We do not come with tree rings. Instead of punctuated markers of age, our bodies ship with incremental evidence of the Oncoming Old. Trembling hairlines. Skin the pallor of #nofilter. I think of aging and what comes after because of the recently launched PlayStation 4 and the upcoming Xbox One reveal, the latest salvo in a maddening battle for the living rooms of those who can still afford living rooms, and I have a confession to make: I buy video games because I don’t want to die.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the words aren’t mine, not entirely. They belong to Umberto Eco, who, in a 2009 interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, suggested our fondness for lists was an act of survival:
“We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.”
To list is to accumulate—to make sense of our world by giving it shape, because it is infinite and we are not.
Eco could very well be speaking of me. I don’t play video games—I collect them. I list. I can think of no other way to reconcile a hobby spanning one PS3, two Xbox 360s, one Wii, one PS2, two Gamecubes, two DS Lites, one iPhone 4, one iPhone 4S, one iPad (first generation), one ZX Spectrum, and almost every configuration of PC. Like Smaug on his pile of gold, I nest atop an embarrassing library of titles and still dream of more. (The nadir might have been a brutal bidding war for a rare copy of Siren: New Translation, the Japanese language edition. I don’t know Japanese.) I collect, collect, collect, hoping a future archivist will unearth my hoard and, with it, me. “We’re not sure who Anshuman was,” a tendril will note, “but he owned BioShock: Limited Edition With Sealed Big Daddy Figurine.”
The big console makers—Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony—understand this. So do game-making behemoths such as EA and Valve. It’s a known model of consumer behaviour used even by the smallest, indie-est of development studios: exploit our desire to leave behind some record that we were here.
Taking advantage of unhappy consumers isn’t a new trick. The video game industry is just particularly good at it, expanding with each quarter. And yet that success masks a kind of schizophrenia within the industry: the video games it produces are, theoretically, fun, even if everything else about it is not. On her blog, critic and developer Mattie Brice expertly torches video games for swallowing up the very notion of play. ”We don’t have anything to gain by ghettoizing and exalting video games,” Brice writes, “instead, we’re currently suffering from its homogeneity.” Over at Jacobin, Ian Williams warns how the corrosive culture of video game development might become the template for all labour.
Also: there are too many games already in the wild. The PS3 came out in 2007, and as of this August, owners of the outgoing console have 793 titles to choose from. The Xbox 360, predecessor to the One, clocks in at 958 titles. Not all of them are winners, most will end up in discount bins next to Hanes Beefy Two-Packs and Mulan action figures, but going by the reviews of the PS4, the new generation is struggling to make a case for itself.
All of this comes from a place of privilege. Most of us, myself included, can’t afford to gallop towards every new title, however critically acclaimed, however engineered for high-resolution arousal. And yet we are asked to do so anyway, in terms that equate buying to some moral imperative. Buy the latest game so you can take part in the white-hot academic discourse on Twitter. Buy the latest game because you deserve a seat at the table. Buy the latest game because we’ve stored it safely in the cloud just for you. You may not have time for it now, or ever, but know that you made a wise decision, and when you’re ready, we’ll be here.
And what of the lucky few who can afford to take part in the Console Wars? Writing for The Atlantic, author, game designer and Georgia Institute of Technology professor Ian Bogost argues that the majority of us, if employed at all, do not work a single full-time job but tens if not hundreds of smaller full-time jobs, each with their own demands. Bogost calls it the era of hyperemployment, defined by the ceaseless flood of emails, content management systems, social analytics, and marketing slide decks each of us is asked to negotiate every day. What is sacrificed to this new order is any hope of leisure time. “It goes without saying,” Bogost writes, “that we’re not being paid for all these jobs, but pay is almost beside the point, because the real cost of hyperemployment is time.” Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag promises 80 hours of gameplay. Grand Theft Auto 5, 100 hours. I barely have time for gifs. My greatest shame might be the document running parallel to my collection: a list of titles I have bought but will never finish because of reasons. (Go softly, Valkyria Chronicles.) As if to make a point, this other list is larger than the list of games I have finished. It could almost be a person.
This is the heart of mainstream videogaming, a contradiction that will undoubtedly continue on in the era of the PS4 and Xbox One. Our anxieties are used to sell us the promise of great things—sensual technologies, 1080p, better garbage—at a rate none of us can afford. Those who can, to varying degrees, will rarely have time to enjoy them because of what the hobby asks: a steady paycheck, a constant devotion to work. There are only so many hours.
At what point does buying into yet another console generation become an advanced form of BDSM? All we can do is fitfully, urgently comply, and hope this will dull the feeling that something isn’t quite right. Perhaps. In the weeks leading up to the holidays, do me a favour: resist temptation. Do not buy a PS4 or Xbox One. There is a gaping sadness in every one of us, and no magical box of wires and cores will slake its thirst. Your lists may live forever, but death is coming for us all.
Screenshot courtesy of Sony/Guerilla Games