"Man is born free," wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, "and everywhere he is in chains."
The same applies to video games. Players are born free, and everywhere they are in chains. Forced to swear allegiance to one system or another, or purchase several in order to access first-party titles and other exclusive content, the console wars have become a way of life so tightly wound up in the DNA of the gaming industry that few even take notice of it anymore.
But the oppression persists. The hostilities have decreased in some ways: controller designs and system specs have started to converge on nebulous but singular ideal, exclusive titles are less prevalent, and brand loyalty is down. Still, platforms remain distinct, and mobile and online gaming are starting to see a resurgence in controlled distribution with iOS competing against Android and XBLA competing against PSN.
Why canít we as gamers be free like other media consumers? Music has always had short periods of competition, but these quickly passed and now MP3 files reign, allowing all listeners to share a common frame of reference. And film? LDs competed with VHS for a stint, and then HD went head to head with Blu-ray, but once again movies have settled into another time of peace. Toshiba, Sony, and Dell all make PCs, but none of them force users to purchase specific programs or buy game discs licensed by the respective PC manufacturers.
And yet generation after generation, we as players accept and sometimes even enjoy the constant turmoil of this struggle. New consoles make us giddy, even while they keep us locked and bound in the same chains as before.
Yet there are glimmers of hope dancing along the horizon. The expansion of digital downloads and online distribution has helped to blur the defining lines from one console to another. PSN is more of a brand than a distinct product, offering little tangible difference to XBLA. Similarly, Apple has better apps and a more popular install base, but isnít light years apart from Android. And the reason is that online gaming is inherently resistant, or at the very least indifferent, to differing hardware configurations. Apple doesnít care where you install iTunes as long as you download the media they peddle. Indie developers making downloadable titles donít care about Microsoft versus Sony, only where they can get their game out there and publicized the most.
And then thereís OnLive, which streams top notch games to any PC that can play video. Itís a long way out from being a dominant or even limitedly popular way to play video games, but it offers one possible method for surpassing the limitations of the console wars.
With a flexible controller that works with multiple formats, itís not impossible to imagine a single, all inclusive, magical little box that allows not just gamers, or PC users, but all manner of media consumer to stream everything from television, movies, music, and video games to the screen of their choice. Manufacturers could compete over the best design, either for these boxes or the screens they connect to, while traditional console manufacturers and online distribution formats maintain their brands through online networks.
Thus I turn on this box, synced with a multi-purpose controller and linked to my favorite HD flat screen, where I can than surf through the Apple, Google, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo channels, in addition to Netflix, Hulu, and everything else thatís accessible through web browsing. There might still be physical media for video games, they would come on generic discs based on formats utilized by all of the video game developers as well as other media creators in general.
Of course this future isnít here yet, and it might not be for a while. But it will come. And just like slaves dwelling in Platoís cave, gamers will one day be liberated from the dark shadows of the console wars and brought out into the light of a brighter, more open future. The only question now is: sooner or later? Will gamers support efforts to explore this future, or will console manufacturers continue to try can control the market and protect their territory. So how much are gamers willing to push? How much do we believe in this future, both its possibility and its promise? How much do we really want to be free?
Only time will tell.
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