Decisions, Decisions, Decisions: The Hidden Perils of Upgrading Your Games Console

When do you know that it’s time to replace that little black box that sits under your TV?

I received my first games console at Christmas 1990, when Santa Claus gave me the original NES console, with Super Mario Bros. and Duckhunt with the kickass orange lightgun. That was 26 years ago, and every year since then I have been in possession of one games console or another. The latest one I have is a PlayStation 3, which I have had since December 2008 (a Christmas gift from my mother. Santa Claus stopped believing in me a long time ago). In those almost 8 years, I have bought maybe 10 games. Of those 10 games, 4 have been FIFA 201x titles, and 2 have been Grand Theft Auto’s output in the past seven years. The other 4 games, I rarely played. I am not much of a gamer, but when I buy a game like FIFA 201x or GTA IV/V, I play them to death and they take up a lot of my life for a short amount of time.

Most of you reading this will know that the PlayStation 3 (PS3) is not at the high-end of games consoles anymore, as the next-generation PlayStation 4 (PS4) has been around for nearly 3 years (as well as an Xbox equivalent). Since the PS4’s release, whenever it has come up in conversation, I have always maintained that there was no point in buying one, as game graphics had peaked, and every big game gets released in all platforms (PS3, PS4 etc) anyway. Around this time last year, all of that began to change. In 2015 I decided I was not going to buy FIFA 2016 (for those who don’t know, the FIFA year refers to the next year after release), as it didn’t seem to have any new features from the previous year’s game, and due to the hysteria of Star Wars sweeping the world towards the end of last year, I was looking forward to the release of Star Wars: Battlefront instead. A few days before that game was released, I went to Amazon to order it, and discovered that it wasn’t available on PS3. Similarly, earlier this year I got excited about No Man’s Sky, and went online to buy it, but to no avail. Both of these games received quite lukewarm reviews, so I didn’t feel too strongly about switching to PS4 just yet.

Then in August this year, I decided that my tolerance for FIFA 15 had expired. I play online, and since FIFA 2016 had been released the previous September, the game manufacturers had been systematically downgrading server access for FIFA 15 online games, making it very frustrating to play. I’ve written about it here. So, I would purchase FIFA 17 when it was released on September 30. Once I had made this decision, I did what I always do whenever I am going to purchase something for over €50: I try and find the absolute cheapest version possible. So I researched it a lot online, and found a way to save €10 (of course it was Amazon), but along the journey I also saw the features and details of the game countless times, and saw that although I could buy the PlayStation 3 edition, it would be very similar to the ones I had been playing for years. The makers of the game (Electronic Arts, who are renowned bastards) had stopped innovating for the PS3 version. If I really wanted to get anything new out of this game, I would have to upgrade to PlayStation 4. This, and the two games that I was denied in the previous year made me realise that it was time.

monkey2

At the start of September I started looking into buying a PS4. Within a few minutes I discovered that Sony had scheduled an online event for the following week, and it was highly anticipated that they would announce at least one new version of their console. I waited, and as expected they announced two new versions of the PS4: a “Slim” version and a “Pro” version. The Slim did all the things that the normal PS4 does, but was much smaller. I had never been a fan of the clunky original PS4 design, so this was interesting. The Pro, smaller than the original PS4 but bigger than the Slim, had much better gaming specs, could support 4k video and would be the best way to utilise Sony’s upcoming PlayStation Virtual Reality add-on. The Slim would be available on September 23rd and cost €299, while the Pro would be available on November 14th with a €399 price tag. All the details are summarised here below.

ps4

Slim or Pro?

Immediately after the announcement, the decision was simple to me. The PS4 Pro was for real gamers who value hardware specs etc., and the 4k support was irrelevant since I do not own a 4k capable TV. As a casual gamer, the PS4 Slim would be fine, as it did all the things I needed to, and was not as clunky as the current PS4 or my old PS3. Then I got thinking about my usage of the old PS3 over the previous almost 8 years, and I realised that I really did not know at all what I would end up using the PS4 for.

