PlayStation: Public Space and Consumer Pleasure

PSX-Console-wControllerMarshall McLuhan suggested that electronic media–such as video games–act as extensions of the self “outside of our bodies” (qtd. in Berger 72). Berger asserts that, as such, the medium has auto-erotic qualities, including the phallic symbolism behind the use of “joy-sticks” (72). This joystick phallic concept is just as appropriate for the more common analog sticks of today’s home console controllers, and it is also indicative of the role of the controller’s development by the industry for consumers.

Joysticks were standard instruments in arcade machines during the ’90s when arcades were commonplace. However, most players no longer congregate in these public hubs to play socially for both competition and cooperation but instead play from their own homes using the Internet, a development that opens up the accessibility of social play to a wider, globalized audience, as well as a wholly new public sphere. This move of the player base from the public arcade to the domestic sphere is an evolution of an earlier move of players to the home console marked by the premiere of the dual-analog controller of the first PlayStation console, a console which was immensely popular upon its release in 1995.

If video games can be seen as auto-erotic devices as exemplified by the joystick as phallic device, then the simultaneous move of players from the arcade to the living room reveals a recession of public sexuality in place of private expression in the domestic sphere. The ’90s arcade craze was a carnivalization movement of communal gratification through both competitive and cooperative play. However, as players gravitated toward the home console, this public carnivalization began to recede, culminating in its expiry in the early ’00s when online play became popularized by such online multiplayer gaming and digital media delivery services as Xbox Live.

The dual-analog stick that was introduced with the first PlayStation console has become the desired utility for controllers on most modern consoles. Given the arcade joystick’s phallic symbolism and historic roots to public carnivalization in arcades, there is some significance to its continued proliferation and development within the continually growing video game industry and consumers’ desire for self-gratification. This notion is further reflected in nontraditional implementations of player control in such technologies as the Xbox Kinect, in which the whole body is incorporated as an agency-delivering device for the player.

These developments of new player controls follow McLuhan’s description of electronic media as extensions of the self. All the while, the video game industry continues to place greater means of self-gratification in the player through new control schemes. The development of the Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headpiece, is further indication of the industry’s desire to deliver to the consumer new means of self-gratification. Pleasure–ultimately self-pleasure–, then, is an all-important determination of value for popular video games.

An argument can be made that the public simply transferred to a digital space rather than the physical space made available by arcades, but this preference for a digital over a physical space carries with it other questions about why such a space is preferred by the public and what factors influenced the public to make such a move (and whether or not and how influential the bourgeoisie’s role in such a move was and continues to be). This question also points to the need to understand a new economy in video game consumption in which consumers are affected by and how consumers resist that influence from the public digital spaces of their private domestic spheres instead of in the public market space, as well as how the relationship between public and private in the domestic sphere is defined between the consumer and his or her connection to the public digital space through digital environments at home.

Berger, Arthur A., ed. Making Sense of Media: Key Texts in Media and Cultural Studies. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Print.

Image: Sony

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Two Gods: An Ecological Binary in Xenoblade Chronicles

Xenoblade ChroniclesMonolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles magnifies its obvious and stark conflict between nature and industry, respectively, on two worldscapes: Bionis and Mechonis. The two are locked in stasis, having defeated each other in the same moment long ago in the story’s setting. This backdrop forms signifiers that conceptualize our own contemporary dialogues concerning ecological preservation and technological industry.

Xenoblade Chronicles succeeds in taking its initially general and clichéd exposition suggesting a conflict between man and nature and developing it into a much more dynamic plot that asks players to question that theme entirely. Shulk, our protagonist, is incited to action by the bombarding of his home village by Mechonis troops. His home village rests on the foot of Bionis, a lush and verdant tropicale teeming with a human-like race (called Homs) and not over-saturated with technology. The Mechonis invaders (called Machina) are almost entirely robotic (it is revealed that some of them have cybernetically-implanted pilots), and are clad in dreary greys and blacks. As Shulk and his companions set out to avenge his fellow Homs, our expectation of a traditional fabled warning against the evils of technology is soon problematized by a web of political intrigue by good and bad, heroic and villainous, arbiters of both Bionis and Mechonis.

This resulting dynamic forces us to question the conceptualized image of technological industry. Fear of technology is popularly conceptualized in the media in print texts, film, and video games, especially in their dystopian narratives. The end of our world is, at present, ever one more technological advancement away from gainful profit by corrupt CEOs alongside the gradual whittling away of nature and a cataclysmic wasteland. Internet or Skynet, such gains will lead to barren wastes and mechonized “life” not unlike the many locales of Mechonis through which Shulk and his party venture. Here, the rich, ecological landscapes of Bionis are traded for steel, desert canyons and mammoth, monochrome factories. At a glance, this setting lends itself well to the dystopian settings that permeate our media. However, the mythos behind these worlds frames for the player a different perspective, one which alters the signified concept of dystopia to which we have become so accustomed.

The mythos behind Xenoblade Chronicles–revealed through the creation mythos that incites political conflicts on both Bionis and Mechonissuggests that the Machina are not all cybernetic monsters resulting from a gross permutation of man and machine but simply a second race created in contrast to the Bionis from the very beginning of both races’ creation by two gods, now manifested in the static forms of Bionis and Mechonis–a complex creation story to be sure. However, the two oppose each other not in the stereotypical conflict of man versus machine but to give to the other meaning, to define the other by its opposite traits.

It is how Xenoblade Chronicles treats this binary that makes it’s conflict so engaging. The plot and mythos experienced by the player are so rejected by the theme of man-versus-machine that overly saturates today’s mass-mediated narratives, particularly within the video game medium. By only suggesting the binary between nature and technology, Xenoblade Chronicles presents negative value. It is in not delivering on the traditionally conceptualized conflict between the two values that we consider both the Bionis and Mechonis for their equal presence in a universe which, by its own creation story, could not exist without both worldscapes, the manifestations of the universe’s two creators, Zanza and Meyneth. Nature and technology must be accepted on their own terms, by the good and bad characters that entangle the plot from either side. This consideration includes the player as well, who participates through his or her own technological devices and portals, his or herself a limited omniscience to the story. Thus, we question one’s natural relationship to the other and not simply one as the other’s alternative.

Images: Monolith Soft, Nintendo