Just A Game (System)
Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.
-- Benjamin Franklin
My Xbox 360 came as an early Christmas present in 2007. It brought two pack-in games, a lot of wonder, and little else. For a good month the system became a glorified Windows Media Center streampoint, replacing an underpowered home theater PC that wheezed under the strain of ripped DVDs. It wasn’t until Halo 3 was gifted to me that I saw the console’s brilliance, bringing a friend into my playspace through internet wizardry. It wasn’t until Rock Band came into the house that I saw the machine’s ability to draw people together for a drunken, raucous evening of social fun.
It’s a bit melodramatic, but my plucky white 360 (serviced once for the Red Rings of Doom) has grown since it first made a home next to my television. Through media updates, avatars, new user experiences and a bevy of tweaks and twangs, the thing’s changed the way I look at consoles this generation.
Unfortunately, it’s also been losing prominence as a gaming console.
That’s not to say I’m falling for a handheld, turning to my PC, coming back to the emulation scene, or even flirting around town with an iDevice or Android hussy. It’s just that I spend less and less time looking through my library, engaging in multiplayer, or just sitting down with something simple to waste an hour. Even with GameFly to beef up the flow of games through my house, there’s been a kind of apathy towards sitting down with something for the lion’s share of a weekend. The gamer’s routine of just sitting to play hasn’t been there for a while.
12-hour workdays are partially to blame. Not having a go-to multiplayer group or gamer-dates is another fault. As is the insistence of my better half that we “walk places” and “spend time outside” and “sit and watch the squirrels and birds pass by.” It’s a bit difficult to recapture the inner eight-year old (sitting down with soda, a tuna sandwich, and 7 hours straight of game time) when work, dishes and cuddly couch time are also vying for a slice of my rapidly diminishing evenings.
The 360 remains a fixture of my living room, remains the go-to box for entertainment — remains connected, in other words. But, increasingly, I turn to its media apps for fun. Not too long ago, I laughed at the idea of convergence being anything more than a shiny buzzword. The thought of shoving something like VoIP or streaming radio in an expensive box built to make things go “boom” was nonsensical. Who would turn on their $300 videogame machine to watch TV or listen to music, when the radio and computer were in arm’s reach? For that matter, why would anyone shove a motion-tracking peripheral onto a system that, by all indications, was the stalwart hero of the hardcore crowd? With some time, and decent coding, I’ve come around. I see the ways that the base system has been improved, reiterated on and, by all means, expanded and I am in absolute awe of just how different my 2012 360 is compared to the box that came out of an oversized, colorfully-wrapped Christmas container.
Functionally, it’s still a little box that glows and provides fun times. Effectively, it’s become a media hub that lets me play games and gives me access to truckloads of movies and television shows. I scan the manga channel for something nostalgic, look through ad-supported movies for a laugh, boot up Netflix to watch The Office, catch a documentary or play roulette with a library of instantly available goods. I listen to internet-streamed music as I clean the house, discovering new artists between buckets of mop water. I call out to the Kinect to pause as I go check on dinner. I call on it again as I settle down with a meal. I wave to my television to rewind a scene, opting to use my body instead of my voice because it feels more future-y. I groan as my internet cap hits and everything goes from crisp HD to muddled down-rezed mush. This is the reality of my interactions with the 360. The once-tired act of loading a platter of pressed plastic into the disc tray seldom comes into play anymore.
I realize that much of the change I’ve seen is also tied to the connectivity of this generation, an aspect that’s become a standard since the PS2/Dreamcast generation toyed with the idea of online play. Without updates, content and service extensions available over the internet, I doubt the little box could ever have become more than a game machine, much less have flourished into such a diverse ecosystem of media delivery. While most of us were gaga over the idea of an indie infrastructure inside of the Xbox Live Arcade, some bright kids at Microsoft figured that they weren’t much bound by the constructs of the machine as shipped and went to work refashioning the experience. I would have labeled them idiots for taking the game out of a video game console, but thankfully I’m not tasked with making development decisions for multinational companies.
When compared to the systems of years past, it seems counter-intuitive to think of a game system’s strengths coming via non-game avenues. This is especially true if the frame of reference that flashes by is riddled with Blast Processing, Mode 7 FX chips, bit metrics and other performance-based shorthand for “THIS is the stuff you want to spend Mom’s money on.” One can look at this as a loss, as the purity of a mythic gaming experience being sullied by the imposition of other forms of entertainment on a once-sacred altar, but that’s a bit silly. Instead, I choose to think of this as a nice little evolution. I like to think that the 360 has changed with me as I navigated the lows of life after college, found a job, moved cities, settled into new living spaces (twice), moved work sites, and took charge of a theatre space.
That’s the beauty of the whole crackpot plan to subsidize two generations of game boxes in the hopes that a computer software giant can get a foot into the living room space. In the last five years, the damned box has grown.
It’s not just a game machine anymore. And I’m pretty ok with that fact.