When I first had the PS3, I used it simply like a traditional games console: games, and possibly DVD’s or even fancy BluRay’s from time to time. After a few months, I realised that I could also transfer video files from my computer to the PS3 hard drive via a USB stick, and therefore watch (always legally downloaded) movies and TV shows on a big TV screen for the first time. In 2013 I figured out how to watch Netflix through an app on my PS3 (before it was available in my country), and this achieved the impossible: my girlfriend was motivated to learn how to use a PS3 controller. My old PS3 was a bit of an electricity hog, but between 2011 and 2015 (when I bought a Chromecast, which blew the PS3 out of the water in both capabilities and electricity efficiency), it was responsible for all audio-visual entertainment in my apartment: movies, TV Shows, and even games (when my girlfriend was asleep).

The point is, when I first received my PS3 back in 2008, I had absolutely no idea that I would use it for all the things I ended up using it for. And since I now knew that these next-generation consoles lasted quite long (remember that I have had the PS3 for almost 8 years), it was worth considering the future me in my purchasing analysis. I was not just purchasing the console for the Cian of today, but also for Cian next year, and 5 years from now, and possibly even further on than that. His needs should be accounted for.

I had to at least consider the PS4 Pro, and soon realised it was probably the better choice. The main selling point was its 4k capabilities, and while I didn’t have a 4k TV, future Cian probably did. I will buy a new TV in the next 5 years (probably just before the next World Cup), and it will most definitely be 4k capable. I will probably even know what 4k is by then. Buying a PS4 Pro would therefore be a gift to future me, who can benefit now and in the future from his shrewd consumerism. Secondly, the other main reason to buy the Pro would be to use its advanced processing capability to run the PS virtual reality headset from. I recently bought a Google Cardboard VR headset and am interested in the technology and software, and will be purchasing further VR items in the foreseeable future. The Pro would definitely be an asset in this interest. After consideration of these two factors, I decided to go for the PS4 Pro. It was €100 more expensive than the Slim, but over the course of 8 years or so, this was just €12.50 per year over the vanilla product. The needs of Future Me were probably worth that much.

Rational Consumer Behaviour

So by mid-September I had decided that I would opt for the PS4 Pro: the slick, sophisticated, future-proof product that would sit in my living room for most of the next decade. Then, in late September the PS4 Slim was released, and the release date (September 30) for FIFA 2017, the game that started this whole thought process, grew imminent. I had rationalised the features, I had rationalised the price, and I had rationalised the value over time. The one thing I had not accounted for was the time element, and specifically my ability to delay gratification. Remember I said that the PS4 Pro would be released in the middle of November? This proved to be the decisive factor in the decision making process between the two consoles. While I knew that the PS4 Pro would be better for Future Cian, Present Cian wanted a new console and to play a new video game that he had been waiting months for. The new console and game were available, and therefore I had purchased both of them (as cheap as I could find) before September was over.

I didn’t just make the decision impulsively of course. The deciding factor was that I saw Google were releasing a 4k capable Chromecast in November, and I had been meaning to buy a second one anyway. Literally within five minutes of seeing this information I had purchased the PS4 Slim, as I was looking for exactly this excuse. Even still, it is hard to escape the feeling that I have screwed over the Future Me by investing in an inferior product at a time when I was willing to spend money on such a thing, and could have bought a future-proof one that would probably be able to cope with most technological advances over the next decade. I did this just so I could play FIFA 17 six weeks earlier than I would have if I waited for the PS4 Pro. Psychologists would call this an inability to delay gratification, in economics we would call it discounting future utility. Either way, Future Me, with his 4k TV (plus knowledge of what 4k is) and abundant Virtual Reality accessories, is sure to be a bitter, bitter man. At the same time, Present Me doesn’t care too much about the needs of that rich, successful asshole and all his cool stuff.

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The Social Deconstruction of Physical Space (and Pokémon)

There is nothing interesting about the Pokémon in Pokémon Go. What is interesting in Pokémon Go is it’s potential to constantly, and randomly, apply new meaning to established physical space.

