionally invested in the digital world as authentic real-life experiences. “For some purpose, simulation is just as good as a real. Kids call it being “alive enough,” she says. “Making an airline reservation? Simulation is as good as the real. Playing chess? Maybe, maybe not. It can beat you, but do you care? Many people are building robot companions; [computer pioneer] David Levy argues that robots will be intimate companions. Where we are now, I call it the “robotic moment,” not because we have robots, but because we’re being philosophically prepared to have them. I’m very haunted by these children who talk about simulation as “alive enough.” We’re encouraged to live more and more of our lives in simulation.”
It may seem like this has nothing to do with gaming, but trust me, this will all tie together by the time we’re done here. These ideas about the current generation’s lackadaisical attitudes toward authenticity and failed solitude stem from a number of outside factors, but social connectivity is one of them. It may sound weird to say out loud, but our constant connectedness to everyone around us is making it difficult for folks to learn how to cope with being alone. Really alone, as in without access to the internet or devices of any kind. Which, in the long term, may stifle creativity. Now, the gaming industry is a business, and like any other business it exists for one reason: To make money. To their credit, they appear to simply be giving gamers what we’re asking for. At any given time, we want to be moment’s away from access to the information we desire: Walkthroughs, easter eggs, boss strategies, video guides, the works. So, if all next-gen consoles are doing is giving us facilitated access to that information, they should be praised right? But what if this facilitated access to social connectivity is bad for us, and we just don’t realize it? Is it the gaming industry’s obligation to look out for our best interests? In a perfect world, yes, but our world is far from perfect, so businesses are off the hook in most cases.
But let’s step away from the philosophical debate for a moment and focus on the physical gameplay ramifications of a console that is always connected to everyone you know. Let’s recall the example from Watch Dogs, and Ubisoft’s vision of a game that is constantly adapting to outside influences. If I’m playing a single-player game, I’m not really comfortable giving other player’s access to my world; allowing them to manipulate events in real time as they see fit. Game’s can be challenging enough without those jerks online whose only ambitions in life are to ruin my gaming experience. We already see these types of players in team-based shooters or during objective match types in Halo or Call of Duty, and even the one’s who purposefully lead us to our doom in Dark Souls; and we’re going to give these guys access to our single-player games? While one would usually assume that these features are optional, allowing the player to enjoy the experience uninterrupted by the outside world, are we really in a position to make that assumption with this coming generation? If every console company is unanimously in agreement over the importance of social connectivity, is it really such a stretch to think they’ll be pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a “single-player” experience? What if the future of gaming is news feeds and tweets streaming across the bottom or sides of your screen in real-time whenever you’re playing a game online? What if the new single-player campaigns of the future include pop-ups of gameplay videos to guide you through difficult sections after a few failed attempts? Is this really the future we want for gaming? Are we really so addicted to being alone together to the point where we no longer want to be alone?
I don’t know about you, but that’s not a gaming experience I’m looking forward to. I’m not saying these features aren’t “cool” or that they have no place in gaming, but what I am saying is that we have to take everything in moderation. I don’t want every single gaming experience I have to be a shared one. And if you feel the same way, now is the time to speak up and make your voice heard; before these console companies cross a line we can’t come back from. Sure, I love to share my gaming experiences with friends. But the difference is, I like to enjoy that experience alone, and then share it with my friends when we’re socializing afterwards. Immediately tapping that share button or live-streaming my gameplay endeavors so the whole world can come along for the ride admittedly takes away some of the sense of personal achievement. I’m not interested in feeling like “we” accomplished something as a team during my single-player games, I want that feeling of self-satisfaction that comes from personal achievement. The validation from getting past a difficult section or finally bringing down that big boss not because someone else played it for me, or because a video guide was two clicks and five seconds away, but because I adapted to the game and I was good enough to do it on my own. And before you say, “don’t watch the video or let someone else play for you then,” consider my earlier point. Consider that these features will be intrusive. Consider that the digital world we’re already living in is an “opt-out” world, as opposed to “opt-in”. Know that these features will likely be enabled by default, and that we will have to go out of our way to disable them; sifting through option upon menu just to find the “off” switch.
This article isn’t about convincing people that Twitter and Google+ are the devil (FaceBook totally is though… relax, I’m kidding. Sort of.) or that social networking is destroying the upcoming generations. It’s simply pointing out that the next generation of consoles are jumping on the bandwagon of social connectivity, without any sort of appreciation for the effect it could potentially have on us, the gamers. Sure, we love to tweet about our daily lives, long for that “like” or “+1” whenever we think we’re being clever, and are bizarrely obsessed with uploading photos of our meals during every stage of consumption; but that doesn’t mean I want to say goodbye to the truly single-player experience. You know, the one where there’s a single player, and then that’s it. No friends, no videos, no pop-up tweets. (I swear, I better never see a single tweet pop up on my screen while playing anything…) The single player experience that consists of me, my controller, and complete and total immersion in the game. I don’t care how many social features my next-gen console offers to provide me, so long as they’re optional and I can politely decline their offer. But with the way these companies are so singularly focused on inter-connectivity, I’m afraid of the possibility that it won’t be my choice.
At long last, we’ve arrived at the conclusion of this piece. This is part where I, your humble narrator, ask you, the loyal and knowledgeable viewer, to share your thoughts and personal experiences so that we might engage in a thought-provoking and meaningful discussion. How do you feel about a console generation that is focused on social connectivity? Are you looking forward to sharing every moment of your gaming life with the community? Would it disappoint you if this generation marked the end of truly single-player games? Please, get active in the debate by making your voice heard in the comments below.