Commentary

Mobility Matters: Resenting The Prison Of The Single Screen

Gaming is one of those leading indicators for digital media. In its uses of interactivity and even its marketing programs, the category is usually several years ahead of others in the many ways it leverages digital platforms. So I think we can look at gaming across large consoles, handheld consoles and its transition to smartphones and tablets as suggestive of patterns that we may see emerge in other media.

I think it's telling that I am almost frustrated by the need for me to return to the full-size console or a PC to revisit some of my favorite game franchises. I wish to hell that they were on one of the handheld media. This is where I spend most of my time. This is certainly where I spend my leisure time. Not surprisingly, it made big news in the gaming community last week when the developers of the XCOM franchise announced that its hit game from the consoles and the PC would be coming to Apple iOS sometime this summer.

This exceptional game is a revival of one of the great strategy PC games of the 1990s. It is a turn-based effort that is almost tailor-made for a touchscreen. It is truly the first high-priced PC game that I've purchased probably in the last five years. Such was my love of the franchise and my need to spend desktop time on a game for the first time in years.

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The console, particularly the Xbox and the PlayStation, had divorced me from the PC already many years ago. But the brilliant handheld experiences on the Nintendo DS, 3DS, and Sony PlayStation PSP and Vita pretty much extinguished my time with consoles long ago. I now can see that these handheld game devices were in many ways transitional devices.

In retrospect, I can understand that my excitement for handheld gaming came in part from my sense of liberation from both desktop and TV technology. But it is not just the portability of the handheld gaming consoles. It was also their highly personal nature. I could put earbuds in and play in bed at night while my wife slept. I didn't have to intrude on my work time at the PC or the family TV time with the gaming console. I was truly untethered, and I could use the media to fill my own empty spaces. This I think is a real distinction of mobility. It's what I experienced in portable gaming five or six years ago, and what I think more and more people will be experiencing in all of their media in this new age of mobility.

The gaming industry has struggled mightily with this problem of its users migrating quickly across screens. Generally, the first response has been that the gaming companies are simply moving many of their development efforts to the mobile platforms. We have seen companies like Zynga move focus away from the social gaming platforms of the PC to mobile.

There have been a handful of experiments in seamless cross-platform gaming to help capture users as they migrate and knit the platforms together. Obviously, the Xbox SmartGlass app is an attempt to integrate smartphones and tablets with the Xbox with some degree of interactivity. I was hoping to report that the new Wii U unit was pioneering new ways of integrating the two screens with mobile, but I find that sluggish and rushed-to-market system more frustrating than fun to play right now. This may change.

The dream of many gamers like me would be a genuinely seamless gaming experience. We've seen some of this in social media games. The most ambitious attempt that I've seen so far is closer to my dream. A recent platform game from Sony, "Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time," is actually playable in precisely the same version on the PlayStation as it is on the PS Vita handheld console. In fact, when you buy the PlayStation version it comes with the ability to install a parallel version on the Vita and allows you to save your progress and state of play on one platform where all the necessary data is saved to the cloud, so that you can pick it off pick it up and play exactly from the same spot with the same experience on the other platform.

The ability for developers to do this, of course, is limited by the technological sophistication of the individual games and the always problematic development cycles on different platforms, let alone whether the business models really make sense. But I certainly wish that Tomb Raider, BioShock, and XCOM games had precisely this kind of functionality, because that's exactly how I would play them all. And most likely I would play them more on the handheld device than on the PC console.

But my larger point -- which I'll pick up in the next column -- is that there is actually this sense of resentment and frustration attached to hardware platforms like the game console and the PC that only a few years ago were the centers of our gaming universe. My suspicion is that mobile devices, and the freedom that they represent, inevitably lead us toward making traditional platforms feel limited and unresponsive to our personal needs in a way they never did before because we have seen and experienced a very different media reality.

Just as the stripped-down and highly efficient and targeted designs of mobile sites have started to spoil many of us and called attention to this year clutter and ugliness of Web design, I wonder if the convenience of mobility and its potential for personalization will start to make its predecessors look impersonal, inconvenient and unresponsive in comparison. 

One thing we do know about media history and change is that every new platform and technology changes our attitudes toward the role and formats of the previous technology. At the turn of the century, film fundamentally changed live theater and put vaudeville to sleep for several decades until radio and TV helped revive it. TV did not kill film and radio, but it did change both industries and the kinds of content they developed. There are a lot of complex reasons for this, including the ways in which new media alter our expectations and attitudes toward the media as we have known it thus far.

Understanding the tensions between older and newer platforms, and seeing how much convenience and intimacy are a part of mobility, will help us identify how to design toward the qualities that people value most in these devices that they have embraced quite literally with unprecedented speed.

 

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