Introduction

I’m too old for Pokémon. In fact, I’m so old that I was too old for Pokémon back when it first got popular in the late 1990’s. It was the first genuine cultural phenomenon aimed at young people that I just could not relate to, as I was just slightly above the recommended age group. So I can name exactly one Pokémon: the yellow one called Pikachu. Nevertheless, a few days ago I found myself staring at my phone while walking down a leafy, residential street in Hamburg. This in itself is nothing unusual, except that my phone was directing me towards a certain location nearby where it thought a rare Pokémon might be hiding. I got close enough, and the image of the monster appeared on my screen. I just had to go a few metres of physical space more to be able to engage with it on my phones screen, and ultimately attempt to capture it for my collection. I looked up from my phone and realised that the location of my target was in the middle of a designated children’s playground. It was a sunny Sunday, so there were children running, laughing and playing all over the place. In order to ‘catch’ this Pokémon that I had been stalking for about five minutes, I would have to walk into the middle of all of the children, and stand there with my phone while I battled it into submission. After careful consideration, I put my phone away and walked home.

As I said, I don’t know anything about Pokémon, so it is not out of youthful nostalgia that I had downloaded Pokémon Go, it was merely out of curiosity. I am a childless mid-30s know-it-all that likes to pretend to be aware of all current and future popular culture phenomana as a desperate attempt to cling to my youth, so trying out this current Pokémon Go trend is practically part of my job description. The game isn’t great, and I haven’t played it in a few days now, and can’t see myself playing it much apart from when I am stuck waiting around somewhere with nothing to do. While I don’t like the game too much, I do however find the technology very interesting, as I have been following the development of augmented reality (AR) for several years. The use of AR in Pokémon Go is extremely clever, even fascinating. I say it’s fascinating because, like my experience above in the playground, Pokémon Go has the power to constantly apply new meaning to an established physical space. And this could be very, very interesting.

pokemon

Social Constructs

Many of the basic concepts we hold dear in this world we can broadly define as social constructs. Family, government, law, the economy, the country you live in: none of these things actually exist, they are simply modes of complex cooperation that have evolved over time in human history as things that work quite well. It’s generally a good idea for a man and a woman to raise children together, it’s generally a good idea that we have a set of rules that we all stick to so that we don’t all kill each other, and it is generally a good idea to have a few people in charge of everyone to make big decisions. There are lots of different ways to socially construct a society, but this is the one we have, and it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

While these vague concepts are usually what we use to explain social constructs, what is interesting also is to explore the social construction of physical space, as you will find that it defines our world just as much as government and the economy. To badly misquote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most important moments in history was when someone put a fence around a piece of land and said “this is mine”. People believed that person, and soon got to fencing in their own land, and now we live in a world that is absolutely defined by property rights. Respect for property rights is one of the essential founding blocks in the reliability of a nation-state (also a social construct of physical space, but that’s for another day). If the people within a country do not have faith that they can own their own property, then chaos will reign in that country. If you have ever seen the TV show Deadwood, that show is fundamentally about the absence, and possible but not guaranteed appearance, of the enforcement of property rights, and as a result society is brutal. An essential function of government, in the form of the police and judiciary, is to enforce property rights. So we have several social constructs whose job it is to enforce a fundamental social construct, the right to call a piece of land “yours”.

It’s not “yours”, of course, but you have a piece of paper from the government saying that it is “yours”, and everyone wants a piece of paper just like that, so it is in everyone’s interest if we all just play along in this grand game of pretend that we call civilised society. So yes, for the sake of civil order, everyone’s piece of paper gives him/her the right to do with whatever he/she wants with it, be it building a house, starting a business or leaving it completely empty. And by doing this, meaning is applied to this land that society has agreed is owned by the person who bought it and holds the deed issued by the government. If it’s a family home, the meaning is that it is the place where the Mulligans hang out, and this meaning is tempered by what we know of the Mulligans and how likely they are to appreciate outsiders coming on to their property, If they are friendly, and if they are likely to shoot trespassers. If it is a business, meaning is bestowed based on what the business is. If you open a bar, then people will feel comfortable coming in unannounced to sit drinking beer for hours. This is unacceptable in most buildings on earth, but because of the meaning given to that particular physical space by the owners of the socially constructed deed, we are comfortable that this behaviour is acceptable. No one even asks when they enter a bar whether it’s ok to sit down and drink a lot, they just do it.

Pokémon & Social Constructs

So getting back to last Sunday at the children’s playground in Hamburg, the reason I did not enter the playground was because of the meaning I had applied (through its social construction) to that particular space. It would have been inappropriate (and quite odd) for a lone man in his mid-30s to enter that space at that time. The interesting thing about this is that for a few seconds, while still involved in the Pokémon Go game, my interpretation of that physical space was completely different to everyone else around me. Through the game, I had applied new meaning to this space: it wasn’t a playground owned by the government to allow children a space to play, it was a free place in the world where a rare Pokémon happened to be.

