For a while now, remote play has been a buzzword in investment circles around videogames. It is effectively the ‘Netflix of games’ that is held out as a carrot - it’s why Sony bought Gaikai in 2012 for building into the PS4... but this service, dubbed PlayStation Now, passed by almost unnoticed. To play games in a server-client arrangement, with all the heavy lifting on the server-side, requires enormous internet bandwidth. Except in a few cities, that infrastructure just isn’t there yet. But in the grand spirit of ‘Jam Tomorrow’, remote play remains steadfastly attached to the agenda. Why?
The answer is that remote play is a subscription business model, and if there’s one thing that media corporations are into right now it’s building (and guarding) a big silo of content that makes money in convenient monthly installments. As I said before, everyone wants to be ‘the Netflix of games’... of course, with Disney getting dragon sickness over Netflix making so much money off of their Marvel content, it’s not clear that even Netflix is going to be the Netflix of video going forward. Because make no mistake: this is a battle for monopolies, and us little folks are not invited except as paying customers.
Such are my political qualms about remote play: it is deeply and systemically anti-equality. But then, what isn’t these days? If we ask instead about the moral and behavioural effects of remote play, it may seem rather neutral. After all, what’s the difference between playing a big corporate-funded game on your own console and streaming it to some other device?
Two aspects leap out at me as causes for concern. Firstly, that the move towards services in games that Steam spearheaded undermines ownership and thus all efforts to run historical archives. As someone who takes the history of games very seriously, the idea that whole periods of play could be impossible to archive troubles me, even though I have faith that workarounds might yet be found. Besides, the endless updating of software services (Fortnite is different almost every week, for instance) is a much bigger problem in this regard.
What is more troubling is that our unlimited willingness to embrace cloud-based arrangements, like remote play, for their apparent convenience is driving up the power usage and thus the environmental impact of play. It is hard to make direct comparisons between the different ways of supporting videogame play, and rather troubling that we are not in a position to make informed decisions in this regard. Just in terms of obfuscating environmental costs, remote play strikes me as morally suspect, and in pushing us further towards that bright future where Disney owns everything and we own nothing... well, the undertow is dragging us over the waterfall - decide for yourself whether our screams are those of excitement or of fear.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #78, part of a ten part mini-serial on Gamer Cyborgs.
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