If you look at the media attention that Pokémon Go is getting, you will see that this is the issue that crops up more than any other: the confrontation between different meanings and social constructs assigned to certain physical spaces. The most famous of these is the highly publicised story about the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC complaining about a lack of respect for victims of the Holocaust shown by those playing the game on the premises. I apologise for any offence, but to commit to my point I have to go there: the Holocaust Memorial is a building that is assigned meaning by those who own it. There is no real connection between that physical space and the Holocaust, its designation as a memorial was a conscious choice by the legal owners of the property, as after all it is located in Washington DC, far from any site associated with the Holocaust during World War II. The space’s official meaning is obviously more noble and powerful, but it is still a complete social construct, and the meaning Pokémon Go assigns the space in the form of a certain breed of Japanese pocket monster is no less objectively valid.

In a similar, although not as moralistic, way, a lot of stories about the game echo this clash between the officially socially constructed meaning of a physical space and the meaning ascribed from the Pokémon Go app. You see stories about homeowners becoming annoyed that people are hanging around outside their property in search of a fixed ‘pokestop’, you see photos posted on library doors telling people that they need a library card to come in and hunt Pokémon, and you read angry tweets about clueless old men attacking millenials for coming too far into their local dive bar to catch that elusive Meowth (alright, I know two Pokémon names). This isn’t where Meowth is, they could say, this is the place where I’m allowed sit and drink all day.

Conclusion

So this is where all the public interest in Pokémon Go is coming from: the clash between socially constructed reality, and augmented reality. The big question would be whether the game gets big enough so that its own designated meaning to a physical space actually begins to supersede the socially constructed official meaning of that space.  This is possible, as it has happened many times before in the form of religious sites such as Lourdes, Fatima, Knock, Mecca and Jerusalem. Completely exogenous events occurred in all of these places that ultimately ended up with a new meaning being applied to the physical space they inhabit. What is the difference between people flocking to a site where someone saw the Virgin Mary, and people flocking to the site where someone saw the rarest Pokémon? Objectively, there is no difference, but social constructs like tradition and religion may think they have priority in the matter.

What will be really interesting is when more augmented reality games appear, and each physical space gets assigned a number of different meanings to different people. To some people, that statue down the road covered in pigeon shit is a former mayor who lowered unemployment. To others, his statue is a haunting ground for an evolved Pikachu. For others, it was the place of death for a favourite character in an augmented reality mystery game they played. For many, however, it is and always will be the place that a hologram of Kim Kardashian appears and demands to take a selfie with them. That pigeon-shit drenched statue could just become the new Jerusalem, with several different factions struggling to have their meaning dominate the appreciation of that physical space.

Thus we have the social deconstruction of physical space, and it is obviously offensive to those that are of the opinion that they not only own a physical space, but also uniquely own the right to apply meaning to that physical space. This was always a fallacy, and it has taken a long time to challenge this perception. Pokémon Go just disrupted property rights.

“This isn’t where Meowth is,

they could say,

this is the place where I’m allowed sit and drink all day.”

Ancient Irish Haiku

The Greatest Trick Facebook Ever Pulled….

Recently, Channel 4 in the UK aired a documentary chronicling the rise of video games, hosted by England’s best satirist, Charlie Brooker. There’s not a lot in How Videogames Changed The World for people who don’t think videogames are one of the best things ever. For one thing, Brooker can’t decide if he wants the show to be a serious discussion of the issue or just a comic nostalgia-fest for people who grew up with Ataris or SNES’s or PSOnes. So, interspersed with jokes about our mothers’ sexual exploits are genuine discussions about the treatment of women in videogames, violence, and how Street Fighter 2 changed the industry by requiring tactical thinking in a videogame for the first time. Not many people watched it for this however, most of us just watched it to see where our favourite childhood games would come in the ranking of most influential videogames, a countdown which moved the narrative forward. No one watching it nor involved in the making of it actually believed that videogames changed the world, it was merely an exploratory discussion of the topic, and a love-letter to the medium in general. This was how I viewed it up until around the 90 minute mark. In the last argument of the 97 minute show, a curveball is thrown that really made me sit up and wonder if videogames actually had changed the world. It was the so-simple-that-it’s-almost-profound idea that social media websites like Twitter and Facebook are really just Massively Multiplayer Online videogames played out on a grand scale.

I try to stay away from videogames, as ever since my earliest days of Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt on the Nintendo Entertainment System, I tend to get overly-obsessed with them very quickly. As a result of this, I have probably bought 10 games in the last 15 years. Nowadays I only get my fix from the FIFA and Grand Theft Auto Franchises, and many of you will remember my obsession with GTAV from early October, which highlights the severity of my addiction to the medium, however isolated. Videogames operate through a system of challenges and rewards. A challenge is posed, which the gamer overcomes. The gamer then feels the thrill of overcoming the challenge as well as whatever rewards system is involved within the game. This is the essence of why people play videogames: in no other medium are we constantly, consistently validated and congratulated for our accomplishments. Feeling unappreciated at work? Come home, lead a squadron of soldiers safely through the photorealistic D-Day Landing in Medal of Honour. Or maybe, just maybe, post something funny, or a flattering photo of yourself on Facebook and see how many likes/comments/shares you get?

If I am making an argument about Facebook being a medium of self-validation, it is necessary to go back to the self. The Facebook Self is a special domain. It is not you, it is your ‘profile’. You create this profile by carefully selecting information you want others to know about you, and pictures of yourself that you think best define who you are. I am not being cynical or sarcastic: it is perfectly natural when given the opportunity to represent yourself virtually that you wish to portray your ideal self, the one you think you are or want to be: the one that is closest to the You that lives with you in your head. A Facebook profile is thus an avatar that we use to navigate ourselves though the digital world. This avatar interacts with other avatars, it has opinions, and it can recommend things it likes to others who can see its activity. All of these actions can be validated instantly by other users, either through a simple ‘like’ or an actual comment. If you ever wondered why you are addicted to Facebook, the answer is here: it is the only place that your ideal, perfect self will ever be validated, and this can happen hundreds of times a day if you wish. The more you use it, the more validation you will get. Every argument, link, opinion or photo is posted by and endorsed by the avatar you created to represent who you are. If someone ‘likes’ that, then that is not only a validation for your You, but also the actual you. Traditional videogames rarely achieved such a transcendence in transporting the achievements of an avatar onto the confidence of the gamer in real life.

As with any MMOG, there are of course many different ways to play the game. It is possible to be passive, to observe, and to use the Facebook platform simply to communicate with friends. These people obviously have never played videogames, and are immune to the rewards system. Others play the game by recommending things like music, movies, food or political opinions. In this mode of the game, being first to mention the topic is pivotal in the rewards mechanism. Having someone share a link/song/movie trailer that you originally posted is the pinnacle of success, especially as it will include a mention of you as the finder of the content. A corollary of this type of player would be being the first person to announce a celebrity death or world event. Other players try and create content for their avatars to endorse. They write funny one-liners, they take photos, make videos, write blogs. Players achieve validation and earn rewards (likes/comments/shares) through getting noticed above all the other things that litter the newsfeed of his/her followers. All of these game modes are equally valid, in the same way that when you start playing Grand Theft Auto V you have the choice to engage in the story, play the multiplayer, or else simply drive around killing people. It really doesn’t matter in the end, it’s all just a game.

Videogames did change the world in that without generations of kids growing up with videogame systems and their rewards mechanisms, social networks like Facebook and Twitter would not be so prevalent. And anyone who does not think that these networks are important for the way this world works is absolutely delusional. Justin Bieber made millions of dollars simply by validating one out every thousand of his Twitter followers with a retweet. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was built on the back of Facebook. As with all of my videogame endeavours, I am thoroughly addicted to social networks. Like many of you who sit in an office at a computer for much of the day, I have a Facebook tab constantly open on my browser, in order to learn of new notifications. By posting this blog on Facebook I am of course attempting to communicate ideas which befit the ideal Me, but which the actual me would fall short on delivering in person (any validation is appreciated).  We create Facebook profiles and Twitter profiles to portray us, delivering a selection of carefully curated content that we think best represents us, and by others liking that content, they are actually liking us. It may sound sad and pathetic to put it in these words, but it is no more sad and pathetic than the rush you get from finally achieving three stars on that level of Angry Birds, finally defeating M. Bison in Street Fighter 2: Turbo, or getting retweeted by someone with one million followers. If you think about it, there is an upside. Stop worrying about the NSA stealing all your metadata: the person whose data they are stealing isn’t you anyway.

 

On Extistentialism and Grand Theft Auto V

If you have no idea what GTA V is, skip to the end for a brief overview

Five minutes into the final (completely optional) triathlon mission in Grand Theft Auto V, everything started to make sense. I had been making my character swim across the biggest lake in the state, repeatedly pressing the X button on my control pad in order to make sure he kept up with the rest of his fellow triathlon competitors. I was only halfway across the lake, and there was still the cycling and running events to come. And all you do in all of those events is tap X and point in the direction you want to go.  It suddenly became clear what was really happening: I was being trolled, by the game designers. What they were saying to me was that if I wanted to completely finish this game, I had to be shown how sad and pathetic I was by completing this horrible ordeal. The game had indeed become an obsession for me, and I needed to complete it in order to get my life back. So I held on, and accepted my fate. The longer it went on, the more determined I was to win, for I never wanted to have to do it again. Neither my X button nor my onset of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome in my thumb could have taken that. Just over 25 minutes later, I narrowly overtook a competitor to take first prize. But at what cost? It didn’t matter, once it confirmed I had completed that part of the game, I went straight to doing the next thing on the list I needed for 100% completion. The game designers knew this, and that’s why they trolled me.

The GTA series gets a lot of news coverage due to its supposed effect on the degradation of society. You can steal cars, rob convenience stores, pick up prostitutes, and kill innocent people in countless ways. If you want. All that bad stuff is optional, you don’t have to do any of it. This is what the game designers would argue when such moral criticism arises, while also pointing to the fact that the universe they have created is an obvious satire of the world we live in. The first point isn’t convincing: if they didn’t want you to kill innocent people, they wouldn’t have made them so easy to run over with a car (complete with that squishy sound). The second point is very true: it is an epic satire. the game, based in the quasi-Los Angeles city of Los Santos, we use a social network called Life Invader while the budget smartphone is not a Droid, but a Drone.  Wherever you go in the game, there are people taking photos on smartphones and playing on iPads. You help the CIA rescue a rendition victim from the FBI, only to help torture him in the next mission. There is a gun shop called Ammu-Nation every few blocks, that allows serial mass-murderers like you buy guns 24 hours a day. When the police arrest you, they take your ammo, but not your guns. Because this may be a fictional city in America, but it is still America.

The main thing about GTA, as hinted at previously, is that you don’t actually have to do anything the game designers tell you to do: you can do whatever you want. From around the third mission, you can say goodbye to the story and indulge your nihilism as much as you want. Kill people, pick up prostitutes, kill her afterwards to regain the money you just paid for the service. Eventually the police will come after you, and you won’t always evade them. You will end up in hospital or jail, which are very expensive. You will end up robbing people just to fund your next hospital visit, drifting from petty crime to petty crime, each funding the next. A pitiful existence, no doubt, and it is similar to what would happen if you chose this path in real life. The only way to make real money is to get a real job, ie the actual game story. Completing missions and eventually robbing banks will get you millions. Only through structured work effort and careful planning can one climb the rungs of society and escape petty criminality in the GTA world. And again, this only brings the player to a certain level: completing all missions brings a basic payout of $20m. This is not even enough to afford the deed to the biggest cinema in Los Santos, should you wish to purchase it. Crime only brings you so far, which leads us to the in-game stock market, where the real money is made. Using money gained through crime to fund a stock portfolio is the only way to get to the pinnacle of success in GTA V, which is possibly the greatest piece of satire in the entire game. There are two paths: one leads to jail or hospital, and the other leads to Wall Street. I’m pretty sure this is the life lesson taught to more than one of the games writers by their parents.

In the game, you control three different characters and can change between the three of them at will. Franklin is a black car thief in his early 20’s, struggling to balance his ambition with his roots in LA gang culture. Michael is in his mid-40s, a retired bank robber living a life of luxury with his wife and two teenagers. Trevor is a white-trash, deranged psychopath who knew Michael many years before. In the main story, each has a character arc and are used to tell different parts of the story, and interconnect at various times. This is useful as a literary device to tell a grand story, however the three characters are really there to appeal to a different type of player. Franklin is there for the teenagers/kids who play the game, Michael is there for older gamers like me who accept that they are too old for this stuff, while Trevor is the id, a personification of successive Daily Mail hate campaigns and is there for all those “nihilists” who shouldn’t be playing GTA at all.

So as in a TV show with many characters, every player will have a favourite and want to spend more time with him. Obviously mine is Michael, the retiree who is currently going through a midlife crisis. He seeks self-actualisation, so he does yoga, he sees a therapist, he attempts to join a Scientology-esque cult (but becomes pissed off and kills everyone when they ask for too much money).  His wife leaves him at the end of Act 1 of the storyline, and the rest is about him picking up the pieces of his settled life, while killing people and robbing banks in the process. In all of this, the player is in control of Michael, attempting to get him through this midlife crisis of his, adrift in the sea of chaos that is the GTA universe of prostitutes and car theft. Of course, he gets his family back in the course of the narrative, but the self-actualisation process continues unabated.

In a movie about midlife crisis, it would end with him either dead, or looking out into the distance. In the game, you can conceivably play on with Michael in the GTA universe for as long as electricity and the PS3 system allows and you will still hear him question his current standing forever while robbing convenience stores and killing people, possibly with constantly updated dialogue via the internet. But of course, this is the game designers trolling me again, for they are really talking to me, about the virtues of being a 30 year old man seeking self-actualisation in the form of nihilistic video games where laws can be broken and civilised society is an abstraction. Video games are changing: GTA V entertains, it engages, it even has some emotive moments. However with people of my generation and above, there will always be this nagging doubt about how something is just not quite right about spending time indulging in this type of entertainment, unironically. GTA V is a parody of modern life, but it also satirises and parodies those who actually appreciate it, which is not something many TV shows, movies or even books could ever hope to accomplish. Based on this, games could yet be more than just mere nihilism.

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If you don’t know what GTA is:

Everyone reading this has at some point played a video game. What differentiates the GTA series from others is that rather than pushing players towards completing a detailed story, the game developers create an entire world for players to explore, and it is the players choice whether he or she completes the prepared storyline or just goes around exploring what is possible in this dense world. What is interesting, and controversial about this world however is that it is not some faraway planet or fictional past civilisation: the series bases its world on modern life, and in the case of GTA V the setting is Los Santos, which is Los Angeles by any other name. In Los Santos, the player steals cars, kills people, picks up prostitutes, robs convenience stores and then tries to escape the police attention gleaned from performing these acts. This isn’t easy, the police are smart and forceful, and often the player can end up getting killed (requiring an expensive trip to the hospital) or getting arrested.

Playing Video Games

Maybe it had something to do with the proliferation of Lana Del Rey ads hawking cheap Scandinavian casualwear around every U-Bahn station, but all last week I had Video Games on my mind.  At the end of September EA Sports released the newest version of their football simulation franchise, FIFA 13. Since the moment of its release, there had been a certain degree of inevitability as to when I would buy it. I generally stay away from buying video games, as they have a tendency to suck me in and take over my life, but I have bought the past two iterations, FIFA 11 and FIFA 12 so it is fair to say I am hooked into EA’s franchise cycle. After arguing with myself for a week about the decision to buy, and checking around various places in town to purchase it (seriously, if you buy games in this town, shop around: prices vary by as much as €20), I finally got around to it last Friday. I’m always annoyed with myself once I hand over the money to pay for the new FIFA, after all, what’s new? Surely a football game is a football game, and technology can’t have progressed so far in just a year to create a completely new gaming experience. Yet I hand over the money anyway, yearly, just like millions of others all over the world. Games in the FIFA franchise regularly outgross the biggest summer Hollywood blockbusters, even the good ones. EA Sports must be doing something right.

FIFA’s 11, 12 and 13 are very similar gaming experiences. They allow the user to take on the guise of a real football team, with the actual real-life players, each with their own unique attributes and appearance. The real-life aspect of FIFA is most important, as it’s the main reason it has eventually run out the winner in a battle between it and rivalling football video games franchises. The EA FIFA franchise owns the rights to everything: every team, every player, every league, every stadium that matters, FIFA owns the exclusive right to it. This leaves the other competing franchises looking cheap and lacking realism, as they often have to resort to giving real-life teams different names with different players. Realism is what FIFA aims at, to make it seem as if the game you are playing could be a real football game broadcast on television, complete with crowd reactions, instant replays and intelligent TV commentary describing the action. This is consistent with all of the FIFA titles, on an annual basis; they strive to make the game as close as possible to a real life broadcast. So every year the graphics are enhanced, the players play and react more realistically, and the commentators learn a few more clichés. Every four or five years there is a major change in gameplay, but apart from this the titles are almost interchangeable.

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There are different game modes of course; many choose to play against the computer, while most that have an internet connection play online against similarly ranked opponents from all over the world. I only play online, against strangers and also against friends who have the game (as well as the same games console). I have been buying football games for nearly twenty years, but only since online play came into my life have I bought one every single year. Online play implies a network, and a network always entails network effects.

A network effect occurs when the enjoyment you receive from a product does not depend solely on how you use this product yourself, but depends on how this product is used by the network as a whole. To understand network effects, you only have to think of how you joined Facebook for the first time: was it because you wanted to, or was it because all your friends were there, and the email notifications of tags and invites kept piling up, forcing you to accept this new social behemoth? Facebook itself doesn’t do much: your network does. Network effects are also the main reason we all have mobile phones, as everyone we know has one and now being reachable while on-the-move is a necessity. Network effects are also the reason why everyone reading this can understand me, despite the fact that a large percentage of you don’t have English as a native language. English isn’t the best language out there, it just has the largest and most influential network, always provoking and bullying non-members of this network into joining it.

The FIFA network effects are quite subtle. Depending on when you buy the new game, you have up to a year to enjoy the most up-to-date football video gaming experience on the market. You can meet online and play against (literally) millions of others, mastering the game in the process. Then the next FIFA appears, with incrementally advanced gameplay and a few more peripheral game modes. However, the main thing about FIFA as mentioned previously, was always the realism. You start to look at your old FIFA game, and compare it to a broadcast experience. In the space of just one year, teams at the top level of European football change dramatically in terms of personnel, and suddenly you start to see your game as being out-of-date. Players have moved from team to team, new younger players have emerged; new teams are in the big leagues. This is just an aesthetic aspect however; the gameplay should be the same, despite the discrepancies between the team you play as and that time in real life.

This is true, the gameplay is exactly the same. The thing that has changed is the ease of finding an opponent in the online mode. Whereas in the previous year, a match would be made within seconds, suddenly it becomes more difficult to find a player of a similar level to you. The matching process could take a minute, and you often will end up completely mismatched against someone vastly out of your league. This problem only increases with time. A lonely, sparse network is not a network at all, it is just a sad PlayStation user firing a shot in the dark, hoping someone sees it and joins in. The rest of the network has gradually moved on to the new FIFA, more realistic than ever, with enhanced gameplay and up-to-date squads. The decision therefore presents itself: stop playing, or buy the new one.

You still want to use this heroin, but suddenly it isn’t as good as it used to be. It was more fun with your (often anonymous) friends. In actual real life, you hear them talking about how good the new heroin is, and start to resent your old, mouldy, caking heroin. So the choice comes down to quitting heroin (which by now you are suffering from several withdrawal symptoms from) or purchasing the new heroin for another fix.  After a few iterations, you will realise that this happens yearly, once the new version is released. Therefore in order to get the most possible enjoyment from any FIFA game, you need to buy it as close to its release date as possible. I only buy one video game a year, so I don’t resent EA Sports too much for what I truly appreciate, from a marketing perspective, as one of the world’s greatest product cycles.


Retrospective edit, 07/02/2015

 I ended up keeping FIFA 13 for two years, as I only buy one game a year, and the year of FIFA 14 also released GTAV, so there was no question which one would win there. I often went back to FIFA 13, and was always shocked at how persistently the network deteriorated. Finding an opponent was extremely difficult, and the in-game economy of FIFA Ultimate Team had suffered from ridiculous inflation. I bought FIFA 15, and saw no real improvement in gameplay, merely in the network.